Elementary math is incredibly important. It’s the time to build a foundation on which all other math (and a lot of science) will be built. It’s also the last time math will be fun for many students (sad face).
Today’s math isn’t like it was for you and me. When I was in high school, I took Algebra, Geometry and Algebra 2, then I graduated the heck out of there. My high schooler will take Geometry, Algebra 2, and something else I can’t wrap my head around, just to graduate. Her eighth grade, pre-algebra text contains stuff I ether didn’t learn until college or have never seen. Our kids need to know more math, at a younger age, than we ever did.
Because of this, early math, and a solid grasp of elementary math facts, is vital to their success. The first four years are all about adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing; manipulating numbers in the real world. Memorization and drill have gotten a bad rap in recent years, but there’s nothing like having to count fifteen eights to solve your algebra problem to kill the joy of math in a middle school student.
Kids need to memorize their math facts.
They also should play with manipulatives and real-world objects, develop relationship with the material and understand why it works. But they have to memorize their facts.
We began our homeschool using Saxon math, a name that’s been around for ages and is trusted by public, private and homeschool alike.
Saxon worked well for us until my oldest was in fifth grade. At that point I was teaching fifth, third and second grades, with two toddlers. Three hours of math every day was getting hard to be a lot of work, and my oldest was getting frustrated with the quick progression. We spent a year bouncing from program to program (something I would not recommend) before settling on Khan Academy for two years. She is now in a classical charter for eighth grade and back to Saxon (Lord help us).
My next two, in sixth and fifth grades this year, also did two years of Khan Academy before switching to Christian Light for math this year. My first grader is using Singapore.
What has all this taught me? Well, first, pick a math program and stick with it. Unless it’s really not working, it’s better to slug through than to bounce around. Math programs are often different in scope and sequence, but they all build on themselves. Each move you make there is more of a chance you’re going to miss something. That said, I think our move from Saxon was a good one, given the sheer amount of time it was taking to teach it.
Which was my favorite? Well, they each had their pros and cons. Here are my reviews:
Saxon is rigorous, detailed, and has enough practice problems to satisfy the most math-hungry second grader you’ve ever met. It’s a shallow spiral, meaning new information is presented each day, with lots and lots of practice in following lessons. It’s also very teacher-intense. This doesn’t mean it’s hard to teach; lessons are laid out well and a teacher script is included. Any parent willing to devote an hour per day to it will be successful, but if you hate math or don’t have the time to give it, you may want to choose another program. A student who follows the Saxon curriculum through middle school will get an excellent, solid math education. On the other hand, I’ve had more tears with Saxon than any other program, probably because it’s the most rigorous. (*Note: Saxon was acquired by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in recent years and there are rumors it has changed, and not for the better. My experience is with the older Saxon books, which are wonderful.)
MEP is a free, printable math program out of Great Britain. It was the first program we tried after Saxon, partly because of the cost and partly because it was getting really great reviews in homeschool circles. It’s a different way of teaching math, with lots of real-world application and problems that make you think. I liked it, and the pace was more comfortable for my oldest, but it didn’t solve the time issue – I was still teaching three hours of math every day. In the last few years, the hoopla has died down and I haven’t heard much about it. Still, worth looking into, especially if your budget is tight.
Math Mammoth. I really wanted Math Mammoth to work for us. It’s a printable program (you purchase a download) and is student-led, rather than teacher-led. You can choose from grade-level workbooks or skill-based workbooks, and the kids work through them at their own pace, learning from the text. They are affordable, and if you buy the download you can print multiple copies, meaning more than one kid can use it. Unfortunately, it only took a few weeks for us to know this wouldn’t work for us. My kids immediately missed the ‘lesson’ portion of math and struggled with learning from the text. Also, Math Mammoth is definitely Common Core math. The first week, my then-third-grader was performing addition problems six different ways and getting very frustrated about it. (I’m not anti-Common Core, just giving a heads up.)
We briefly considered Math U See. This is a homeschool standby, and many people swear by it. It’s a mastery based program, meaning you’ll do nothing but addition until it’s mastered, before moving on to nothing but subtraction until you master that, and so on. I personally felt it wasn’t comprehensive enough and I disliked the mastery focus. The issue I see is that unless you are absolutely sure you’ll be using it all the way through, you’re sure to move into a new curriculum with gaps. Since we knew that public school was a possibility as my kids got older, I didn’t want to risk them moving into middle school and not having encountered, for example, how to find the area of a circle, no matter how good at fractions they were.
