No matter what homeschooling style you prefer, choosing a math program can be a trial. There are endless options, and incredible claims to sift through. Then there is always the question: will my children enjoy math when all is said and done! Below we offer 11 tips for choosing a math program based on our homeschool experiences and observations, along with our math backgrounds.
1. Spiral vs. Mastery
Spiral approaches introduce a concept, then move on to the next concept, circling back to the first concept and adding further “skill,” etc. There are adequate and inadequate spiral approaches. No matter the approach, the goal must be mastery. If a student needs more review, the spiral approach can provide that. It will drive students who already “get it” barmy! Another concern is that the topic does finally get mastered.
If my student can add two columns of numbers successfully, then he can add 3, 4, 12, or however many. If he has the skills, then the number of columns is irrelevant. Some spiral courses make it look like more columns = harder. Of course this isn’t true. And it does our students a disservice to make them think so.
Mastery programs are fine as long as we go at the student’s pace. If we push through when he doesn’t understand, then we fail him. Remember the goal — that he master math. That will take different amounts of time for different students.
2. Textbook, Workbook, or Computer-based
Your concern here is firstly the amount of writing required. If using a textbook, the student will be writing out the problems and answers. When using a workbook or worktext, the student will typically be writing the answers in the small amount of space allotted. And of course, computer-based courses will be completed online.
For young children who are not comfortable with a pencil, there are programs available that are more manipulative and verbal-oriented (Saxon K–2, for example). At the point when a child has his math facts memorized and has mastered handwriting, working out of a textbook makes sense. To be successful in math, the student must pay close attention to detail:
- Copying the problem correctly.
- Lining up the columns of numbers.
- Showing all of his work — step by step (even if he can do it in his head).
This attention pays off big time in higher-level math.
Because of their nature, computer-based courses can work in both cases — allowing the younger students to avoid writing and requiring older students to show their work on paper.
Tip: If copying down the problems is an issue, try having your student use graph paper.
3. Teacher-intensive vs. Self-learning
How much time can you spend teaching concepts, checking work, and drilling facts? Are your children able to work on their own? Do they need you to take one-on-one time to present or explain concepts?
If the child and the book click, they may be able to teach themselves with you as mentor/guide. (This is typically after that point where they have their math facts down.)
Also, some programs will be far more teacher-intensive than others. Saxon K for example requires quite a bit of prep-work the night before.
How much time do you have?
4. Kinestethic, Auditory, or Visual
While it is never a good idea to teach only to a child’s strengths, it is helpful to know the way in which he is likely to understand the concepts:
- Will he “get it” better if he uses his hands and manipulatives?
- Will he understand better if you explain it to him?
- Will he only need to read the book to move forward?
5. Color vs. Black & White
This is not that crucial of an issue unless your child is easily distracted. Then it is probably best to avoid the color, pictures, etc.
Rod and Staff, for example, provides a simple black-and-white and uncluttered text.
6. Your Comfort Level
Particularly when teaching math concepts, Mom needs to be comfortable with her subject.
- What do you need to make that happen for you?
- Are you already comfortable with math?
- Will you prefer a scripted program to help you teach concepts?
Many programs provide great teacher aids for those who would like to have them available.
7. Your Type of Program
You can spend hundreds of dollars for the “best” math program out there, but if you don’t enjoy using it, it will be money wasted.
- Do you prefer an organized system with everything laid out for you?
- Do you prefer to have a set of goals but no strict lesson plan?
- Scripted lessons?
- Pick up and go?
8. Homeschool Conference
One way to view, handle, and get an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of each program is to explore them all at a homeschool conference. Advantages of seeing them in person include:
- You can immediately have your questions answered.
- You can compare several programs side by side.
- You can better envision how it will look when being used in your home.
Don’t buy at the conference. Think it over and purchase at home without the pressure.
You don’t want suggestions here. You are really looking for the REASONS someone likes a program. Then you can compare their likes/dislikes to your requirements.
10. Publisher Samples
Many publishers have samples available for download, reviews, and more that make it easier to decide.
11. Stick It
Stick with one math program from K–6. This is the time when the concepts are developed. Since each publisher has a different scope and sequence, if you skip around in math, it is more likely that a skill will be left undeveloped.
The only reason to switch midstream is if it simply is confusing your child or otherwise obviously not working. If that is the case, before you switch you can try more intensive tutoring, introduce concepts in another way, or supplement. Switch only as a last resort.
No matter what program you use, drill the facts. I cannot stress this enough. It is great for your student to understand the concepts. Sometimes that comes after the facts are drilled and sometimes before. But the facts must be down cold.
One topic you did not see here was cost. There is a reason for that. You can really spend as much or as little as you want and still find the math program that fits your family.
Making Wise Curriculum Purchases: Math
Cathy Duffy Reviews
Trusted source for understanding why you might or might not like a particular program.
These are our favorites based on our own use and observation:
An Easy Start in Arithmetic by Dr. Ruth Beechick
Targeting parents of children in grades K–3, this title explains how children learn math — progressing through manipulative, mental image, and abstract modes of thinking — and then provides a course of learning and suggestions for teaching math for each grade. Excellent tutor for the homeschool handy-mom. Depending on your confidence level, this may be all you need. (Can also be purchased as one of The Three R’s.)
Rod and Staff
Traditional black-and-white textbook using the mastery approach.
Spiral approach recommended by some scientists. Suggest older versions, if possible.
Published by Alpha Omega, colorful spiral approach in workbook form.