How to Use Formative Assessment in the TK Classroom

The Process | Using Key Early Learning Standards for Planning | TK/K Combination Classrooms | Dual Language Learners | Special Needs and Response to Intervention | Classroom Example Snapshots

Formative assessment helps you determine your students’ academic and social-emotional development on an ongoing basis, and is well aligned with developmentally appropriate transitional kindergarten instruction. As a TK teacher, you plan activities to stimulate exploration and learning which provide multiple opportunities each day to observe emerging learning. TK provides a unique opportunity to embed assessment in daily instruction in a playful, low-stress setting, which will in turn help you sequence future instruction to provide the next instructional step for each child.

A Suggested Process

    1. Identify an assessment goal. Decide which students you need to assess and what you want to know about their progress;
  1. Identify an opportunity within your daily instruction to gather the information;
  2. Reflect on the evidence. Identify gaps between your students’ current performance and expected goals. Also note students who are performing well above and/or beyond expectations;
  3. Consider next steps. Decide how you will use this information to adjust your instruction. Use “learning progressions” (specific steps or sub-goals that lead to your target goal) to clearly articulate the next-steps for students. See examples below for guidance in this area. This information will provide the foundation for differentiated instruction ; and,
  4. Encourage student involvement in recognizing and celebrating their learning. Promote your students’ engagement in and reflection about what they are learning by asking them to share what they learn each day and encouraging them to take pride in their accomplishments. Consider how you might provide productive feedback to build confidence.

Examples of Lesson Embedded Formative Assessment Opportunities

Any activity or lesson component can become an assessment opportunity if we change the lens through which we view the activity. The following chart demonstrates how teachers might shift from instruction to formative assessment in the course of a short, focused lesson. Note that many of the shifts to a formative assessment lens promote active engagement.

Instructional Lens
Assessment Lens
To introduce a lesson focused on Number Sense, the teacher reads a story or does a finger play about counting and engages in a discussion about why learning to count is important. Teacher modifies language and uses Total Physical Response (TPR) to facilitate participation as necessary. Teacher notes students who contribute to counting discussion and who demonstrate conceptual understanding of why counting is important.
Teacher counts several sets of leaves (gathered earlier from a nature walk) with the students, touches each leaf as they count and then says, “There are __ leaves. I know that because __ was the last number I said when I counted.” Teacher asks students to signal how many leaves there are with their fingers.
Uses a variety of objects to continue modeling rote counting, one-to-one correspondence, and stating the total number of objects without recounting and encourages children to join in. Observes and mentally notes who is with him/her, who is not keeping up and who is way ahead.
Has students work in pairs to practice counting and stating the total number of objects without recounting. Tunes into student conversations and observes to determine which students he might call on next.
Closes the lesson with an engaging counting song that incorporates movement. Uses random or targeted calling to play a counting game to check for understanding.
At the end of the lesson, the teacher decides that most students met expectations, but s/he has identified several students for an additional “counting game” later in the day to individually assess their need for additional instruction.

Using Key Early Learning Documents to Plan Formative Assessment

The State of California provides two documents, California Preschool Learning Foundations, Vols.1-3 and The Alignment of the California Preschool Learning Foundations with Key Early Education Resources, that provide support for teachers as they use formative assessment. The examples provided under each foundation in the Preschool Learning Foundations may prompt teachers as they focus on identifying formative assessment opportunities (observation notes, assessment prompts, discussion starters, etc.). The examples provided in this resource might also complement other district- or program-adopted inventories or checklists. Several specific examples are cited in the chart below.

Examples from Preschool Learning Foundations

When embedded in instruction, each behavior in the chart below can present opportunities for formative assessment observations or interactions and provide information to inform instruction.

(Note: All examples below refer to 60 month Preschool Learning Foundations. Some examples are extended to show additional possibilities.)

