Choosing Curriculum and Resources

For those of us who got an education through the school systems, the thought of choosing or designing curriculum can seem overwhelming and intimidating because of the sheer number of options.  The amount of choice we had in influencing our educations was along the line of choosing one course from column A and two courses from column B.  The idea that we get to choose everything for a child’s education can be terrifying – or exhilarating.

It would be wonderful if a single article could provide you with a neat little customized list of exactly what you need for a successful home-based education with your children.

It won’t, because an article can’t get to know your family and what made you choose (or choose to investigate) home education. An article can’t balance your educational goals with your personal priorities for how your family lives, nor can it take into account the unique strengths and talents or personal challenges you may face. All of those things, and more, will affect what you choose for curriculum materials. This article presents some thoughts on how to choose curriculum– what to evaluate and consider so that you’re more likely to choose things that work well for your children and family.

Selecting the right materials is more an art than a science, though, and there is bound to be some trial and error as you go along.  The things your best friend uses may be a great fit for her family but not so great for yours or your son may fall in love with a subject you thought would bore him to tears– all of these surprises and more await you as you begin homeschooling.  It’s a rare family that doesn’t need to make adjustments as they get out of the starting gate, and every family needs to reevaluate as their children grow older.

It’s important to know that homeschoolers in Virginia do not have to follow the state’s Standards of Learning (SOL) nor take the SOL exams.  There is no set body of knowledge that is required at a specific age or grade level. Parents are free to choose what and how their children learn.  You do not need to file grades for your children and you do not need to have your curriculum choices approved. Virginia does not require homeschooling families to take or keep attendance records (but some other states do).  For people filing under the Virginia’s home instruction statute, your only requirements are to file the annual notice of intent to homeschool and the annual evidence of academic progress.  People filing under the Virginia’s approved tutor provision or the religious exemption do not have those requirements. For more information on Virginia’s home instruction requirements, go to Home Instruction.  If you’ll be homeschooling in another state, be sure to check that state’s legal requirements.

Getting Started

Some important things to remember as you get started on your homeschooling adventures:

  1. Relax.  Take a deep breath.  Next to deciding to homeschool, choosing curriculum materials can seem like the next daunting step.  It doesn’t have to be.
  1. Aim for progress without pressure.  There is time to figure out what comes next and time to make adjustments.  There is nothing that must be learned before lunch, this week, or even by the end of the school year.
  1. Start small (financially speaking).  Don’t invest a lot of money until you’re sure a particular approach will work for your child.  You don’t have to have everything decided or purchased before you start. Your local public library and the internet will likely be your best friends.
  1. Begin with just a few things until you know what works well in your particular situation.  You probably already choose materials that support your child’s education– lessons in music or dance, flash cards or supplemental workbooks, games, videos, and puzzles likely are already part of your child’s learning environment. You may not have to add much as you get started
  1. Be open to changing things as you go along.  Don’t hesitate to abandon something that isn’t working.  You might be reluctant to stop using something you’ve purchased, especially if it was expensive.  The money is already “wasted,” though, if the resource isn’t producing the result you want.  If someone is crying– whether it’s parent or child– it’s time to try something else.

Resource Types

Some families are comfortable with a traditional school approach, don’t want to plan or prepare their own courses (or don’t have time), and may prefer having their child’s instruction done by someone else.  A distance learning program may be an excellent choice for those families.

Some families prefer the structure of a suggested schedule and a pre-planned course of study, but look forward to teaching and learning with their children; pre-packaged curricula may be exactly what they’re looking for.

Other families enjoy charting their own paths and choosing resources to support them.  Designing your own curriculum allows the most flexibility and freedom in guiding your child’s education.

Let’s take a closer look at these different types of curriculum resources:

Distance Learning

Distance learning options are probably the most structured way to approach homeschooling.

