Homeschooling Curricula: Try, Ditch, Repeat

So, I’ve been wanting to document our progression through various homeschooling curricula, thinking it might be useful to someone out there.  The biggest thing I’ve learned about homeschooling, by far, is that it is such a process of trial and error.  If there’s any family out there who began with a certain method or program or curriculum and stuck with it year after year, then I’d say they’re either extremely fortunate to have hit pay dirt right out of the gate, or they’re foolishly inflexible.

When I began homeschooling Lilah two years ago, everything was really a shot in the dark for me.  All I had to go on as far as choosing curricula for her was the recommendations of people I knew who had homeschooled, and the charter school we were enrolled with at that time – which charter school was also a choice I made purely on recommendation.  Recommendations, I have figured out, though, are only a jumping off point.  Just because a program works well for some kids or some families, and just because that program may get a lot of 5-star reviews from people who review such things, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a good fit for every kid and every family.

Towards the end of my first year of homeschooling, I bought Cathy Duffy’s 102 Top Picks for Homeschooling Curriculum.  Cathy Duffy is known as a homeschooling guru, and her specialty is writing comprehensive reviews of homeschooling curricula.  Although she clearly has a bias in favor of Christian homeschooling and curricula, she does at least make note in her reviews of whether a program is Christian, Christian-friendly, or secular.  When I read her book of Top Picks, I rejoiced in having it all laid out for me.  It helped me figure out my own educational philosophy and goals, what kind of learners my girls are, and curricula that would (in theory, anyway) fit all of that.  I went into the next school year, when I added the twins to the mix, excited and fully prepared to have a smooth and productive school year, having painstakingly chosen curricula that would (supposedly) be a perfect fit for us.

It was only a matter of a couple of months, however, before most of the programs and materials I had so carefully purchased on Cathy Duffy’s recommendations, were ditched in frustration.  Everyone was miserable and frustrated and not really making much academic progress, so I did something a little drastic and put most of the stuff away and decided to take a little bit of an unschooling approach.  Everyone was happier, but it created stress in a different way because now I was asking myself, “Am I an unschooler now?  What does that mean?  Am I unschooling the right way?”  Also, by the end of the year, the girls had really made very little progress in math, and that worried me (because, as I’ve said, I tend to operate on an “If I died tomorrow and Michael had to put them back in public school …” basis).  So I felt like this school year, we needed to find some kind of balance where we (and by “we,” I mean “I”) would not be applying labels to ourselves or trying to live up to those labels, we would be more structured in our approach with the simple goal of growing and making progress, but the girls would still be active participants in deciding on a weekly routine and in taking responsibility for their own learning.

So far, almost two months in, the school year is going well.  It’s more hectic than ever now that I’m also homeschooling Finn and Scarlett, but I feel like we’ve settled into a routine that works for us and have found some programs that we’re happy with.

So, without further ado, here’s a rundown of what we’ve used, and how these programs have worked for us:


Singapore Math: This math program was the first I used, or tried to use, with Lilah, on the recommendation of a friend.  It’s a very highly rated math curriculum, based on how math is taught in Singapore, a country that apparently scores really high in math in global standardized testing.  It’s definitely a “rigorous” curriculum.  We ran into problems right away with it, though, because Lilah was already struggling with math (in part because of being dyslexic, which I didn’t know at the time).  Also, it was frustrating for me because it wasn’t the way I learned math, so it was very difficult for me to understand a lot of the lessons, let alone to teach them to Lilah.  For purposes of homeschooling, I think this could be a really good program for a kid who is already strong in math, and it could be a good choice for a young child who is just learning math (in other words, who hasn’t already learned math a different way).  However, it’s not such a great choice, despite its ratings, for a kid who struggles with math, because the rigor and intensity can be overwhelming and lead to feelings of defeat.  I also think, overall, that it’s a difficult program to adopt after a child has already been learning math according to a different method or program.  In the end, this was not a good fit for us.

