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Teaching Math for Homeschoolers

Isabel Shaw

One Step Ahead
How can you teach math to your children if you struggle with it yourself? Yes, there are those among us who truly love math — people who grasp math concepts quickly, remember the laws and formulas easily, and retain this information over the years. Unfortunately, I'm not one of them. And, judging from my contact with families around the country, most parents are in the same boat.

According to a recent U.S. News & World Report article on education reform, only 41 percent of this country's math teachers have math degrees. The remainder need to re-learn or brush up on the material as they teach it to their students. And that's exactly what most homeschooling parents do.

The good news is, help and guidance are available every step of the way. There are dozens of math programs on the market today, and many are targeted specifically for homeschoolers. There are also videotapes and computer software programs that teach math, as well as online math programs, games, and toys to help kids learn. Let's explore some of these options and discover what resources may work for you.

Popular Homeschool Math Programs
For parents interested in a comprehensive math program with a proven track record, the following resources are for you. While there are dozens of programs available, outlined below are the top seven that homeschoolers repeatedly recommend. All have different strengths, and your success with a particular program will depend on your child's learning style. Costs vary, depending on kids' skill levels and how many components of each program you purchase.

Saxon Math (www1.saxonpub.com)
This is the hands-down favorite for homeschoolers. Concepts are introduced slowly, with lots of repetition of what has already been learned. There are no teacher manuals because each lesson is clearly explained in the student text. Designed to be completed in 20 to 30 minutes per day, this program is an excellent core text for teaching essential math skills to kids, eight or nine and up.

The key to Saxon's success — monumental amounts of drill and repetition — is also what certain children dislike. My daughter found it dry and boring. Other children may thrive on zipping through the 30 practice or drill questions that follow each chapter. My suggestion is to use the Saxon text as a guide — a "scope and sequence" of what's to come. Supplement the program with more creative, real-life math problems, and pick and choose what you like from these very comprehensive texts.
Cost: Basic text and answer key are $75 for younger grades, $110 for advanced math.

Miquon Math (www.keypress.com/catalog/products/supplementals/Prod_Miquon.html)
For younger kids (grades 1-3), Miquon Math is a good choice. Inexpensive, colorful Miquon workbooks offer an alternative to boring math drills. Each page is laid out with extra white space so that the material does not appear overwhelming.

Miquon is designed to be used with Cuisenaire Rods (a collection of rectangular wood or plastic rods in various lengths and colors), but parents have used the books successfully without them. Miquon can also be used as a supplemental math program or as a review for students who have taken a break from traditional textbooks.
Cost: Workbooks are $6.50, teacher's guide is $6.50, Cuisenaire rods are $50.

Key to...series (www.keypress.com)
"Key to..." is an inexpensive series of math workbooks for grades 4-12. The workbooks (3 to 10 in each series) are a favorite with homeschoolers because math concepts are broken down and explained with clear, easy-to-understand instructions. Kids also feel a sense of accomplishment completing each rather short book.

The seven "Key To..." titles include Decimals, Fractions, Percents, Algebra, Geometry, Measurements, and Metric Measurement. Many parents use these books as an alternative to traditional math textbooks, or as a supplement to them.
Cost: Workbooks are $3.25 (3 to 10 in a series), answer books are $4.45 (each includes several workbooks' worth of answers).

Math-U-See (mathusee.com)
A relative newcomer to the homeschool math arena, Math-U-See is quickly becoming a best seller. Parents are almost fanatical in their praise for this program, which utilizes manipulative blocks, videotaped lessons, and teacher and student texts. Math-U-See's developer, Steve Demme, has developed a clever teaching method that helps kids see math in action via Lego-type blocks and fraction/decimal overlays. Parents watch Demme's videotaped lesson and help their kids demonstrate each new concept using the manipulatives. The concepts are further reinforced with the textbook and math drills on preprinted practice sheets. Older kids can do the tapes or DVDs on their own.

Although Math-U-See is an expensive program, parents report it is a "hot" item on the used curriculum market, and is very easy to resell. It's one of the best tools for teaching advanced math concepts (especially for math-challenged parents like me!) and for jump-starting reluctant or hands-on learners.
Cost: Basic program is $70 to $100 (depending on grade); manipulatives are $30 to $110.

A Beka Math (www.abeka.com)
A Beka is the program of choice for parents who want an easy-to-follow, grade-by-grade traditional math curriculum. This Christian-based educational supplier offers excellent math texts, as well as support items such as flash cards, charts, speed drills, manipulatives, etc.
Cost: Basic text and teacher guides are $45 to $70. Lots of supplemental materials are available.

Chalk Dust Video Math Courses (chalkdust.com)
Chalk Dust is another solution for homeschooling parents and kids working on advanced math concepts. Chalk Dust distinguishes itself from other math programs by featuring colorful textbooks, detailed solution guides, and technical support from video instructor Dana Mosely. Each course includes a complete set of videotapes or DVDs, and a manual with daily lessons and solutions.
Cost: Prices range from $335 (pre-algebra) to $409 (trigonometry and calculus).

Singapore Math (singaporemath.com)
Here is traditional math taught in a direct, easy-to-understand manner. Parents who have had limited success with other programs rave about Singapore. Younger kids enjoy the pictures and slightly "exotic" nature of this program. The right amount of repetition, uncluttered pages, and a concise teaching style have helped Singapore become the highly recommended program it is today.
Cost: Basic texts and workbooks are $30 to $55. Many supplemental items are available.

Harold Jacobs Math Texts
While not a math program per se, these texts are invaluable for older students needing a strong math background for college. Mathematics, A Human Endeavor: A Book for Those Who Think They Don't Like the Subject, Elementary Algebra, and Geometry, Second Edition are continually recommended by homeschoolers who rave about Jacobs' unusual teaching style (sometimes using comic strips!) and ability to clearly convey difficult concepts.
Cost: Texts are $45-$60, teacher's guides are $12.95 to $16.95.

Real-Life Learning
It's almost impossible to say, "This is how you teach math." In the school system, teachers are faced with the dilemma of teaching 25 or 30 kids each day. Out of necessity, every child is expected to grasp each concept at the same time, regardless of interest or ability. Homeschooling families have the luxury of designing a program that fits each child's individual learning style at an age when he or she is ready to absorb the information. For some kids, that age is 4 or 5, for others it's 12 or 13.

There are respected math educators who advise parents to avoid the "drill and kill" method of teaching math, while others say memorization is essential and repetition is the only way to accomplish that goal. Parents have discovered a way around this problem by limiting "pencil and paper" math and incorporating games and real-life learning opportunities.

My kids learned to count using dot-to-dot books; addition and subtraction using M & M's, raisins, and (dried) beans; advanced addition and subtraction by balancing Mom's checkbook; measurements and fractions by following recipes; money math by paying store clerks and making change each day; percents by finding great deals in the "20 percent off" toy bins; division by calculating how many miles to the gallon we get each time we gas up; geometry by building birdhouses, a fairy house, and a new roof for our shed; and personal finance by saving a portion of their allowance and making the most of what remained. We supplement these activities with Steve Slavin's All the Math You'll Ever Need for my older child and Math for Your 1st and 2nd Grader: All You Need to Know to Be Your Child's Best Teacher, also by Slavin, for my younger child.

Our goal as parents should be to help our kids learn math so they can function confidently in today's fast-paced world. This can be accomplished easily by combining practical day-to-day math with whatever teaching method works for you.

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