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November 6, 2015

Easy Ways to Differentiate Centers for Word Work or Math

Easy Ways to Differentiate Centers for Word Work or Math - HeidiSongsEasy Ways to Differentiate Centers for Word Work or Math - HeidiSongs

Easy Ways to Differentiate Centers for Word Work or Math - HeidiSongs

Do you have a wide range of abilities in your class, or even a combination or split grade class?  Making a Word Work center or math center that will work at more than one level is not as hard as it may seem.  It’s really just a matter of wrapping your mind around efficient ways to do it in the space that you have.  Once you figure out the trick, you’re on your way!  In this post, I will share some examples of differentiated centers leveled from Kindergarten, first, and second grade that all use the same materials.

How to Pull Small Groups

Recently, this question came up as a comment on a blog post I wrote called How to Pull Small Groups and Run Learning Centers in Kindergarten.  As I wrote out the reply, I decided to expand on it and write it out as an entire blog post, because I thought it might be helpful information for others with the same question. Hope it’s helpful!

Hi! I was hoping you had some ideas of how to run learning centers in a K/1 class? I usually have done literacy and math centers separate which has worked well. Now being in a Kindergarten/Grade 1 split I am finding that there are so many different centers to differentiate that I end up having 8 centers at a time, which is a lot… what would you suggest?

That is really a tough one!
When I am planning centers in my first/second grade class, I look for open ended centers in which I give all students the same manipulatives, such as plastic letters, and then have the children each do an assigned task (or task cards) at their grade level.

I take the spelling list that I created for their homework and post that at their centers. The children are supposed to make the words on the list for their own grade level. But this could be done for the different leveled reading groups in your class as well.

I take the spelling list that I created for their homework and post that at their centers. The children are supposed to make the words on the list for their own grade level. But this could be done for the different leveled reading groups in your class as well.

So in the case of spelling word practice, there is one tub of plastic letters at a center.  I have their spelling lists posted by grade level right there on one sheet as shown above so that there is just one list to keep track of. The kids just have to find their own grade level’s list and start building their words.

Build Your Spelling Words Center
The plastic letters in the photo came from Amazon and are called Roylco Lowercase Manuscript Letter Beads. They can be strung onto chenille stems easily to make words.

More Examples of Differentiated Centers

Here are some more examples of other centers that could be differentiated, with ideas that range from Kindergarten to second grade.  The idea is that you have one center with one set of materials, but two different leveled sets of words to build or two sets of task cards for math, etc.  You could also have the same activity, but have slightly different expectations for the children.

-A Kindergartner could practice rainbow writing the letter of the week, and both first and second graders can rainbow write the spelling words. (For a free download of the Rainbow Write Your Spelling Words worksheets for 10 words, click here! For 20 words, click here!)

Rainbow Write Spelling 2nd

-A first grader could practice making new words within a grade level appropriate word family, and a second grader could make new words by adding prefixes and suffixes to base words.  All of them would be using the same materials to make the words, though, such as plastic letters or stamps, etc. Check out my blog on Sight Word String Ups!


-Kindergartners could match pictures of opposites after being taught them in a lesson. (Check out our Opposite Rhyming Songbook and activities here.) First graders could practice matching the opposites and their words to the picture cards.  Second graders could practice matching synonyms or antonym word cards and/or sort them into categories:  are they synonyms or antonyms?


Opposite Book Flash Cards
The cards pictured above are from our Opposites Flashcards Printable Download.

-A Kindergartner might work on matching rhyming words cards, and the first grader might work on matching AND writing those words on the cards.  A second grader could change a sound or sounds in those rhyming words to come up with a new set of rhyming words and write them.  Example:  “Dog, fog” could be switched to “dig, fig.”  “Pig, wig” could be changed to “peg, beg.”  Check out our Rhyming Bingo and Practice Cards here.

Rhyming Puzzles

-For math, the kids could all work with the same thing, such as multi-link cubes, and then have different task cards. The kindergartners might be working on matching sets cards, and the first graders might be showing addition problems with the cubes (example: five red cubes connected to three white cubes could represent the equation 5 plus 3.)  A second grader might be building representations of addition problems with sums up to 20 using those same blocks.  For a lot of free centers for matching sets with Kindergartners, click here.  

Math Cubes

-A Kindergartner might put numbers in order to 20.  A first grader might practice putting numbers in order to 50, and the second grader might practice putting them in order, but by skip counting (count by twos, fives, tens, etc.)  By the way, if you need skip counting songs to help them learn, we have them on Musical Math Volume One and Two!

Numbers in Order Happy Kid

-A Kindergartner might work on patterning with teddy bears, and a first grader might work on solving addition and subtraction story problems with facts from 0-10 using teddy bears to count.  A second grader would be doing story problems with facts from 0-20.

-A Kindergartner might practice measuring with nonstandard units, such as cubes or paperclips.  The first grader do that as well, but then also measure with a ruler to the inch and record them.  The second grader might measure objects with the ruler to the half inch, and can be expected to record more of them than the first graders.

– Both first graders and second graders can read books at their own levels and then take AR tests.  After they are done, I have another activity for them to do, such as the geoboards and task cards that you see in the photo.  Since this is just for fun and it’s to be done after their real assignment is completed, I don’t worry about differentiating this center.


The beauty of a well run combination class is that the the younger students can be exposed to the higher standards, and may wind up far more advanced than they would have otherwise! So it is a good thing to make it possible for the younger ones to go farther if they want to.  They may be “high flyers” in disguise!  So if you find that some of your kindergartners can (and WANT to do) the first grade center, I would let them! Or, consider posting the names of those kindergartners who are allowed to do the first grade activity, if you are worried.  Likewise, the children in the higher grade can have a chance to review if necessary, because of course not all children work on grade level.

Differentiated Centers - Versa Tiles

When I do centers in my room, if there are different directions or activities for each grade level, I just put the additional grade’s supplies in a tub that sits right there under or next to the chair. The kids learned right away which tub to use. Just mark them with a “K” or “First Grade,” and they’ll have it quickly. So basically, they are all going to the very same location in the room and use the same supplies for differentiated activities whenever possible. If you can’t make that work, then they just grab their grade level’s tub, and do that stuff instead.

First and Second Grade Bins

I hope that helps any of you with a wide range of abilities in your class, or who have a combination class. Feel free to reply with more questions. I’m happy to help!

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