After the decision to homeschool itself, choosing curriculum materials can be the next daunting step in homeschooling. There are so many options! So many methods! It can be tough even knowing where to start. You probably already choose some of the materials used in your child’s education. Supplemental workbooks, flashcards, tutoring, or music lessons are all a part of how your child learns. You may find that you do not need to add much to get off to a great start.
The first step is to relax. An oft-repeated adage in homeschooling is, “there are no educational emergencies.” There is time to figure out what comes next and time to make adjustments if you find things are not working as well as you would like.
In fact, determining what curriculum suits your child and family is an art and can require some trial and error before you get it right. As with many things in life, it is possible to spend very little on homeschooling or to spend an enormous amount. The quality of your child’s education, though, is not determined by how many dollars you spend. Families homeschool their children on every imaginable budget, and it is possible to have a high-quality education while spending very little.
Some of the best advice for newcomers is to start with just a few items and see how well they work for you; do not invest a lot of money until you are sure a particular approach will work for your child.
The next step is to think in general terms about what is likely to suit your situation. At a very high level, here are some options that can help guide your choices.
Distance learning options allow you to enroll your child in specific courses or a full curriculum and are taught by the course provider. Some of these options are similar to an old-fashioned correspondence course or school and some feature computer-based instruction. With distance learning, the instruction, assignments, tests, and grades are done by the course provider. Some programs provide report cards, transcripts, or accredited diplomas upon completion. It may be easier to transfer credit for these programs if you expect your child will return to school in the future.
Distance learning is popular with families who want to spend little or no time planning their own courses and with those who find accredited diplomas to be of value. It lacks some of the flexibility that typically comes with homeschooling and it is not usually possible to customize much of the coursework. Distance learning options can also be expensive. One popular program provider charges nearly $2000 for grades 5-8. High school courses are $875 each from the same provider, while another provider charges $279-$475 per high school credit, depending on the options you choose.
Pre-packaged curriculum materials allow you to buy a course or an entire school year’s materials at a time, like having your child’s school year delivered in a box. The 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. Pre-packaged curricula usually come with a suggested schedule to follow so your child can complete the work in a typical semester or school year. Parents determine assignments and handle grading.
Pre-packaged curricula can provide a familiar echo of the schoolroom structure that most of us remember; others can find the structure and schedule too confining and rigid. Some pre-packaged curricula are sold by grade level, making it difficult to meet the needs of a child who is on varying grade levels in different subjects, such as a 5th grade math level and a 4th grade reading level. Costs vary widely; one popular 3-year math program costs $60; others cost more than $100 for a single year. An entire year’s “school in a box” from one provider is $500; another provider charges $1,050.
Design Your Own
Parents can also design their own curriculum, picking and choosing 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 use a pre-packaged math or science curriculum but design your own for other subjects. Choosing your own curriculum can let you blend the interests of your child with your family’s educational goals. Just as there are a wide variety of online discussion lists for homeschooling itself, there are online discussion groups that focus on teaching math, history, language arts, and other subjects. Book reviews abound and most homeschooling families are happy to share information or to let you look at their materials.
Your Child’s Learning Style
Now it’s time to take a look at your child’s learning style. Some children learn best when they learn a few small facts at a time, slowly learning more and figuring out how to put the pieces together—a part-to-whole sort of style. Other children learn best when they first have an overview of how things work and fit together, then they fill in the details with the smaller facts—a whole-to-part sort of style.
The traditional school approach tends to favor the part-to-whole learner. It is an incremental approach that builds over time. Phonics instruction tends to work well as a beginning reading strategy for this type of learner, and traditional math instruction can work well.
A whole-to-part learner, on the other hand, needs to see the larger picture and understand how new knowledge fits into what he or she already knows. Learning sight words tends to work well as a beginning reading strategy for these children, with phonics coming in a bit later as a strategy to conquer new words. This child may learn the times tables as he or she practices multi-digit multiplication and long division, because the times tables don’t really seem to “stick” until they come into play when solving larger problems. A whole-to-part learner often struggles in school because they see the world in a slightly different way. Look for materials that provide a good overview first, and don’t hesitate to introduce a new topic just because the previous one hasn’t been mastered—that new topic may help keep your child’s interest level high and it may be the piece that helps cement their earlier knowledge.
Children also have different strengths for learning from visual, auditory, and kinesthetic means. Children with visual learning strengths do best when they see what they’re working on; pictures, diagrams, and illustrations are very important when appealing to these strengths.
