How to Home-School: Traditional Methods

This is the first post of a six-part series on “Teaching Methods.”

When we think of traditional methods of home-schooling, we are generally talking about the textbooks and workbooks that we all grew up with.  There would be a textbook for each subject, maybe workbooks for reading comprehension or to work on specific math topics. And as home-schoolers, textbooks and workbooks can certainly be useful tools.  But just like anything else we use as home educators, we should evaluate these tools to determine whether they are best for our children.

What are some reasons we would choose to use these more traditional methods?

  • Using textbooks can give us the confidence that we are covering the important and/or essential topics that our children need to learn;
  • Using a curriculum publisher’s texts can save us time in lesson preparation (though I would like to note that this is not always the case);
  • Using textbooks for some subjects may free the home-schooling parent up to be more “creative” with other subjects;
  • Workbooks can be a very useful tool to supplement our curriculum and to focus on specific issues our children may be having with a subject.

I would like to share how I have used textbooks and workbooks with my children as well my “take” on when textbooks are useful tools, and when they are not.

When I started out home-schooling, much of what I did was trial-and-error.  You have to understand that I began home-schooling my children in 1990, long before home-schooling had reached the level of acceptance that it has now.  In addition, the tools available to home-schoolers then were a fraction of what they are now.  And most of what was available was textbooks (usually from Christian textbook publishers such as ABeka and Bob Jones University Press). 

The best resource at that time, in my opinion, was other home-schoolers, and the best piece of advice I received at that time was from a mom who had been home-schooling for a couple of years.  She told me: buy the textbooks but not the teacher’s manuals.  There is a good reason for this: teacher’s manuals are designed to be used by teachers managing a classroom full of children.  They are filled with a lot of busy work and extra “tips” that frankly, all the home-school moms I have ever known can generally come up with on their own.  There does come a time when the teacher’s manuals come in handy, or even become necessary, and that is when your children are getting into the later grade school years and you need the answer keys.  You really do not want to be having to solve 20 long-division problems on your own (and using a calculator does not tell you if your child solved each step in a problem correctly).

As I said, in the beginning my home-school journey involved much trial-and-error.  I tried using textbooks for every subject and found that to be a very unsatisfactory way to teach many subjects.  Over time, my home-schooling philosophy evolved, and as it did, so did my teaching methods.  For some time now I have been using (mostly) the same products.  And I actually use textbooks for only two subjects consistently, though I use workbooks at various times depending on what grade my child is in and what subjects they may need to be introduced to or have reinforced.

The two subjects I use textbooks for, and have consistently through my 20 years of home-schooling, are math and reading.  I am a very strong advocate for using a textbook approach to teaching math, and I also recommend choosing one textbook publisher to teach math, and sticking with it.  My reasoning for this is:

  1. Math is one of the few subjects, if not the only subject, that constantly and consistently builds on previously learned information;
  2. Sticking with one math program throughout your child’s home-school journey ensures that there will not be gaps or unnecessary review.

When deciding what math program to use I recommend talking to veteran home-schoolers to find out what they have had success with (and what they have used that they didn’t like).  I also recommend getting your hands on those textbooks and reviewing them to see how they present the information, and decide if you think that presentation fits with you and your child.  One of the best ways to get your hands on a variety of textbooks is to attend a curriculum fair.  And I strongly recommend you go to a curriculum fair with the intention of NOT buying any materials.  Why?  Because then you won’t feel pressured to make a purchase before you are really ready.  Peruse various math texts, take notes perhaps, and then go home and, in the comfort of your own home, evaluate those texts and how you feel about them.  Now, it is possible that you may pick up a book and know intuitively, and immediately, that you are holding in your hands the right textbook to teach your son or daughter math, and if you do, feel free to ignore my advice.  Then again, you may be able to get a better deal online for that product so unless the retailer is offering some discounts specifically for that curriculum fair, you may want to wait until you can get home and do some comparison shopping.

My choices for textbooks for Math and Reading:

For the entire twenty years of my home-school career I have used Bob Jones University Press textbooks for teaching my children math from kindergarten through sixth grade.  I believe it teaches math thoroughly and fairly painlessly.  I have also used various products to supplement this program (particularly drills for increasing speed in solving equations). 

Beginning in seventh grade, my children use Saxon Math textbooks.  I start them out in seventh grade with “Algebra ½.”  They follow through the program until they are using the “Advanced Math” text in tenth grade.  By the end of tenth grade they are ready for a College Algebra class that they take at the community college (as part of the dual-enrollment program) in eleventh grade.

I believe Saxon Math provides an excellent program for middle- and senior-high schoolers.  However, I will add that my daughter (who is 25; has a Master’s degree; and has been tutoring students in math for many years) prefers Bob Jones University Press algebra program.  She has used this with some of her students (including a class of three home-schooled eighth-grade boys she taught a few years ago).

I also use textbooks in the grade school years for Reading.  By that I do not mean teaching my children TO read.  I prefer other products for that which I will discuss at a later time.  Rather, I use Bob Jones University Press Reading Texts and “Worktexts” to teach comprehension and vocabulary (and other language arts skills) in the first through fifth grade.  Again, I do not buy the teacher’s manuals, and additionally I do not follow the grades strictly.  For instance, right now my second-grader (my youngest son) is using the third grade reading program.  I expect we will complete the third grade text sometime next year, at which time I will probably buy the fifth grade reading program to use for fourth and fifth grade.  From sixth grade on I no longer use textbooks for language arts. 

My opinion on using textbooks for other subjects:

I said that I would give my opinion on using textbooks for other subjects, and I will do that now (with some trepidation).  I am being somewhat facetious, but I know home-schoolers can get very “territorial” about the curriculum they use.  For instance, some reading this will no doubt be saying there is no reason to use textbooks ever, while others will disagree with my opinion that to use textbooks for subjects such as science and history is a waste of time and counter-productive.

I did start out using textbooks for science and history, mainly because I was following the “school at home” mentality which I discussed in my blog post “What is Home-Schooling?”  After a couple of years I came to the conclusion that: grade-school science textbooks are boring and trite; and history texts teach history out of context in a way that is not conducive to retaining information.

So what have I used to teach science and history?  Well, for many years my main resource for science was 4-H.  You can get free materials from your 4-H extension office and besides these materials being very thorough programs, your children can also earn awards and recognition from completing these projects.  My daughter was very active in 4-H and ultimately attended the state 4-H Congress in twelfth grade.  I also used unit studies for science and even designed my own unit studies (which I will discuss in my upcoming post on unit studies).

For history, I am a huge fan of the Greenleaf Press “Famous Men…” series.  I don’t remember exactly when I was first introduced to Greenleaf Press but it was “love at first sight.”  One of the things that immediately appealed to me was the idea of teaching history chronologically.  I am a very sequential thinker myself, so this concept was just logical to me.  In addition, I believe that teaching history chronologically, and using “living books” to supplement (as the Greenleaf program does) gives context to what your child is learning and helps them to retain the information.

I would like to talk more about some of the workbooks I have used over the years but that will have to wait for another post as this one is already quite long.  Meanwhile, I hope you will take the time to leave your comments on the use of traditional methods of home-schooling.  What has worked for you?  What hasn’t?

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