Life of Fred is a completely different type of math program. Using the story of Fred, a five-year old college professor, the books present mathematical principles in the context of real-life problems. Fun and easy to read, each chapter has a few ‘try it yourself’ problems at the end, with answers on the next page. We have used these as a successful supplement, either when we’re waiting for the next curriculum to arrive, or when someone is getting burnt out on math, and the kids really enjoy them. I have heard they give a solid math education (at least for non-mathy kids), but my traditional self just doesn’t trust it as a stand-alone program. Make your own decision.
After flirting with MEP, Math Mammoth and Life of Fred, we settled on Khan Academy and stayed there for two years. Khan is really a brilliant program. Students start a course based on grade level. Mastery challenges are given to see how much the child already knows, and based on that information, new skills are introduced. Videos are available to explain each skill, and then practice problems are presented. Students move from level 0 to mastery, and mastered skills are presented randomly to make sure they haven’t forgotten what they’ve learned. Rather than getting letter grades, as the year progresses, students progress by percentage of mastery, hopefully reaching 100% by the end of the year. The programs are based on national math standards for each grade.
The pros: I love that the program consistently introduced new skills while reinforcing old ones. I love that students can work at their own pace, moving through the grade level as quickly as they feel able. I love that it’s a stand alone program, with no instruction from me (although they would frequently ask for help understanding things). I went from one hour per kid per day, to about 15 minutes per kid per day using Khan. Earning points and badges kept them interested in moving forward. Khan also has coding, science, art and history courses available. And it’s FREE.
The cons: There is no drill of facts in Khan, so you’ll need to supplement with either flash cards or speed drills (or both!). It’s also possible to ‘master’ a concept (answer enough correct in a row) to move on without really mastering it, either because of lucky guesses or random easy questions. They can also skip skills they find difficult, which can provide some much-needed relief when a child is struggling, but can also allow them to avoid challenges, rather than persevering through the tough stuff. It also appears that Khan’s standards are below the standards of other curriculum. This was my reason for switching this year. My son, who had completed 75% of the sixth grade program as well as 75% of the pre-algebra program by Christmas break, has found the sixth grade level of CLE (our current math) to have many skills he’s not yet encountered. My fifth grader, who completed Khan’s fourth grade program and was 40% finished with their fifth grade, has been moved back to CLE’s fourth grade level because of gaps. Some of this is because CLE has higher standards, and I still think Khan is a great program, but as I’m trying to give my kids the best math education I can, I decided the switch was in their best interest.
But I’m sad, because I really, really love Khan.
Christian Light Education was the first specifically Christian curriculum I’ve ever purchased (apart from religious ed.) and I was skeptical. But, having heard good things about it from even non-sectarian homeschoolers, I decided to give it a try. We’ve only been using it a short time, but I am very pleased with it. It is workbook based, with 12 books per year. The first book is a review of the previous year; the following books slowly build on skills previously learned in a systematic, incremental way with plenty of review. Speed drills are included. I spend about 20 minutes per day per kid explaining tricky skills and grading their work. It is certainly more challenging than Khan and I feel more confident they are getting the math they’ll need to succeed in high school. As to the religious content, it’s minimal. Each workbook includes a brief information page on a non-Christian country and story problems revolve around the people who live there. There is a missionary focus to the writing, but there isn’t much of it and it’s easily skipped if you object to that kind of thing. Personally, I like that they’re getting a bit of geography as a bonus.
I’m also using Singapore’s Primary Mathematics for my current first grader. After years of hearing how great it was, I had to try it. Singapore uses more of a mastery system than Saxon, spending several weeks on addition before moving to subtraction and measuring. Halfway through the year we have yet to encounter telling time or counting money, staples of Saxon’s first grade, but there have been logic and math puzzles that Saxon didn’t have. I would judge Singapore to be more of a depth, not breadth, curriculum, pushing kids into abstract, logic-stage math more quickly than is traditional, which can be an advantage given today’s math-heavy middle school years. On the other hand, there are fewer manipulatives, fewer concrete ways of touching, seeing and moving objects to develop relationships with the math. And no drill. I ended up using the Singapore workbooks with the Saxon teacher’s guide and Calculadders for drill for my first grader, and next year I’ll be back with Saxon, supplementing with logic puzzles.*
I almost forgot! We love Calculadders for drill practice. The tests are short (2-5 minutes) and designed to be done daily. Students repeat the same test until it is mastered before moving on to the next level. My kids love these and ask to do them if I forget!
Going forward, I plan to continue using CLE with my middle schoolers and Saxon with my elementary students, supplementing with Khan Academy and Life of Fred when they need a break or something different. At least until something better comes along. 🙂
*Wait! You said Saxon took too long to teach! Yes, I did. The difference is that going forward I’ll only have two kids in Saxon at a time, and I can handle that. Plus, my older kids will likely all start public high school, so my numbers will go down as the years go on.