Children with auditory strengths do best when they hear what they are learning. It is worth remembering that listening to a book being read aloud definitely taps into an auditory strength, but reading silently to oneself still uses auditory pathways.
Children with kinesthetic strengths need to get a sense of movement and touch into their learning. Having things they can handle and manipulate while listening can actually help them concentrate and retain information. Try tracing letters with a finger in the sandbox to work on handwriting and letter recognition; practicing spelling words while walking a balance beam or chalk line drawn on the driveway; or working on projects like small Lego creations, weaving, or knitting while listening. One mom found her sons retained much more of their history lessons if she read to them while they played in the sand box or rode their scooters in a circle around her. One kinesthetic teen learned about Shakespeare by acting out plays using models he had created.
There are many sources for curriculum materials. It can help to see the materials in person and to talk to someone who has used them. Ask your homeschool acquaintances and investigate homeschool conferences and resource fairs in your area. Many communities have teacher resource stores that stock a variety of curricula; some communities even have stores that focus specifically on homeschooling and many carry both new and used materials. You can order almost anything online, with product reviews to assist you in choosing. Many companies cater to homeschoolers and their catalogs may be useful to you.
Another excellent resource is membership in a local museum, zoo, science center, or living history site. With a one-year membership, your family can return again and again to soak up all the resource has to offer. Repeated short visits help keep enthusiasm alive and can increase learning retention for younger children. Next year, you can choose a different membership and make that one the center of your learning theme for the year.
Do not forget the resource of your local public library. It can be a great place to find books, audiobooks, videos, and other resources. Do not hesitate to let your librarians know you’re homeschooling. Many libraries are happy to help patrons find library resources to support their goals, and they can assist you with inter-library loan if your own library does not have what you’re looking for. Some libraries will even extend the check-out period for books teachers use in teaching.
Remember, don’t spend a lot of money when you are starting out. The curriculum that looked so good on the shelf may not be as wonderful when you begin using it. Begin with one or two resources and try them out—as you get a sense of what works well for your child, you can add a few more with greater confidence. If a curriculum is not working, do not hesitate to try something else—especially if it is making you or your child miserable. The chance to present something a different way or at a later time is one of homeschooling’s greatest benefits.
The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers is a volunteer-run, non-profit organization dedicated solely to homeschooling issues. Created in 1993, VaHomeschoolers is a state-wide, inclusive organization that provides information on homeschooling and protects and promotes homeschooling freedoms at the state and local level.
We provide a comprehensive website on homeschooling in Virginia, answer questions through our toll-free homeschool help line and email homeschool help desk, publish the bi-monthly journal Voice, as well as several electronic bulletins, and offer conferences and seminars on homeschooling throughout the year. We represent homeschooling interests in the state legislature and across the state, and help parents and school divisions resolve homeschooling issues.
Our organization has no political or religious affiliations; we focus exclusively on issues related to homeschooling. Our website does cover the specific legal aspects of homeschooling in Virginia but it is also filled with information and resources on homeschooling that apply universally. It is a great place to gather further details and support on all the topics discussed in this series.
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Leslie Nathaniel has been a member of VaHomeschoolers since she began homeschooling and is now a member of the Board of Directors. Her children began learning at home as soon as they were born, but they became official homeschoolers when her eldest reached kindergarten age in 2002. Prior to children, Leslie worked in information technology consulting. She is a homeschooling mother of two. As a volunteer for VaHomeschoolers, she answers telephone and email requests for information; writes articles for the VaHomeschoolers Voice homeschool journal; speaks at conferences and seminars on a variety of topics; and organizes homeschooling seminars around the state of Virginia.
Celeste Land is a member of the Board of Directors for VaHomeschoolers and the director of our Government Affairs department. Her two children began homeschooling in 1996, and are continuing to learn at home right through the teen years. Her daughter has recently graduated from homeschooling high school and will be attending college full time this fall. Celeste has lobbied on behalf of homeschooling interests here in Virginia and Washington, DC, for 10 years. Her articles on homeschooling have been published in the VaHomeschoolers Voice and the VaHomeschoolers website, as well as several homeschooling magazines in the USA and Canada. She also has been a speaker at many homeschool seminars and conferences.
The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers is a non-profit public charity with 501(c)(3) status; your donation is tax-deductible to the extent provided by law. A financial statement is available from the Virginia Division of Consumer Affairs upon request.