What’s the Difference Between Pre-K and Kindergarten?

One of the most common questions we receive from both current and prospective FAA families is “What’s the difference between Pre-K and Kindergarten?”. In our bilingual school, where we draw from both French and American practices, how are children ushered from 2 to 6 years old and made ready for the first grade? In this article I will outline some of the key differences and similarities between Pre-K classroom activities and those of Kindergarten. If you’re also curious about the difference between a Daycare program and a Preschool program, you can read our article here.

The Difference Between Pre-K and Kindergarten

Similarities between Pre-K and Kindergarten

Pre-K and Kindergarten teachers balance academic learning (through cooperative play, songs, and discussions) with Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) skills, fine and gross motor skills, language development, problem solving, and spatial awareness. These skills are continuously developed throughout Pre-K and Kindergarten, more in-depth each year. 

Within the French school system, grades are grouped by “Cycle”, and Pre-K2 through Kindergarten are all considered part of “Cycle 1”. FAA students progress most smoothly through Cycle 1 when they start from a young age: each year’s curriculum is designed to flow into the next, building the foundation for a successful Kindergarten year. 

Within Cycle 1, teachers at all levels incorporate the following into lessons, activities, and class time:

Social-Emotional Learning Emphasis in Pre-K and Kindergarten. Through class discussions and activities, role plays, story time, and real-life incidents, children practice and process how to become more respectful and attuned to their own and others’ feelings. Every moment in Pre-K and Kindergarten is an opportunity to develop and refine social-emotional skills.

Obstacle course – Gross Motor Skills
Arm and wrist control exercise – Fine Motor Skills

Motor Skills in Pre-K and Kindergarten. Throughout Pre-K and Kindergarten, teachers flood children with opportunities to build gross motor skills and spatial awareness, such as obstacle courses, balance and coordination activities, dance, beginner team sports, and physical conditioning. Likewise, our young students’ fine motor skills are continuously honed, starting with arm and wrist control exercises in younger years, and progressing to hand and finger dexterity development in pre-K4 and Kindergarten. These exercises and activities are a prerequisite for writing

Listening and Speaking in Pre-K and Kindergarten. Young children’s brains are primed to absorb, assimilate, and produce new language at an impressive rate. As a bilingual school, we take advantage of this plasticity to build fluency and expressiveness – which reaps cognitive benefits every step of the way! 

What are the differences between Pre-K and Kindergarten?

All of Cycle 1 is devoted to SEL skills, motricity, and language development; however, there is a distinct shift in focus between Pre-K4 and Kindergarten. Developmentally, children at Kindergarten age are more capable of abstract thought and cooperative learning, simultaneously evolving into autonomous individuals with a stronger sense of self. In Kindergarten, there is a heightened awareness of the challenges the first grade will present, and a drive to prepare students to meet those challenges with enthusiasm

The drive for autonomy in Kindergarten

From the beginning of the year, teachers structure each school day to foster autonomy in Kindergarten students. They are given increased responsibility as the weeks and months progress, and they are held accountable for tasks such as keeping the coat closet tidy, updating the daily calendar, taking attendance, caring for class plants, and assisting the teacher. They receive their own sets of school supplies and their own cubbies to keep organized and stocked. Kindergarten teachers expect students to demonstrate autonomy in planning and executing tasks, and they present challenges to students that require a higher level of organizational thinking. These challenges may be academic or not. For example:

  • A teacher informs the kindergarteners that it is time to go to the park. She asks them what they need to prepare for the park and has students repeat the instructions a few times, then she releases them to get ready on their own. If a student is struggling with the process or has forgotten a crucial step, the teacher will intervene, but otherwise students are given time and space to get ready on their own. This process can be very slow at the beginning of the year, but Kindergarten students learn and adapt quickly, especially when they observe their peers performing tasks. Kindergarten teachers understand that this exercise is about the students’ process, not the pace. If teachers intervene too quickly or frequently, students learn to remain helpless and lose the chance to develop autonomy.
  • Each kindergartener keeps track of the days of the month in their personal calendar. After a few weeks learning how to use a calendar and how to perform the routine, they are responsible for doing it by themselves every day. As students become more comfortable, the daily tasks become more elaborate and challenging for them.

Kindergarten teachers actively encourage their students to try things on their own before getting help from the teacher. When they’re faced with an interpersonal problem, they are instructed to try to talk it out with each other and use strategies to resolve their issues. If they forget a spelling or a letter formation, they are pointed towards visual resources that are displayed in the classroom. Not only do students become stronger, more coordinated, more resourceful, and more organized when they are forced to do things on their own, but they also become empowered and eager to take on new challenges.