Self 2.1
Vocabulary 2.3
Understand and use simple and complex words to describe relationships
Algebra and Functions 2.1
Recognize and duplicate simple repeating patterns
  • Anticipates clean-up
  • Focuses attention in busy classroom
  • Suggests sharing
  • Explains reasons for rules
  • Identifies things that are smaller, larger, etc. than a __
  • Is able to follow command to sit next to/ behind/in front of
  • Labels things as being bigger/heavier/faster than other things
  • Fills in an item missing from a pattern (e.g., apple, pear, apple, pear) with guidance
  • Copies simple repeating patterns, using the same kind of objects as the original pattern
  • Attempts to sing, sign, move, or clap through a pattern song, trying to maintain the pattern
Formative assessment examples related to the above Foundations
  • You make a note that a student who often struggles with self-regulation during clean-up sees that you are preparing to signal a transition, and alerts her peers that it is time to clean up
  • After a lesson on conceptual relationships, you assess students’ knowledge of relationships by asking them to identify classroom objects that are larger than another selected object
  • After whole or small group patterning instruction use counters/markers of three different colors to check student’s ability to pattern. Lay out two repetitions of a simple pattern (red, blue, green, red, blue, green, __) and see if they are able to identify the next color from the three choices
Examples from the Alignment of the Preschool Learning Foundations with Key Early Learning Resources

The Alignment of the California Preschool Learning Foundations with Key Early Learning Resources (Alignment Document) may also provide guidance as you identify possible formative assessment opportunities. The Preschool Foundations in the left column of the chart below lead to the acquisition of kindergarten standards cited in the right column. The “Related Activity” cell provides a sample activity designed to bridge the Foundations and the standards. The cells below that offer possible formative assessment prompts to gauge children’s current performance.

 This Preschool Learning Foundation (Leads to…)
 Related Activity

After reading a book about transportation, the teacher asks students to draw a picture and write about what they learned in their journal

 This Kindergarten Common Core Standard
Writing 1.2

Writes letter or letter-like shapes to represent words or ideas. (60 months)

Can you tell me something that I can write about your picture of the ship? Can you write something about your picture? I see that you have the letters _, _ and _ under your picture of the plane. Can you read the words to me? I see that you have also written some words. Can you read your words to me? Can you write more about your picture?
Writing: Text Types and Purposes 2.0

Uses a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/ explanatory texts.

 This Preschool Learning Foundation (Leads to…)
 Related Activity

During group time, the teacher reads a story about cooperation leads a short, but engaging discussion about “What If” situations related to cooperation and sharing.

 This Kindergarten Common Core Standard
Group Participation 3.1

Participate in group activities and are beginning to understand and cooperate with social expectations, group rules, and roles.
(48 months)

Later, during recess the teacher observes two students resolving a sharing situation independently and makes a note about it to add to his records. During centers, the teacher notices a child playing independently. At the end of the day, he makes a note to monitor the student. He wants to honor her independence while ensuring that she feels confident and has not been rejected by other students. During snack time the teacher engages a few students in additional “What If” discussions. He had noted that they were distracted during group time and wants to assess their understanding. To assess the growing social skill of a group of students, the teacher asks them to cooperate to draw a picture about one of the “What If” situations to share with the class and post on the wall.  

Interpersonal Communication 4.2

Cooperate and share with others.

Formative Assessment in the TK/K Combination Classroom

In your teaching toolbox, formative assessment is a powerful instrument for planning differentiated instruction for children spanning various learning levels in a combination classroom. Combination class teachers prepare TK children for successfully meeting or exceeding challenging kindergarten standards, while simultaneously preparing their kindergarten students for success in 1st grade. Formative assessment provides the information you need to monitor progress, adjust daily instruction to meet ongoing needs and differentiate instruction to ensure that all children meet or exceed their grade level expectations.