Math-U-See: This math program utilizes manipulatives and visuals to make math more concrete and multi-sensory, and the lessons are all on DVDs that are purchased with the different levels of the program.  I actually liked this program for the most part.  I loved that the lessons are taught by a teacher by way of video.  My girls didn’t like it, however, because the video lessons can be rather long, and the program is very worksheet-based.  So: boring.  It ended up being one more thing for them to drag their feet about, and I don’t see the value of remaining committed to a program that’s causing more frustration than payoff.  Also, although Math-U-See is a secular math curriculum, it comes from a Christian-based company, and there are occasional Christian references thrown into the lessons.  Not a huge deal, but irritating to anyone not interested in faith-based education.

Life of Fred:  This math program is very different from most other math programs out there in that it’s story-based.  There are no formal lessons; instead, each lesson is incorporated into an ongoing story about a five-year-old math genius named Fred, the premise being that kids learn math better and easier by seeing how it applies to real-life situations.  At the end of each chapter is a list of word problems for the student to solve, using what has been explained in the story.  The story is entertaining, and my girls were very excited about it at first because it was such a complete switching of gears.  After awhile, though, the novelty wore off, especially for Lilah, for whom the “lessons” were just too abstract, being sort of hidden within a story.  Even for Daisy and Annabelle, who generally do pretty well in math (although neither is very fond of it), it grew confusing after a time, because it was often hard to connect the word problems to the story.  Like Singapore Math, I think this program may work better if it’s used from the outset of learning math, and like Math-U-See, there are Christian references sprinkled here and there.  We stuck with Life of Fred for the remainder of the school year last year, but at the end of the school year I didn’t feel that any of the girls had made very much progress in math at all, and that worried me.

CTC Math: This is what we are using now, and I love it!  So do the girls!  There are no textbooks or materials to buy; it’s simply a subscription to video lessons online.  There are no worksheets, either.  Each lesson is short and sweet, which I think is absolutely essential in order to hold the student’s attention and foster success.  When lessons are too long, kids get bored and distracted, and less is absorbed and retained.  In the video lessons, there is no teacher standing in front of a whiteboard (like in Math-U-See); it’s a cool dude with an Aussie accent talking, but all you see is computer graphics demonstrating what he’s talking about.  Each lesson is on average about ten minutes long, and then there is a set of questions to answer/problems to solve.  Paper and pencil may be used, but the final answer is entered online and feedback is given immediately for each answer.  Parents set the “passing” percentage, which allows the student to move on to the next lesson/level, and each lesson builds on concepts taught and mastered in previous lessons.  If the passing percentage is not met, the student can rewatch the lesson as many times as necessary, and try more problems, until the concept is mastered.  It seems to cut out a lot of the fluff, so lessons go pretty quickly.   It’s not unusual for my girls to complete four or five lessons each day, and that takes less than an hour.  Daisy and Annabelle did not have a good handle, I felt, on sixth-grade math at the beginning of the year, but with this program, they’ve both mastered sixth-grade math already and are now doing pre-algebra.  It takes a tremendous amount of pressure off of me, because I’m not teaching them math, the program is, which is a relief, because math has never been my strong suit.  They’re learning it on their own and working at whatever pace they want to.  So far, they’re all pretty motivated – I haven’t had to hassle any of them at all to do math.  I know this could all change, of course, but right now I will say that this is the best math program we’ve found.

Touch Math: I’m using the pre-k level with Scarlett right now, very informally (I’ve also tried it with Finn, but it hasn’t gone so well, mainly because it’s so difficult to convince him to sit at a table and do any sort of work with me.)  For now, it’s a good program for Scarlett to get her comfortable with number recognition, counting, one-to-one correspondence, and simple addition and subtraction, but I doubt we’ll stick with it for the long term.  I’d like to get her started on the kindergarten level of CTC Math next year.


Imagine my surprise when I Googled “Best Homeschooling Science Programs” and discovered that it is actually necessary to specify “Best Secular Homeschooling Science Programs.”  I’m not kidding.  If you don’t specify secular, the default search results for homeschooling science programs are Christian-based and Christian-informed.

