Sunday, November 23, 2014

Kindergarten Curriculum Choices: Math Edition

In a previous post, I droned on and on about our search for a science curriculum. Today, it's time to discuss math.

There are so many options for homeschool math curricula that I cannot possibly describe all of them—not even all of the most popular ones. I will, however, talk briefly about the main ones we considered before I tell you what we chose. First I’ll talk about the mastery curricula (those in which the goal is for the student to master a concept before moving on to the next concept); then I’ll talk about the spiral or incremental ones (those in which information is presented in very tiny pieces, with new topics introduced and reinforced or elaborated upon slowly over time, so that topics are mastered gradually and concurrently with each other).


  • Kindergarten through Calculus
  • Primer (K) level would be $91; subsequent levels should be less expensive because the manipulatives set would not have to be purchased again—however, the cost of the curriculum itself goes up in subsequent levels, so the price only drops by around $20.
  • Uses manipulatives, DVDs, and songs to teach concepts and aid in math fact memorization
  • The scope and sequences is nonstandard, so standardized testing scores do not always reflect students’ learning—the student may not have been exposed to all “grade-appropriate” material but may have mastered “advanced” material that is not yet being tested.

I watched a series of videos that illustrate the way in which mathematical concepts are taught using this program, and I admit to having a light bulb moment or two as the videos showed me new ways of thinking about and understanding math (a subject in which I’ve never felt particularly confident). This program’s unique way of explaining concepts drew me to it, as did several reviews that said that less than confident teachers were able to use this program to learn along with their children and become much better at math than they’d ever been before. However, Jeff and I both had concerns about reviewers’ almost universal assertion that this curriculum is not as rigorous as other math curricula.

  • Currently, grades K-12 are offered, though it was announced recently that this company is discontinuing the courses above 8th grade.
  • It is difficult to determine the exact pricing of this program, as each level requires 2 textbooks, 2 workbooks, and 2 instructor’s guides, and there are a myriad of supplemental materials (advanced word problem workbooks, review workbooks, etc) that some users find critical and others find unnecessary. The consensus among members of homeschool forums tends to be that this is one of the most, if not the most, expensive math curricula available.
  • Complicating matters further, there seem to be two kindergarten math programs offered by Singapore: Essential Math and Earlybird Math. I’m not totally clear on all the differences or why we should choose one over the other, other than that Essential is less expensive than Earlybird because it does not require a separate teacher’s manual.
  • Based on the national curriculum of Singapore, this curriculum emphasizes mental math and application of mathematical concepts, using a highly sequential, logical progression.
  • Singapore Math seems to be widely viewed as the most advanced math curriculum available.

I was drawn to this program because of the glowing reviews it received. From all accounts, students who use this program understand math concepts well, know their math facts cold, and can apply any number of mathematical principles to solve problems that are quite dissimilar to the ones they’ve seen before. Students who are gifted in math can be challenged with a quicker pace or with advanced workbooks. Students who are less gifted in math still learn … unless they get too frustrated with the advanced pace, or unless their parent-teacher is unable to decipher the instructor manual’s often inadequate information on how to teach the concept under study. That last one was a sticking point for me. As a parent-teacher who does not feel confident in my own mathematical ability, I prefer a curriculum that will teach me how to teach the concepts; I’m prepared for Jeff to take over Alexa’s math instruction at some point if necessary, but I’d rather it not be before high school. I worry that Singapore Math, with its alternative methods and focus on conceptual understanding, may be a bit on the advanced side for me, the teacher.

  • Complete curriculum for grades 1-6; the company also offers supplemental workbooks for grades 1-12.
  • $36/year for CD or download of the complete curriculum, or $70 for 3 grades. The digital version also comes with the ability to make as many unique worksheets as needed for review. A printed version also is available for a bit more money.
  • Worktext system—all the instruction is provided in the workbook, with no separate teacher’s manual required.
  • More advanced than many math curricula, though not as advanced as Singapore
  • Singapore-style instruction, using multiple methods with a progression from concrete to conceptual understanding within each lesson.
  • Focus on mental math and on word problems that require multiple mathematical processes—deliberate, systematic review is built in to the word problems.