Formative Assessment and Dual Language/EL Learners

Culturally and linguistically responsive assessment and instruction is critical to the success of all your students, especially Dual Language Learner/English Language Learners. There are important steps you can take as a TK teacher to ensure that your assessment materials, prompts and questions are appropriate for each child given his or her linguistic and cultural background. When you work to ensure that instruction and assessments are responsive to each student’s background, formative assessment will play a critical role in supporting content learning and English language development in your young DLLs.1

 DLL Classroom Examples

  1. A teacher assessing a child’s ability to recognize and continue a pattern will limit the amount of language the child must process to accomplish the task. The teacher then has information about the child’s ability to pattern that is not heavily influenced by unnecessary linguistic confusions.

  2. A teacher who needs to assess a dual language learner’s knowledge of spatial concepts in English (in front of, behind, on top of, etc.) recognizes that language acquisition is a major factor in the task. Because her goal is to determine whether the child is building conceptual understanding while developing English language skills, she works to limit the potential for linguistic or cultural confusions.

Considering the social and cultural contexts of your individual students’ lives during your assessments will yield a more accurate look into each child’s skillset. A child’s brief response to a question or lack of eye contact during formative assessment interactions may be a reflection of cultural norms and expectations, rather than an indication of communication difficulties. As you build relationships with your students and their families, you will become more familiar with their linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Combining this information with what you observe in the classroom will help you make thoughtful decisions about their assessments and the next instructional steps for each student.

Suggestions for Assessing Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Children

As you assess children with diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, it is especially important to keep a clear, focused assessment goal in mind, and to align formative assessment prompts or tasks with that goal. This is especially critical for teachers who do not speak a child’s home language. You might consider:

  • Reducing the language demands of the assessment prompt or task by eliminating unnecessarily challenging vocabulary, simplifying the linguistic and grammatical structure if possible, and/or shortening the length of the questions and/or explanations;
  • Using language that is similar to that you use in daily interactions with the children;
  • Slowing the pace of speech;
  • Providing additional wait time for processing;
  • Using non-linguistic cues (TPR) when appropriate to clarify the task;
  • Embedding the assessment task or prompt in familiar contexts; and
  • Providing choices in the ways you expect students to demonstrate understanding of a concept.2

Formative Assessment and Response to Intervention/Special Needs Children

“Effective behavior management is not separate from academic instruction, but rather, is an essential skill set taught during tier one core instruction.”

Source: RtI2 Implementation and Technical Assistance Guide for Districts and Schools

Response to Intervention is a multi-tier process that guides both general and special education staff as they identify and provide appropriate support for students who may need instructional and/or behavioral support. The RTI process begins with high-quality instruction, universal screening, and differentiated instruction within the general education classroom. At all tiers or levels, student progress is closely monitored to assess the student’s individual response to instruction.

California’s RtI2 is well aligned with the general goals of TK.

  • California’s RtI2 pyramid recognizes the importance of academic and behavioral support at all levels by including both terms on their graphic. The goal of RtI2 in California is to create the conditions for closing the achievement gap and improving problem behaviors. This aligns well with the TK emphasis on social-emotional development.
  • Tier 1 of the three-tiered approach to intervention emphasizes strong “first teaching” including differentiated instruction based on ongoing formative assessment.
  • The RtI2 model recognizes the critical role that families play in supporting the achievement of children.

Formative Assessment Classroom Example Snapshots

Classroom Embedded Formative Assessment in Transitional Kindergarten

The following scenarios assume only one adult is present. If two adults are present, these “quick-check” opportunities should be less challenging to implement.