Elemental Science:  This is an award-winning science curriculum that has levels from preschool through high school.  It’s very much in line with a classical or literature-based education philosophy.  You purchase the core textbooks, and then there are a plethora of third-party books that must be purchased (through Amazon or other sources).  We used Biology for the Grammar Stage for a while last year but ended up not liking it much.  My girls were bored with it, and I was disappointed because it didn’t really go into much depth on the topics; each week we seemed to just skim the surface of things.  That said, I think this is a really good program, and the problems we had with it were probably simply because I chose a level that was too young for them.  I can’t say what kind of engagement and challenge the more advanced levels provide because we didn’t use any (although I did purchase Earth Science and Astronomy for the Logic Stage, but never used it; we may give it a try next year).

R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey:  We are using Biology 2 this year and loving it!  I am so impressed with this program.  It is very comprehensive, very engaging, and very hands-on.  Every week there is a reading portion, a practical lab, a microscope lab, capped off with “Show What You Know,” which can be administered like a quiz if that floats your boat, but I like to sit down with the girls and just verbally go over the questions and discuss what we learned over the week.  There are a good amount of materials that have to be purchased to do all the labs (including, among other things, a good microscope, and preserved frogs; we have three dead frogs sitting in a box waiting to be dissected).  The Student Workbook, which serves as a textbook and has all the lab report forms, etc., is HUGE, and a lot of material is covered, but it’s not dry or boring at all.  We are all really enjoying it, and learning a lot.  The only criticism I have, if you can call it a criticism, is that Biology 2, the level we are doing this year, is as high as this program goes.  They don’t offer anything beyond middle school-level science, and I wish they did.


Growing With Grammar; Soaring With Spelling; Winning With Writing:  I used these with Lilah the first year I homeschooled her.  It’s an okay program.  Nothing super impressive about it; it’s your basic grammar/spelling/writing curriculum.  A little dry, and less than engaging, so, in the long run, I don’t know that it really utilizes anything special that makes it all meaningful for the student.

Essentials in Writing: I used this with all three girls for a while last year.  It utilizes video lessons and workbooks.  None of us cared for it.  The guy who teaches the video lessons isn’t that great, the lessons are sprinkled with biblical references, and in the end, it’s just another program that teaches diagramming sentences (and really, what is the point of this?), etc.  Didn’t care for it.

Spelling You See: Produced by the same folks who offer Math-U-See, this spelling curriculum has an interesting method of teaching spelling.  Each week the student reads an entry that is a couple of paragraphs long.  Within the entry are a number of words that are highlighted in different colors, and those are the spelling words for the week.  The same entry is read on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and the spelling words copied by the student and the segments of each spelling word color coded in highlighter according to certain spelling rules, and on Friday, the student writes the spelling words from dictation.  It’s an interesting concept, but it was sort of like slow torture.  The twins were completely bored with it, and Lilah struggled.  She could copy the words perfectly day after day, but when it came to writing them from dictation, it all fell apart.  I really am grateful to this program, actually, for being the catalyst that brought me to the realization that Lilah’s struggles were attributed to something which turned out to be dyslexia/dysgraphia.  In the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that having kids memorize spelling words, testing them on those words, and then moving on to a new list of spelling words, is not really a very good way to teach spelling, so we ditched this program a couple of months into the school year.  We actually don’t use a spelling program anymore (except Lilah, with whom I’m using a program that addresses dyslexia; more about that below).  I think the best way for kids to learn how to spell once they’ve got the fundamentals down is just by writing and reading.

Writing Strands: This is what we’re using now, and the jury is still out on this one.  The philosophy behind this one is that kids learn to write well by learning how to follow instructions and by actual writing, rather than by learning to diagram sentences, recognize parts of speech and sentence types, etc.  That’s what appealed to me about this program: the hands-on learn by doing part, but the girls and I are finding it to be a little slow going and boring.  I’m not sure we’ll stick with it.

I’ve heard great things about Brave Writer, but now is not a great time for us to take on a whole different program since we’re undertaking a big move in a few weeks that will necessitate putting school on temporary hiatus.  I may give Brave Writer a try once we’re settled in our new digs, or I may look for a creative writing class that the girls can take with other homeschoolers.

So, writing is actually the one subject that I haven’t yet found a good fit for.  I think I’m a pretty decent writer, but teaching how to write well is a challenge, and I feel like writing well is so important in life, but it’s also hard to come by.  So, the search goes on.


