When you were in school, math was either a thing of beauty or a thing of torment. Whichever it was for you, as a homeschooling parent, you get to help your children move towards an understanding of math—whether they end up doing nothing more than tracking their spending as an adult, or get a doctorate in applied mathematics.
Let's look at three big questions common to parents choosing a homeschool math curriculum:
- How do you choose a math program for your children?
- How do you know when it’s time to change programs?
- How do you teach something you don’t know very well yourself?
1. How Do You Choose a Math Program for Your Children?
Here’s the deal: young people have succeeded with all of the popular math programs on the market. Whether you use one of the programs Sonlight sells
or whether you go outside of Sonlight
- Teaching Textbooks
- The Art of Problem Solving
- Beast Academy
. . . any of these is a good choice that serves thousands of families well.
So the issue is not, “Is this is a good program?” Because they all are. The issue is, “Is this a good program for me and my children?” So do a little evaluation of your preferences.
Video and Computer Instruction
If you like video lessons where you, the parent, don’t have to do all the teaching, Math-U-See might be a great choice for you, as Mr. Demme’s instruction is both charming and thorough. Alternately, Teaching Textbooks offers clear and thorough instruction on a CD-Rom, and Saxon offers DIVE CDs from 5/4 and up. But if you know that you prefer your children to avoid screens, these programs are going to frustrate you. So choose something else.
Think about your early elementary children. Do they just want the instructions so they can get onto the next thing as quickly as possible? Or do they like to play, to experiment, to try new things? Neither of these is bad; each is just a personality preference. If your children like to follow the rules, Miquon is not going to be a good program for them. Miquon is ideal for children who are out of the box thinkers. It grows number literacy in incredible ways and allows for great success . . . but only if your children enjoy it to begin with.
How confident are you in math? Some of the best math students in the world come from Singapore, and Singapore Math is both easy to use and thorough. But it is taught based on combining numbers to make 10 (since adding 10+5 is easier than 7+8). If you aren’t already confident in math, this is probably not a good option for you. If that’s where you are, try something more traditional like Horizons, Teaching Textbooks, or Saxon.
Math Through High School
If you suspect you’ll be homeschooling through high school, and would prefer to use one program all the way through, you’re looking at either Math-U-See or Saxon. Teaching Textbooks is close—it begins in 3rd and goes through 12th; other programs teach through early elementary (Miquon) or middle school (Singapore—though you can find the NEM program elsewhere if you choose to carry on past 8th grade). Again, it is not a bad option to pick a new program, but if you know already that that sounds stressful, then choose between Math-U-See and Saxon.
What do you think about manipulatives? Manipulatives are the rods or blocks or other tools that your children physically move around in order to solve problems. This is the dominant mode of thinking for children until around age seven, though it can be helpful on occasion in the older grades (think of how much easier fractions are to understand when you can visualize a pie). Ruth Beechick in The Three R’s recommends parents use a program with manipulatives, in the younger grades especially. Math-U-See, RightStart Math, and Miquon rely on manipulatives. With Horizons they are optional. Singapore doesn’t use manipulatives at all, though you can add them.
Color and Layout
Do your children enjoy bright, colorful worksheets? Horizons has color worksheets. Singapore has cheerful color illustrations in their teaching books, and black and white worksheets. Most other programs are entirely black and white, which is excellent for children who may be overstimulated with lots of color.
Would you feel more comfortable doing something scripted, where your words are written out for you? Horizons and Saxon are both good options for you. Or, if you are confident enough to teach with lesson plans, Miquon and Singapore can work for you.
Research the Programs
After thinking about who your children are, then it’s time to start researching the programs that you are still considering. Read about them. Look at samples of the specific products you are thinking about (available on the product pages under Samples). And then go with your intuition.
If two programs sound equally good, often it’s helpful to talk it all through. And if one doesn't seem to be better than the other, then choose one and try it.
Of course, if you like social proof, go with Math-U-See. This program is more popular than all the others combined.
And keep in mind, especially if your children are young, that the math program you choose needs to be something you are happy to teach. If you like the program, you’ll be comfortable working with your children to help them succeed. But if you don’t particularly like it, you’re going to find it much easier to skip a day. As you probably know, over time, that contributes to a feeling of failure.
Make a Choice
Choose the program that looks best to you, and if you need to sometimes find a YouTube video to explain a concept, or sometimes allow your children to skip ten lessons because you know they know the content, you can do that.
When you have clarity enough, have your children take a placement test. Math-U-See, Horizons, and Saxon all offer these. Ideally, you’ll offer these to your children before ordering so you know what level to buy. Also, taking the tests can help you get a feel for a program so you know whether the style seems to suit you.
When it’s time to buy, will you be confident in your math purchase? Perhaps not entirely. But you’re going for clarity enough, not complete confidence. Pray for wisdom, and then act. You can do it.
2. How Do You Know When to Change Math Curriculum?
A good rule of thumb is, “If what you’re using isn’t broken, don’t change.” It’s kind of like buying a camera or a new phone—don’t bother to upgrade unless you can state clearly what an improved camera or phone will do for you.
I know it can be intimidating when you talk to a friend who gushes about her program, and you think, “Well, our program worked really well for us this last year, but do I have the same emotional attachment to math that she does? No. Maybe I should switch.”
If your gut says you should switch, go for it. But otherwise, it might just be like when a friend raves about a movie and you watch it and think, “Hmm. We have different taste.” So with math. If it’s a matter of emotional attachment, maybe don’t use that as your deciding criteria.
That said, don't be afraid to change math programs if you pick one and it doesn't work out. Use what you know from teaching your student to help you pick a new program that will better meet the needs you have.
You can start the research process again if you know what specific problem you’re trying to solve:
- This program teaches fractions in a way I find horribly convoluted.
- I think my child is getting distracted by color illustrations.
- There is not enough practice.
- There is too little repetition of older facts.
It’s not a big deal to change. If you need to, just do it. No guilt. You’re doing the best you can for your children. You did that with the first program you chose. You’re doing it now.
3. How Do You Teach Math When You Don't Understand It?
The short answer is: you don’t need to know it all. You just need to know a little more than your student. If you need to go back to the beginning and start anew, do what it takes.
Having said that, if math is, and always has been, a struggle for you, and you haven’t been diagnosed with dyscalculia, you might look into that. A quick Internet perusal suggests that dyscalculia may be as common as dyslexia, but not as widely known. If your brain is not organized to manage numbers, it just isn’t. You should have no shame over that.
If you suspect you struggle with dyscalculia, or if you are generally stressed about teaching math, you have options.
- You can pick a program that offers instruction as part of the program, like Math-U-See or Teaching Textbooks.
- You can ask a spouse or grandparent for help.
- You can hire an outside tutoring service or a co-op.
Another Math Consideration
Not everyone believes that math in elementary school is helpful. Louis P. Bénézet conducted a fascinating experiment, published in 1935. As a superintendent of a school district, he took some of the elementary schools and instructed the teachers that the children should be taught to read, reason, and recite—with no concentrated math instruction!—until 7th grade. (Meaning, if a teacher needed to approximate a distance as she told a story, she would. But she did not have a time set aside for measuring. And the students didn’t go through math workbooks.)
These students, without studying math until seventh grade, ended up far better able to calculate and think mathematically than their more traditionally educated peers.
If you want to know more, you can find numerous articles online, or read his actual report here (PDF).
Next Steps for Choosing a Homeschool Math Curriculum
Assuming you still want to teach your children math this year, research your options and make a decision. We wish you all the best as you choose—or change—your homeschool math program.
This post was written with assistance from Sonlight Advisor Debbie Miller.