Practical and comprehensive guide to choosing a homeschool math program, including reviews, recommendations, how to deal with common roadblocks, and more.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of choosing a curriculum, there’s something really important to know: THERE IS NO PERFECT CURRICULUM.
I’m not usually a caps-lock kind of person. But this is so important that I’m even going to do it again: THERE IS NO PERFECT CURRICULUM.
Okay, I promise: no more caps-lock.
But truly, no one book will ever meet the needs of your child perfectly. A math curriculum is a tool for teaching, but you are the teacher. No matter what curriculum you choose, you will always need to adjust it to meet your child’s needs.
Sometimes you may need to slow down and stick with a skill for a while. Other times, your child may grasp a concept so quickly you don’t even have time to get the manipulatives out. You are the teacher, and you know your child’s needs better than a far-off curriculum writer. (And I say this as one of those far-off curriculum writers–I know the math inside and out, but I can’t predict how every individual child will do with every lesson I write.)
The same goes for my curriculum recommendations. In this article, my goal is to share everything I’ve learned over the years to help you choose a homeschool math program that fits your family well. I’ve answered literally hundreds (maybe thousands!) of parent curriculum questions over the years, so my aim here is to answer all the questions I know are swirling in your head.
Warning: This article is loooong. But I know how much blood, sweat, and tears homeschool moms put into their math curriculum decisions, so I wanted to make it both comprehensive and practical. I’ve organized it into 5 steps to make it easier to follow:
- Identify what you’re looking for in a program.
- Pick a couple programs to look at more closely.
- Print samples, and check your gut.
- Avoid the Overcomplication Danger Zone.
- Click Buy, and teach the heck out of your math program.
Two important things before we start:
First, I’m much more knowledgeable about elementary programs than middle school or high school curricula. If you’re looking for advice for older students, most of these general principles still apply, but you’ll find fewer specific program examples and reviews. I try not to give advice unless I know what I’m talking about. (Although my children might beg to differ.)
Second, you have to promise in advance that you will take all my suggestions with a humongous grain of salt. Because despite all my training, experience, and expertise, I don’t know your kid. You do. And that makes you an expert, too.
Let’s do this!
Step 1: Identify what you’re looking for in a program.
(Or, How to Sound Like a Math Curriculum Expert at the Co-op Lunch Table)
Have you ever gone online meaning to make a simple purchase and then found yourself still clicking around half an hour later, overwhelmed by the options? If it can happen with something as basic as a drain cover, you better believe it can happen with math curriculum, too!
Choosing a math curriculum will go much more smoothly (and feel much less overwhelming) if you narrow down your choices before you start looking around online. In this section, I’ll guide you through the process of identifying the most important attributes you’re looking for in a math program. I’ll also explain a few of the jargon-y terms that get tossed around regarding math programs to help you make sense of the reviews and descriptions you read online. Some of these may be new to you, especially if you’re just starting out homeschooling.
Most homeschool math programs cover roughly the same topics, but their pace and depth vary widely. What’s considered a second-grade skill in one program might be considered a third-grade skill in another book–and a first- grade skill in yet another! Some cover just the basics of written computations and simple word problems, while others dive deeply into concepts and require kids to think hard about complex problems.
Choosing a program with a difficulty level appropriate for your child is the most important step you can take to help your child develop a positive attitude toward math (and avoid the dreaded math tears). If you have a child who loves wrestling with challenging problems, she may be bored and sulky if she finds her assignments too easy. And if your child struggles with math, you’ll both be frustrated if you choose a book that’s too hard.
Conceptual versus Procedural
Conceptual curricula focus on teaching why math works the way it does, like why we need to find common denominators to add fractions, or why you “borrow the 1” when subtracting. They start with the big picture, then use those big ideas to work out the details.
For example, a child in a conceptual program who’s learning how to add 2-digit numbers might first learn about regrouping with hands-on manipulatives, then translate the work with blocks to written addition problems, and finally generalize this idea to larger numbers and to subtraction.
Big-picture thinkers who love to know why often thrive with conceptual programs. They’re often a good choice for kids with dyslexia, too, since conceptual programs help these kids build on their strong visual processing skills and holistic thinking ability.
Procedural curricula focus more on teaching children how to do math–the procedures that get the right answer. They’re usually very direct and to-the-point about explaining exactly how to find that common denominator or borrow the 1. They sometimes use manipulatives for demonstration purposes, but they usually focus more on pencil-and-paper techniques.
For example, a child in a procedural program who’s learning how to add 2-digit numbers would likely be shown how to “carry the 1,” with more emphasis on the specific steps and details. The program might briefly demonstrate regrouping with manipulatives, but it wouldn’t be the main emphasis.
Children who are concrete, to-the-point thinkers often do best with procedural programs. These kids benefit from working with lots of specific examples before trying to generalize about the more abstract principles at work. Often, kids who struggle with math do better with a procedural program. But, that doesn’t mean that procedural programs are necessarily easier or a less rigorous choice.