Barton Reading: Barton is pretty much the gold standard in dyslexia circles.  It’s an Orton-Gillingham based program, which I will not even try to explain (but you can read about it here), but it’s really an excellent approach to teaching reading and spelling not only to dyslexic students, but really to anyone, because it breaks words down into their parts and gives students to tools to understand why words are built the way they are, and how letters interact with each other to form different sounds.  I used Barton with Lilah for several months and found it to be very effective.  However, it’s also very expensive and very time-intensive, as each lesson requires the teacher/parent to watch instructional videos that teach how to teach each lesson.  A few months back, we switched to:

All About Reading/All About Spelling: While this program, unlike Barton, was not developed, nor is it marketed, specifically with dyslexia in mind, it is an Orton-Gillingham based program, so it is an excellent program to use with dyslexic students.  I like it much better than Barton because it’s far less expensive, it incorporates more fun activities so it’s less dry, and it’s a scripted, ready to teach out of the box program, requiring no special instruction for the teacher/parent.  Unlike Barton, too, AAR/AAS teaches reading and spelling separately, which I like.  As I said, I think the Orton-Gillingham approach is a superior way to teach any child reading and spelling, so I’m also using the preschool level with Scarlett now, and she loves it.


We haven’t used a formal program until this year.  The first year I had Lilah at home, we studied California history using California History For Kids, which is an excellent book full of information and activities.

Last year, the girls and I read together A Young People’s History of the United States, also excellent (I highly recommend this book).  It was geat reading that led to a lot of deep discussions of both historical and modern social issues, and throughout the year we detoured into further reading elsewhere on certain topics (like the Mayflower and the first Thanksgiving), as well as watching documentaries.  I felt like we covered a lot of good ground in U.S. History.

Trail Guide to U.S. Geography: This is what we are using this year, and I am pretty impressed with it.  We are spending the year touring the United States by region, beginning with New England and working our way south and west, covering two states each week.  The program is pretty comprehensive and multi-level; I love that all three girls are covering the same material each week, but at different levels (the twins are more advanced and so their assignments are written for middle school level, while Lilah’s is elementary school level).  For each state, the girls do mapping as well as research on various characteristics of the state and notable people from that state (so there is a bit of history incorporated as well).  The girls have learned to use a desk atlas and to read maps, which is cool.  To make it even more fun, we try to cook a dish or two each week from the states we learned about that week.  Next year we’ll move on to Trail Guide to World Geography.


Handwriting Without Tears: This is an excellent program that teaches printing and cursive writing.  The three older girls are using it for cursive for the second year running (they all learned basic cursive when they were still in school, but I appreciate the practice they get with this), and Scarlett is learning to print with this program.

Touch, Type, Read and Spell: This is a program that teaches touch typing, and it’s also supposed to improve spelling as the student learns proper keyboarding.  My girls use this program totally independently, and I can see the value with regard to keyboarding.  The twins are already pretty good spellers, and Lilah’s spelling difficulties are being addressed in another way, so I’m not sure if this program is useful to us in that particular way.

Tinker Crate: This is just a subscription that provides a new science/engineering project once a month.  My girls love it!

Raddish Kids:  This is another subscription I signed up for, and this one is about food and cooking.  Once a month a box is delivered to us that contains themed recipes (for instance, our August box was inspired by the Rio Olympics and had recipes for Brazillian dishes), a shopping list, a culinary lesson, and dinner table activities.  We look forward to receiving our box every month!


So, there you have it.  I feel like we are having a pretty great year of learning and growth this year, but it’s a lot, and it’s all on me.  While I am happy with the materials and programs we are using, I really am hoping that once we settle in Oregon, where there is apparently a much stronger secular homeschooling network, I can find a co-op to involve ourselves in or classes the kids can take with other homeschooled kids.  Finding a strong homeschooling network is the final frontier for us.




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One Response to Homeschooling Curricula: Try, Ditch, Repeat

  1. Susan September 28, 2016 at 8:31 pm #

    Thanks for your reviews and recommendations. I have been homeschooling for the last eight years. I am familiar with some of your suggestions, but not all. This gives me new avenues to try, thank you. I home school my nephew who has Dyslexia and find it very challenging. I look forward to investigating the curriculum you shared. 🙂

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