It is well documented that early childhood education and care (ECEC) has the potential for buffering negative outcomes in cognitive development of growing up in a socioeconomically disadvantaged family. Yet, less is known about the features of ECEC programs contributing to this buffering. We explore such ‘active ingredients’ in the Norwegian context of universally subsidized and quality regulated ECEC, using the longitudinal Behavioral Outlook: Norwegian Developmental Study (BONDS). We used data on a subsample of 955 children for whom ECEC content assessed when children were age two, and receptive language skills were assessed at age four. Our main finding was that more emphasis on structured pre-academic activities was associated with higher language scores, and more so for children of mothers with little education. Results are contextualized with attention to the low levels of structured instruction in Norwegian ECEC centers.