My favorite programs tend to be on the more-conceptual side: they explain why the math works but also give kids lots of practice with how to do the math. But, conceptual programs aren’t necessarily the best fit for every child. If you have a child who just likes to be told what to do, a procedural program may be a better choice.
Mastery versus Spiral
Mastery curricula focus on one topic at a time. Traditional textbooks are often set up this way: there’s a chapter on addition, then a chapter on geometry, then a chapter on fractions, and so on. Children who like to get to the bottom of things and feel like they fully understand them often do best with a mastery-oriented program.
(Note that this term can be a little confusing, since all math programs aim for kids to achieve mastery with math. In this context, the term mastery describes the way the lessons are organized, not the ultimate goal.)
One of the biggest issues parents run into with mastery programs is feeling like their children forget too much from chapter to chapter. The easiest ways to make a mastery program “more spiral” is to take the cumulative review sections and have your child do a few problems every day. Voila! Instant spiral review!
Spiral curricula teach math in smaller chunks and rotate more frequently through topics so that children more frequently revisit topics. Children who like novelty often prefer spiral programs, and many children benefit from the continual review. Some spiral programs focus on a topic for few lessons in a row before jumping, while others jump from one topic to another with every lesson.
In my opinion, the way the material is presented is generally more important than whether a program is mastery or spiral. (See Step 3 for more on this.) If you find a program that clicks with your child’s learning style, don’t stress too much about whether it’s spiral or mastery.
There’s no point buying the perfect math curriculum if it means you can’t buy groceries! Good math instruction is worth the investment, but some curricula are pricey or have hefty start-up costs. Fortunately, there are also more moderately-priced programs out there, so don’t feel like you have to spend a fortune to teach your child math.
Step 2: Pick a couple programs to look at more closely.
(You don’t have to thoroughly investigate every program.)
Now that you know what factors to consider, it’s time to pick a couple of programs to look at more closely. I’ve written in-depth reviews of my favorite programs to help you narrow down your options and figure out which ones deserve a closer look.
- Math with Confidence. My hands-on, parent-friendly, fun math curriculum. Kindergarten available now, First Grade available soon, with more grade levels to follow.
- RightStart Math. A fabulous conceptual, spiral program with lots of hands-on manipulatives, but also the biggest investment of time and money.
- Beast Academy. Unconventional and challenging program for curious kids, with a graphic-novel-style textbook and lots of problem-solving.
- Singapore Math (Primary Mathematics series). Solid conceptual mastery with plenty of practice and problem-solving, all wrapped up in a familiar textbook/workbook format.
- Dimensions Math. Singapore’s newest program, with more detailed teaching directions, more activity options, and a full-color workbook for all grades.
- Math Mammoth. Budget-friendly curriculum that develops thorough conceptual understanding and number sense with a minimum of hands-on teaching time.
- Math-U-See. Straight-forward, incremental, mastery-based program. An excellent choice for children who struggle with math or math anxiety.
(All of the above programs are secular.)
I’m frequently asked about the following programs, so here are my super-short mini-reviews. I’ve read through these and looked at them fairly closely, but I haven’t used any of these programs myself (with the exception of Rod and Staff).
- The Good and the Beautiful. TGTB is a procedural program with spiral review. It’s beautifully produced, with a simple box of manipulatives. However, the actual math instruction is an inch deep and a mile wide. The program covers many, many topics, but doesn’t spend enough time focusing on helping kids master the essential foundations, especially math facts and number sense. (For example, the program spends a measly FOUR lessons on learning the multiplication facts in third grade and then simply tells parents to keep practicing.) Produced by a team of writers from a variety of Christian backgrounds, at a company owned by a member of the LDS church.
- Saxon. Some second-generation homeschoolers consider Saxon the gold standard in spiral, procedural math textbooks. Others consider it the reason they hate math. You can read more in this Facebook post, along with many thoughtful comments (both pro and con) from parents who’ve used it. Secular.
- Rod and Staff. My favorite traditional, procedural program. I’ve often used it with tutoring students who struggle with math. It does a great job of teaching each new topic one small increment at a time, with plenty of review and practice. Produced by a team of Mennonite teachers.
- Math Lessons for a Living Education. The least rigorous program on this list by far. It has some very appealing features: story format, real-life contexts, short lessons, spiral review, and a low price. However, it is seriously lacking in its quality of instruction, mathematical precision, and support for parents. I consider this a “last resort” program. If your child absolutely hates math and you just need something that will make math happen on a daily basis without a fight, it’s worth a try. Produced by an evangelical Protestant company.
If none of these sound appealing, check out this dizzying comparison chart from Rainbow Resource for even more curricula to consider.
Step 3: Print samples, and check your gut.
(Just because it checks all the boxes doesn’t mean it’s the right program for you and your child.)
Hopefully you now have a couple contenders. Hooray! You’re almost ready to make a decision. Go to the websites of your favorite programs, find some samples and print them out. It’s time to give these a close look. (Yes, print them. You need to see how it will feel to have the printed book in front of you. Trust me, it’s worth wasting the paper.)
