What to Look for when Choosing Curricula

It is usually about this time of year when the homeschooling catalogs start coming in the mail. I gather them into a big pile and, like a kid in a candy shop, I pore over the pages.  I love browsing homeschooling curricula. There is so much promise and potential in new school books.

But I have learned that beyond glossy pages and full-color pictures,  there are certain things that make for effective curricula. There are good books, and then there are great books. Here are ten criteria to think about when shopping for next year’s school books:

1. Do the books present ideas that adhere to the teachings of our Catholic faith? Generally, if you stick to  books offered by the major Catholic homeschooling curriculum providers (ie. Seton,  Mother of Divine Grace, Catholic Heritage, etc.) you can feel confident that you will not run into any content that is contrary to the faith. However, sometimes we may want to use other books for variety, enrichment, etc. Watch out for secular history books that often portray the Church in an unfair, biased light. Science books can also be problematic, particularly in the areas of evolution or human reproduction. It is important to preview such books carefully and to be ready to discuss any questionable material with our children since we don’t want to mislead them or cause confusion or even scandal.

2. Do the books contain clear explanations that are easy to understand? This is so important if you want your kids to study a subject independently.  Our kids, especially the younger ones, have a vocabulary that is much more limited than ours. If you find that your child is not comprehending the material well, you may need to find a simpler text. Look for books that highlight new vocabulary and/or give definitions within the text as well as in a glossary.

3. Do the books provide adequate practice that enables confidence and mastery? This is especially important in subjects such as math, spelling, writing, grammar, and Latin. Practice leads to proficiency.

4. Are the concepts presented in a sequential/organized  manner where one concept/idea builds upon another?  A great example of this is the Handwriting Without Tears printing books. Instead of learning to write letters alphabetically,  students learn to write the letter “c” and then all the letters that begin with the counter-clockwise “c” motion, such as o, a, d, and g. Sequential presentation of material is especially important for subjects that are skill-based, such as math and phonics/spelling. Content-based subjects, such as social-studies and science, do not necessarily need to be so sequential, but I still personally prefer when the material is organized.

5. Do the books provide  reviews that help students retain concepts/information? I’ve seen grammar books that teach the concept of indirect objects and then never have students practice identifying them again until the next grade! (Incidentally, the Handwriting Without Tears series do not provide enough practice or review.) Continuous review  and cumulative reviews are powerful learning tools. They build memorization skills and deepen understanding. If a book does not provide adequate review, you may want to incorporate the review yourself, using flashcards, oral quizzes, or visual aids such as timelines.

6. During the grammar stage (Gr. 1-4), does the curriculum offer activities that improve observation and memorization skills? During the analytic stage (gr. 5-8), are there questions that develop analytical thinking skills? In a classical education, observation and memorization are the key tools for learning during the grammar stage. We want our children to look for details and patterns in nature and art and to observe how things work. We also want our kids to memorize spelling rules, parts of the catechism, poetry, math facts, states and capitals, etc. Having our children narrate back what they have learned or read is  another way of enhancing their memory, since they must listen/read well, retain, and retell.  Furthermore, memorizing stories and facts is an excellent way of feeding and training the imagination.

During the analytic stage, we want our students to think more deeply about what they are learning. For example, diagramming sentences may seem like an old-school exercise, but it is an excellent way of teaching our kids to identify the function of each word in a sentence and how the words relate to each other. In history, students should not only learn what, where, and when significant events happened,  but they should also think about why and how they occurred. In literature, students should move from simple reading comprehension to  identifying literary techniques and character development. So look for books that ask questions which make students exercise their powers of analysis.

7. Are the books written in an engaging style that makes learning interesting?

  •        Science books should encourage a sense of curiosity, wonder, and awe.
  •        Literature should inspire nobility and virtue.
  •        History books should be lively and exciting, while imparting an objective                    truths about the role of the church in the development of civilization.
  •        Religion books should, above all, inspire a deep love for God, while                                supplying solid catechesis and teaching bible history. They should invite                      students to think how they can live out their faith.

8. Does the curriculum cater to your student’s learning style: ie. visual aids, hands-on activities? There is such a wealth of curricula that it really is possible to tailor your child’s curriculum according to his/her learning style. If you know your child is a visual learner, look for books with plenty of diagrams and pictures.  Several math programs offer manipulatives for the hands-on learners. And there are audio books galore for those who like to learn by listening instead of reading. Some programs, such as All About Spelling, cater to several different learning styles.

9. Is the answer key easy to use?  This is a biggie for me. With stacks of work to grade between teaching, I always appreciate an answer key that is easy to use and read. Some answer keys are actually not well-organized and require a lot of flipping through pages. Others are tiny in font, making them hard to read. On the other hand, math and science books that have complete solutions are a tremendous help for independent learners and can stave off a lot of frustration. An answer key will not make or break a curriculum, but it can certainly can be a help or a hindrance.

10. Is the curriculum realistic for your student’s maturity/ability and is it  realistic for you? One of the things I like best about homeschooling is the flexibility we have to tailor the curriculum to the needs, ability, and interests of our children. Even with a packaged curriculum, parents can make adjustments. As you choose/design curricula, keep in mind your child’s maturity and attention span. Be reasonable about what you expect your children to be able to do. Just as important, be realistic about what you can do, given your time, energy, and other responsibilities. (See this post about setting realistic expectations.)

One hard lesson I learned early in my homeschooling years is that there is no way we can delve as deeply into every subject as I’d like. Trying to cram in too many subjects/activities ends up being stressful and frustrating for everyone. It’s like trying to eat everything at an all-you-can-eat buffet — you only end up feeling gross. How many of us bite off more than we can chew?  It is far better to teach fewer subjects really well and with sufficient time.

Also, don’t fall into the trap of comparing your curriculum to that of your friends. Some moms have the time and energy to be very creative and artistic. Others need simple, straight-forward lesson plans. Some families use rigorous, academically challenging curricula; others prefer gentler, slower-paced courses of study. Some families love to go on plenty of field trips and join co-ops and other classes; others do the bulk of their schooling at home.  Never mind  if other kids are mummifying chickens and putting on Shakespearean plays while your kids are plugging away at workbooks. You know the needs and limitations of your family best. So rather than comparing your curriculum to others’, think about what your goals are and how you can best achieve them without causing unnecessary pressure.

No matter how brilliant the curriculum is, if mom (or dad) is worn out and stressed, the lessons will not go smoothly. Our patience and enthusiasm are far more important than the books we use.

Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to guide us as we plan next year’s curriculum. May He fill our minds with His grace and wisdom!

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