  1. As students enter the classroom in the morning, the teacher identifies three students who have had difficulty “settling in” and focusing on book browsing. She observes their entrance and records brief notes about their progress.
  2. During calendar, the teacher monitors students as they rote count together, she is concerned that some are not counting accurately. Later, as they are eating, she asks intentionally selected students to count for her–assisting as necessary, but noting their performance.
  3. During shared literacy, the teacher reviews and models the concept of rhyme. He then presents several pairs of words from the read aloud and asks students to signal whether they rhyme or not. If the words do not rhyme, they work to find a pair that does. As the teacher dismisses students to line up, he tells the group that they will play a rhyming game on the way out the door, and each student has a turn to either give a rhyming word or to signal whether two words rhyme. He moves quickly and scaffolding as needed so everyone feels successful.
  4. During interactive writing, the teacher shares the pen to intentionally assess whether selected students are able to identify initial consonant sounds of specific words, add ‘s” to plurals, etc.
  5. During a mathematics whole group gathering, the teacher reviews one-to-one correspondence. He monitors students to ensure that they are engaged in choral responses as they count objects together. Later during free exploration, he has several “quick-check” interactions (less than a minute) with individual students who struggled with the concept earlier. He asks them to count three small objects. If students are successful, he notes it. If they struggle, the teacher also has important evidence and has had an opportunity to adjust his approach before providing additional instruction.
  6. During free exploration, the teacher observes and notes student choices as usual. In addition, she stops briefly to interact with several students individually. She shows them an interesting picture/sticker and engages them in dialogue about the picture. This time she has targeted several Dual Language Learners to note progress in sentence production and vocabulary growth. She quickly notes their responses to be filed later.

Click here for a downloadable PDF of the above snapshots

A Transitional Kindergarten “On-the-Go” Formative Assessment Kit

These informal assessment resources are:

  • Compact and fit in a zippered pencil pouch for a binder;
  • Easily accessible and portable;
  • Quiet and not distracting to other students;
  • Appropriate for individual interactions;
  • Easily obtained and inexpensive (dollar stores); and,
  • Easily modified to address current goals.

Remember that, although this kit is designed for quick formative assessments, the same materials can be used when opportunities for brief differentiated instruction arise.

A sample “starter kit” might include:

    1. Small pom poms for:


    • Mix colors and use to check sorting or patterning skills;
    • Checking emerging counting, adding, and subtraction concepts; and,
    • Use as markers with Elkonin boxes.
    1. Elkonin cards for “Say It and Move It” segmenting and “Where is the Sound?” (beginning, middle, or end?) phonemic awareness activities.


    1. Letter and number recognition charts (both letters and numbers in both sequential and random order and letters in both upper and lower case)


    1. Small books with print and pictures for informal checks on Concepts about Print:


    • Where to begin writing or reading, going from left to right;
    • Where to go after the end of the line (return, sweep);
    • The print, not the picture, carries the message;
    • Word by word pointing (one-to-one correspondence);
    • Concept of a letter, word, sentence;
    • Concept of first and last part (of the word, sentence, story);
    • Letter order in words is important;
    • There are first and last letters in words;
    • Upper and lower case letters have purpose; and,
    • Different punctuation marks have meaning.
    1. Blank index cards with engaging stickers or stamps to prompt brief student writing or dictation.


    1. Selected cards from a variety of flash card sets (available at dollar stores) for numbers, letters, colors (matching, finding, naming), shapes (matching, finding, naming, copying), rhyming words, and similarities/differences.


  1. A variety of sticky notes/adhesive labels to record observations.

Click here for a downloadable PDF of the above “on-the-go” kit

1 Espinosa, Curriculum and assessment Considerations for Young Children from Culturally, Linguistically, and Economically Diverse Backgrounds, 2005; Where We Stand on Assessing Young English Language Learners, NAEYC 2009; Abedi, Jamal. Linguistic factors in the assessment of English Language Learners. In The Sage Handbook of Measurement. (2010) Sage Publishing, Thousand Oaks, CA, p. 129-157.

2 Trumbell and Lash, Understanding Formative Assessments, WestEd, 2013; Abedi, Jamal. Linguistic factors in the assessment of English Language Learners. In The Sage Handbook of Measurement. (2010) Sage Publishing, Thousand Oaks, CA, p. 129-157.

 Formative assessment evidence can be gathered:

  • formally or informally;
  • during observations or as you interact with children;
  • through open-ended or closed prompts or questions;
  • through oral responses, written or drawn responses;
  • during teacher- or student-initiated interactions; and,
  • during large group, small group, or individual lessons.