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Choosing a homeschool math curriculum

Many homeschooling parents struggle with this exact question: which math curriculum should they use? Which one is the best?

But, is there a "right" answer or a "best" book? As long as the curriculum is of decent quality as far as the mathematical content, it is my view that the teacher is actually a more important part of a child's math education than the book:

  • A good teacher is sensitive to the child's needs and so does not just legalistically follow any book.
  • A good teacher loves his/her subject matter; is excited and enthusiastic about it. This alone will encourage the student to study, and help the student develop a similar attitude. Unfortunately, homeschooling parents often do not have this 'love' for math... (perhaps due to the way they were taught math in their own schooling).
  • A good math teacher can explain things, draw pictures about the math concepts on paper or board, use manipulatives or other concrete aids himself, regardless of which math book is used. In other words, the student can then listen to the teacher and it won't matter how the book explains things. (I realize many homeschooling parents don't have this kind of knowledge of math).

From these it follows that...

  • Even if a certain mathematics book is not the best fit for a particular child or student, a good teacher can make the book work by supplementing it with other materials, maybe adjusting the pace, skipping some exercises, jumping back and forth in the book, being excited about the concepts, drawing pictures, letting the child color things in the book etc.

Basically, the better teacher you are, the less the book matters - and vice versa. The less math you know, the better off you are a) learning math real quick, and b) finding a good solid basal curriculum.

So you do want to find the best math book you can - and that's all good! For starters, please read through these short descriptions of some math curricula, and notice how they vary.

A few popular math curricula used by homeschoolers

Saxon math is widely used among homeschoolers. It uses a very short spiraling approach, which means that neighboring lessons are not on the same topic, and in each new lesson, most of the exercises are review problems.

Math-U-See is a manipulative-based K-12 curriculum. Other programs use manipulatives too, but this one specializes in letting children 'see' the concepts first with manipulatives. It comes with teaching videos and basic worksheets.

Horizons Math uses colorful books, and is a spiral program where each lesson contains exercises for several different topics.

Switched-On Schoolhouse is a computer-based curriculum by Alpha Omega publications.

Abeka Math is a part of Abeka full curriculum. It is, again, a spiral math curriculum.

Singapore Math is mastery-based. It emphasizes mental math methods and problem solving abilities.

Math Mammoth is mastery-based, with some spiral review over the grades. It emphasizes mental math and conceptual understanding.

RightStart Math is based on an abacus, manipulatives, and games. It emphasizes mental math methods and is mastery-based.

Modern Curriculum Press offers affordable and simple math workbooks for K-6. The instruction does not contain much explanations as to why something works.

Miquon Math books for grades 1-3 have activities that encourage observation, investigation, exploration, and discovery of patterns in math. Encourages creative thinking. May not have enough repetition, depending on child.

Harold Jacobs is a popular one for high school math (besides Saxon).

And there are many more programs, especially for the lower grades. Please see a more complete list and links to program descriptions and reviews in the main section.

How to choose

Some things that govern your choice are:

  • Is the curriculum largely mastery-based, or spiraling? Is it spiraling with a "short spiral" like Saxon?

    The short spiral means that in each lesson, most of the exercises are review problems. Often, a new concept is only practiced minimally within the day's lesson. Examples: Saxon, Abeka, Horizons. Mastery-based programs usually are laid out in chapters that concentrate on a few topics, and then review problems are done separately. Examples: Singapore Math, Math Mammoth, Math-U-See, Right Start Math.
  • What is the cost? Check the websites. Sometimes you can buy the curriculum used.
  • Is it colorful or black and white?

    Some children like it in full color and to others lots of color is distracting. Similarly, lots of images might distract some children, and some children enjoy them.
  • How teacher-intensive is it? Does it require much teacher preparation?

    In many programs, part of the instruction is included in the teacher guide, and part in the student textbook, so you have to go through both. Some programs employ videos for you to watch first.
  • Is the curriculum scripted? Some parents like it that way, some absolutely not, because they like teaching "freely".
  • Is the curriculum religious or secular? When it comes to math, this is usually not of major importance, because even if the publisher is religiously oriented, their math curriculum may not show it to any great degree, because the math itself does not change based on how you believe.

Then also read other people's reviews - we have quite a collection here at HomeschoolMath.net.

What if the math book doesn't suit the student?

If you have been using any particular math curriculum and then find it does not quite work well, remember that it doesn't have to be your final choice. If you can afford it, simply buy a new program and try to sell the previous one.

But there are many things you can do even without investing into a new program. If you and your child are not happy with your current math book but can't or don't want to buy a new one, try these tips:

  • Too repetitious? Skip some exercises. Only assign odd ones or 1/4th of them. Or, jump around in the book back and forth to vary the topics more.
  • Not enough repetition? Check our free worksheets section. With little money you could get one of the Math Mammoth books for extra work. Or, find one of those places where they discard used school books, and use one of those books to have more problems to do.
  • A boring book? For younger children, try stickers, or let them color something in the book, such as color over completed math problems or draw boxes around the problems. Find fun supplements, such as games. I have collected an extensive list of interactive online games organized by math topic.
  • Try an online curriculum where the lessons are usually animated and interactive.
  • Let the child start his/her own math notebook where he writes each day some math problems of his own, using colors, pictures, and math problems. She could copy pictures and illustrations from a math book or you can make up some extra picture exercises for her in it. This could also be designed for a younger sibling to use.
  • Take a break from math for 1 month.
  • Incorporate some "living math" ideas into the teaching.

Remember: do NOT become a slave to the curriculum. The book is just a TOOL for teaching. Filling the book is not the purpose or goal of mathematics education. There are many other tools and ways to teach, too, such as games, explorations, projects - living math.