Several reviews described Math Mammoth as a significantly less expensive, slightly less advanced version of Singapore Math. Multiple reviews also indicated that this curriculum worked well for their advanced, average, and struggling students—several reviewers claimed to have one of each in their family and said that all did well with this curriculum.  Most reviewers claimed that although students could do this program independently, it was better if the parent-teacher goes through the lesson with the student. Jeff initially had some concerns with the use of multiple methods of instruction (which historically do not have good results in the United States), though those concerns were mitigated somewhat after he read this article.


  • Complete curriculum for students in grades K-12
  • One of the most popular homeschool math curricula, it receives high reviews and also is used in many public schools—which could make for an easier transition if we ever decide to put Alexa in a traditional school
  • Relatively traditional math program
  • It describes itself as “incremental,” and some users are very adamant that it is incremental, NOT spiral. I’m not quite sure what the difference is, but since it seems to be important to them, I mention it in the interests of fairness.

Saxon is either loved or hated; it never is viewed with ambivalence. It’s been a staple in the homeschooling community for an incredibly long time—many who were taught using Saxon now are teaching their own children. Reviews of the program from parent-teachers are stellar: their students memorize math facts, demonstrate outstanding performance on standardized tests, and can do math independently beginning sometime around 4th grade. However, reviews from former students are much more mixed—while some enjoyed it, many describe a program that they dreaded every day and that killed any love they may have had for math. Tellingly, many also report encountering problems once they entered college: they had learned to apply their algorithms to a series of similar word problems, but they had not learned how to determine which algorithm was needed to solve unique problems or problems that required the use of multiple algorithms. In short, they reported that they had learned to use algorithms, but not to apply mathematical concepts to real world situations. On the other hand, some reported that they were prepared just fine for college math, they understood the concepts well, and they went on to thrive in STEM careers.

  • Complete K-8 curriculum that uses manipulatives, memorization, and drill
  • Developed for homeschoolers—it does not assume a traditional classroom environment
  • Reportedly an advanced curriculum, though the spiral format causes students to feel like it is not as difficult as similarly advanced mastery programs would be—they learn things in small enough chunks that they don’t realize how much they’re learning.

This math program also is popular among many homeschoolers. Overall, it receives positive reviews, though I don’t recall seeing many that specifically mentioned how good the program is for conceptual understanding or for memorization of math facts. There were several reviews that indicated that children enjoy this program for its variety—each lesson introduces something new, provides practice with that new concept, and then also provides practice with a lot of different types of problems encountered in the past—though an equal number indicated that children felt lost because there were so many different topics encountered in each lesson that students were never quite certain what they were supposed to be learning. Many reviewers also say that the program is good for grades K through 3, but that the 4th grade level suddenly begins moving more quickly through the concepts, and their students begin to struggle.

  • Complete K-12 curriculum
  • Available for free online, or a printed version can be purchased for Year 1 and up.
  • This British curriculum is funded by charitable and educational organizations in an attempt to improve mathematics instruction. Because it is British, some modification would be necessary for use with American students (money, for example).
  • The program emphasizes logic and critical thinking skills—students are not told how to solve new problems, but are guided in figuring it out for themselves.
  • Designed for classroom use, so significant modification is needed for homeschool use.

I first heard of this program while reading in a discussion group related to the science curriculum we’ve chosen—someone asked if there was a particular math program that worked well with Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding, and the resounding answer was that any math program could be used, but that MEP is the natural complement. It seems to be a spiral curriculum that otherwise is very similar to Singapore: a systematic and logical curriculum that is heavy on mathematical reasoning and application and that encourages students to use a variety of methods to solve problems. Unfortunately, though, it also can be difficult for teacher-parents: it requires significant modification for homeschool use and is highly teacher-intensive, which could be a problem for me given my discomfort with math and the amount of preparation required by our science curriculum.


After discussing all the options with Jeff, we agreed that we would try a mastery curriculum first. I prefer to learn—and therefore also to teach—using a mastery orientation, and if Alexa learns well in my preferred teaching style, that will make things easier for all of us.

However, we also believe in contingency planning, so we agreed that if it turns out that Alexa needs a more spiral curriculum, we’ll switch to one. Neither of us were interested in Saxon, with its mixed reviews. Horizons seems fine, but did not excite us. MEP is a better fit. It emphasizes the things we want to emphasize and would give Alexa the best chance at developing a real understanding and appreciation for math. Therefore, if at some point we realize that Alexa needs a spiral math program, we will try MEP, though it is not our first choice.