It’s time to switch from using the logical side of your brain to using the emotional and imaginative side of your brain to decide whether you really want to use this program. I know it might sound a little woo-woo to you left-brained thinkers like me, but it’s an essential part of the process.
- Look over the table of contents, introduction, and any teacher helps or notes. Does the book give you clear instructions and guidance? Does it make you feel supported in your teaching? Is the layout clear and easy to use? How much time (and money) will you need to spend gathering supplies and getting organized to teach?
- Pick a full lesson (preferably in the middle of the book) and read through it carefully. Pay attention to how you feel as you read it. Excited? Anxious? Full of dread? Hopeful? Sometimes, a program might check all your boxes but still just not feel right. That’s worth paying attention to. If you’re not excited to teach out of this book, your child likely won’t be excited to learn out of it, either.
- Pretend you have to teach this lesson tomorrow. Imagine gathering the supplies, sitting down with your child, and teaching the lesson. How much time do you think it would take? Do you have that much time in your schedule? If not, where will you find it? It can be easy to think that everything will be better next year, but that’s not usually the case. If you can’t imagine finding time to teach this lesson during your next regular school day, this may not be the program for you.
- Imagine your child working on this lesson. Does the overall lesson progression feel like it aligns with the way your child thinks about things? Will he enjoy the activities and find them interesting and fun? Will she balk at the amount of the written work? Do you think she’ll like the workbook layout or find it confusing?
It’s easy to get sucked in by a curriculum because it has a beautiful layout, or because your friend recommended it, or because Kate Snow gave it such a good review. But you are the one who is going to have to teach it, so it’s wise to take a moment to sit back and consider how you feel before you click that Buy button.
Step 4: Avoid the Overcomplication Danger Zone.
(No, you probably don’t need two math programs.)
At this point, you’re close to a final decision. This is a very perilous stage of the curriculum buying process: the Overcomplication Danger Zone.
When you’re in the Overcomplication Danger Zone, you start having crazy ideas. Like, “I think my kid would love the graphic novel textbook in Beast Academy. But, he’s a really kinesthetic learner, so the blocks in Math-U-See would be good, too. How about I just do both?”
NO! Back away slowly from your online shopping cart and take a deep breath. You probably barely have time to teach one full math curriculum well. How on earth will you find time for two? When parents try to combine programs, they usually spend so much time trying to align the programs and coordinate between the two books that they spend all their time planning, and not nearly enough time teaching.
Buying supplemental materials is another symptom of the Overcomplication Danger Zone: “I think my child will do best with a procedural program like Rod and Staff, but he’d like math games, too, so I’ll also get the RightStart Card Game set and Multiplication Facts That Stick.” Now, I have to admit I’m a big fan of both, but this approach is still a little risky. The time spent to coordinate your supplements with your main curriculum is still likely to distract you from actually teaching.
To avoid this, make sure you pinpoint what need you’re trying to fill before you buy any supplemental materials. If in doubt, wait until it’s clear that your child actually needs that supplement. You might even find that your main program actually covers it! I’m all for you buying my super-fun and easy-to-use math facts books, but Amazon will still sell you them in October. The same goes for all the other math supplements out there.
Step 5: Click Buy, and teach the heck out of your math program.
(Plus, how to avoid the 3 roadblocks)
Ready to click Buy? Awesome! You’ve done your homework, you’ve considered your options both rationally and emotionally, and you know what you want. So go for it!
Not ready to click Buy? That’s pretty normal, too. There are three common roadblocks parents often encounter at this point in the process. Here’s my advice on how to clear them out so you can move forward:
Roadblock #1: Is it really okay to switch programs?
Yes, it really is. And it’s such a common concern that I’ve written a whole article about it. The short answer is that you won’t mess up your kids for life if they miss a couple things by switching math programs in fourth grade. Just make sure to have your child take the placement test for the new program so that you start him or her at the appropriate level.
Roadblock #2: Wait, what will I use next year?
Life is unpredictable. We never know what the next year will bring, or how our educational plans will shift. Don’t worry about coming up with a perfect plan for your child’s entire education from preschool through twelfth grade. Just pick what you think will work best now, and let next year sort itself out once you get to it.
Roadblock #3: What if it’s not perfect?
Sorry to bust out the caps-lock again, but THERE IS NO PERFECT CURRICULUM. Just like there are no perfect parents, and no perfect children. You might make a mistake in buying math curriculum, but that’s okay. Next year, learn from it and try again. All you can do is use the information you have right now to make the most well-informed decision possible.
After that, keep showing up day after day, ready to teach your child math. Because having a committed, responsive, and caring teacher is far more important to your child’s success in math than the curriculum you buy.
Wishing you all the best in your teaching. Happy Math!
Updated April 2021. Some of the links in this post may be affiliate links. If you buy an item through an affiliate link, I may receive a commission, at no additional cost to you.
Please note that comments are closed on this post, as I simply don’t have time these days to give individualized advice on curriculum selection. (If I did, I might never finish the Math with Confidence series!)