  • Similar to old fashioned correspondence school
  • Enroll in specific course or full curriculum
  • Some offer computer-based instruction (“virtual school” option)
  • Instruction, assignments, & grading are done by course provider
  • Some provide report cards, transcripts, or accredited diplomas upon completion

It may be easier to transfer credits from these programs if you expect that your child will return to school in the future. For more information, see the portion of our website on Returning to School.

Distance learning is popular with families that

  • want to spend little or no time planning courses
  • desire an accredited diploma at the completion of homeschooling
  • have children who enjoy working independently

These programs lack some of the flexibility that typically comes with homeschooling and it is usually not possible to customize much of the coursework.  They can also be expensive.  One program provider charges nearly $2000 each for grades 5-8 and high school courses are $875 each; another provider charges $275-$475 per high school credit. Of course, cost is relative; families who have been using or considering private schools may see these programs as a bargain!

Calvert School, American School, K12, and Keystone High School are just a few popular distance learning providers.

Pre-packaged Curriculum Materials

Pre-packaged curriculum materials allow you to buy a single course or a whole school year’s materials at a time, like having your child’s school year delivered in a box. These types of materials:

  • May include detailed instructions on how to teach the content, even scripts for parents to read or videos for parents and children to watch
  • Usually come with a suggested schedule  and assignments so your child can complete the work in a typical semester or school year
  • Parents determine specific assignments and handle grading
  • Can provide a familiar echo of the schoolroom that most of us remember from our own childhoods
  • Some find the structure and schedule reassuring; others find it rigid and confining. Checking off the schedule brings a sense of accomplishment for some, but straying from the schedule may bring a sense of stress or guilt for others.
  • A grade-level package may not meet the needs of a child who is at different levels in different subjects, like a 5th grade reading level but a 4th grade math level.

Costs vary widely; one popular 3-year math program costs less than $60; others cost more than $100 for a single year.  An entire year’s “school in a box” from one provider costs $500; another provider charges $1,050.  Many curriculum resources are available free of charge on the internet.

Designing Your Own Curriculum

If you design your own curriculum, you can pick and choose from a wide variety of materials.  Your local public library and the internet abound with free resources, including study guides and curriculum outlines to use as starting points.  You might select a textbook to use as a spine but determine what supplementary materials and opportunities you want to use along with it.

You don’t have to do everything on your own, either.  “Designing your own” can mean that the right mix for your family at a particular time might include a course or two from a distance learning provider, a packaged math curriculum, and a focus on language arts and history that you created yourself.

For a unit study-style example, consider how a lemonade stand can be a terrific opportunity for learners of many ages to study:

  • Time: when should our stand open? Close?  How many hours is that?  How many minutes? What patterns of traffic will help support sales?
  • Math: how much do ingredients cost? What should we charge? How do we make change? When will we return a profit?
  • Language arts: creative sign-making, bilingual signs, spelling, grammar, reading recipes, vocabulary (what does “profit” mean, anyway?)
  • History: read about the history of lemonade stands (Google “History of Lemonade Stands” for a start—did you know the first mention of lemonade stands appeared in the NY Times in 1879?  Or that a charity project that began as a child’s lemonade stand in 2000 has raised $25 million for children’s cancer research?)
  • Science: how do we keep the lemonade cold? How does a refrigerator work? At what temperature does ice freeze?  How fast does ice melt in a cooler?  How about on a hot sidewalk?  Is lemonade acidic or basic?  How can we find out?  You can make a simple pH indicator by boiling some red cabbage.  What other household items are acidic or basic?
  • Geography: where did our lemons (or lemonade mix) come from?  How far did they travel to get to us?  What mode of transportation was used?  What about our other ingredients?  What other items come from the same place?


Frequently, the best learning takes place when newly acquired knowledge is used in real life, as when you get a chance to spend the carefully-counted profits from your lemonade stand.

You know what your child needs or wants to learn. You have an idea what types of resources will best meet your needs in different areas. Some ideas for structuring your days and some thoughts about keeping costs low will pave the way for you to find the right resources for your needs:

Structuring Your Days

Keeping Costs Low


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