That left the three mastery curricula under consideration. Although I loved the presentation of Math-U-See, and it would provide the most assistance to me as the teacher, we quickly eliminated it. We simply aren’t interested in a program that often is described as “not rigorous.”

We were down to two very similar curricula. From that point, the choice was easy, at least for next year: Math Mammoth does not offer a kindergarten level, and Singapore does. We’ll be using Singapore Math for kindergarten—most likely Essentials rather than Earlybird, because it is less expensive and I have not heard of any other major differences between them. We have delayed the decision on first grade and beyond, contingent on how well Alexa does in kindergarten. If she loves doing math and does well at it, we may continue with Singapore under the assumption that we shouldn’t try to fix what isn’t broken. If she does well enough but we get the impression that the more advanced Singapore Math may be too much for her, we will try the slightly less advanced Math Mammoth. We may err on the side of trying Singapore rather than Math Mammoth if there is doubt, because it would be easier to switch from the more advanced to the less advanced option rather than the other way around, but we won’t make any final decisions until toward the end of her kindergarten year.

Now we have all the fundamental subjects covered: phonics, handwriting, math, and science. It’s time to move on to the fun stuff: history, literature, religion, art, music, and physical education. Stay tuned, as I’ll eventually write about those as well.


  1. I love Singapore :) And the Kindergarten program is a lot of fun! You're right -- it does get harder pretty fast, but not till 2nd grade. 1st grade is still fairly straightforward. But I also supplement, because I don't think the basic program has enough practice. I've used the Intensive Practice books from Singapore itself, and Miquon books too, and this year I purchased some "Key To" booklets. But then, I'm a math person, so I like to get lots of drill in :)

    1. Ha! I'm not a math person, which is why I think I'll include more drill than the standard--I want Alexa not to have the same shortcomings I have. I want to make sure she knows her math facts really well. I know mine, but I'm never quite confident that I got it right until I check it. I don't want her to have that doubt.

      Would you mind telling me which Kindergarten program you used--Essential or Earlybird? I'm hoping to get a look at both at a convention this summer, but if I'm not able to do that, I'll be relying completely on the internet and other people's experiences when I make the final decision as to which to buy.

    2. Sure! We used the Earlybird, simply because that's what Sonlight offered. I had actually never heard of Essential until now. I do know we use the U.S. Version of Singapore books. The Kindergarten books are really fun -- in color, and pretty simple. Then in the elementary years only the text has color, and the workbook is black and white. Not as much fun, but gets the job done :)

      When the time comes, I also highly recommend Cuisenaire Rods (not too expensive). Also helpful is the 100 cm track for putting the rods on -- sold separately -- I think I got mine from Timberdoodle. Got sort of bent traveling to Asia in a suitcase, but well worth the effort.

      Also very helpful for understanding Base 10 are the Base 10 Blocks (I think I also got those from Sonlight). I am a manipulatives maniac! And the Skip Counting Songs (One Hundred Sheep? or something like that) are amazing for helping with multiplication facts. They even helped me understand multiplication better.

      Funny that we both want extra drill, but for different reasons. Good luck on all your educational adventures this year :)

  2. Hi there!
    I am researching math curricula and have no idea where to start. I bought Singapore Essentials A&B but now I'm just finding out about Math in Focus and Math Mammoth. It's overwhelming.
    I would love to know- Did you end up sticking with Singapore?

    1. So, I mentioned in a comment above that I was going to check out the curricula in person at a convention before I made a final decision, right? Well ... we looked at the Singapore K options, and because I was just too curious to resist, we also looked at the Math-U-See booth. I was impressed by the MUS K program. We decided to use that for K, then switch to Singapore for first grade. We used MUS, and it was great for K. Plenty of practice, explanations that made sense to her and to me, and all around a good introduction to place value, addition, subtraction, telling time ... We did intend to switch to Singapore for first, but we realized last spring that although homeschooling was working out beautifully academically, it wasn't working out socially. The homeschooling community here is very small, and the schoolkids weren't ever available for playdates. Alexa finally hit the point where she wanted friends and social outlets, and try as I might, I simply couldn't find them. So we sent her to school for first grade--I tell people that we sent her to school for recess, as it was the only subject I couldn't teach at home!


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