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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?

In my view there isn't any "best" book. As long as the mathematical content of the curriculum is of decent quality, I feel the teacher is actually a far more important part of a child's math education than the book:

  • A good teacher is sensitive to the child's needs and therefore does not just legalistically follow any book.
  • A good teacher loves the subject matter and 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 concepts, draw pictures to illustrate them, and use manipulatives or other concrete aids himself, regardless of which math book is used. In other words, the student can then learn from the teacher and it won't matter so much how the book explains things. (However, I realize many homeschooling parents don't have this kind of knowledge of math).

From these points it follows that...

  • Even if a certain math 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 yourself as quick as possible, and (b) finding a good solid basal curriculum.

So, you want to find the best math curriculum for your situation. For starters, please read these short descriptions of some popular homeschool 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 a math curriculum

Here are some factors that will affect your choice of math curriculum:

  • Is the curriculum mastery-based or spiraling? And is it spiraling with a "short spiral" like Saxon or how?

    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 full color whereas to others a lot of color is distracting. Similarly, lots of images might distract some children, but 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 or not?

    Some parents like it that way, and 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 math itself does not change based on how you believe.

To help you further, you can read other people's reviews - we have quite a collection here at HomeschoolMath.net.

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

Let's say you have been using a particular curriculum for a while, but then you find it doesn't work quite so well anymore. Remember that that curriculum doesn't have to be your final choice. If you can afford it, you can simply buy a new program and try to sell the previous one.

But there are many things you can do to vary the instruction even without investing in a new curriculum. Try these tips:

  • Too repetitious? Skip some exercises. Only assign odd ones or 1/4th of them. Or, jump around in the book to vary the topics studied.
  • Not enough repetition? Check our free worksheets section. With little money you could get one of the Math Mammoth books for some extra practice. Or, get a used school book, and assign additional problems from it.
  • A boring book? For younger children, try stickers or let them color something in the book, such as the completed math problems. Find fun supplements and 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. The child can write in it math problems he's made up on his own, using lots of colors. He can copy pictures, math tables, and patterns to it, or use it for solving exercises. The teacher can make additional exercises in it.
  • Take a break from math for one or more months.

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