Kindergarten teachers actively encourage their students to try things on their own before getting help from the teacher. When they’re faced with an interpersonal problem, they are instructed to try to talk it out with each other and use strategies to resolve their issues. If they forget a spelling or a letter formation, they are pointed toward visual resources that are displayed in the classroom. Not only do students become stronger, more coordinated, more resourceful, and more organized when they are forced to do things on their own, but they also become empowered and eager to take on new challenges.

The push for reading and writing in Kindergarten

Both Pre-K and Kindergarten classes emphasize letter recognition and formation, some phonics, and literature through storytime, songs, and poetry. In Pre-K4, students actively learn uppercase letters and begin to recognize a few high frequency words. A main focus of Kindergarten, on the other hand, is expanding literacy and writing skills in every direction: 

  • FAA’s Kindergarten students learn to print in lowercase during the first half of the year, then to write lowercase cursive letters during the second half of the year. 
  • In English class, students study phonics throughout the year, learning to decode short syllables, then progressively more complex patterns. They learn high frequency words on a regular basis. Kindergarteners practice reading each week in reading workshops and receive at-home reading assignments. Their reading ability is tracked and evaluated as the year progresses. Starting in 2025, Kindergarten students at the FAA will also take the MAP Fluency test to monitor their phonological awareness, phonics master, reading comprehension, and fluency.
  • Likewise, in French, students begin to decode high frequency syllables and to recognize sound patterns, and learn to read high frequency words. They participate in a rigorous vocabulary acquisition program to expand their lexical knowledge. 
  • In both languages, students are exposed to a variety of text forms, and they are taught the different parts of a book and various types of texts. They work to create their own bilingual posters, documents, and books with classmates as well.
  • Kindergarten students become prolific writers as the year progresses, going from sounding out short words and sounds to writing complete sentences and even short stories on their own. Their writing stamina increases and their fine motor skills are honed to the point that they can write with control and accuracy.
  • At the French American Academy, in Kindergarten we do an hour of bilingual language instruction each week, focusing on comparative grammar, literature, and vocabulary with both the English and French teachers present. This is in addition to the one-hour bilingual science lesson that students enjoy throughout all of Cycle 1.

From a physical and cognitive perspective, most kindergarten students are more than ready for the reading and writing tasks they face. Throughout the year, they blossom into confident, fluent readers and writers who are prepared for the challenges of first grade.

The shift to abstract thought in Kindergarten

Student in PreK-2 solving a math problem.

While students face problem-solving tasks throughout all of Pre-K and Kindergarten, and build basic familiarity with mathematical concepts such as shapes and sizes, the numbers from 1-10 or beyond (including counting), more than/fewer than, and how to break down small numbers like 3 or 5. In Pre-K, all of these concepts are conveyed through the concrete rather than the abstract. For example, when doing simple addition problems, teachers will always use drawings, manipulatives, or the mathrack. Very young children anchor their understanding in the visual and the concrete, and most neurotypical 2-to-4-year-old children are not yet able to visualize math concepts by using written numbers or abstract thought. 

Student in Kindergarten solving a math problem.

Around the age of 5 years old, however, children undergo a significant shift in their capacity to engage in abstract thought. Teachers begin the year using manipulatives to teach math concepts such as counting, comparing, and problem solving, but gradually eliminate them as time passes and as students demonstrate that they no longer need to rely on objects to help them calculate. At the same time, teachers challenge students with tasks that require them to hold a number in their memory, which is a crucial skill for beginning calculations. Students learn various ways that numbers can be represented: with drawings of objects, with the fingers on our hands, as numbers on dice, as written numbers, even as words. They use these various representations to perform math tasks. Some students are ready to understand the concept of tens and ones, and many can use a number line to count well into the hundreds. 

Kindergarten teachers present sudoku puzzles, tangrams, logic problems, and jigsaw puzzles to refine children’s spatial awareness and increase their problem solving stamina. In performing tasks that require them to use logic to eliminate wrong answers and find correct solutions, students develop the ability to think independently and organize their thoughts to complete tasks. 

Our ultimate goal: elementary school readiness

By internalizing social-emotional strategies, refining gross and fine motor skills, and developing language fluency and eloquence in French and English, all of our Cycle 1 students are continuously working toward the challenges of the first grade. During Kindergarten specifically, children face increased expectations for their literacy, abstract thought, and autonomy. Thanks to their rapid physical development and knowledge acquisition at this age, we know that most students are ready and able to meet and overcome challenges that will ultimately allow them to transition to the first grade with ease. 

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