Selecting Curricular Materials
As we noted in our introduction to curriculum and standards, home educators take a variety of different approaches to curriculum. While some home educators buy a complete curriculum for their child’s grade from a single provider, others create their own curriculum using a variety of different materials, or take a mix-and-match approach, selecting different curricula for different subjects, or for different children.
Choosing curricular materials for your homeschool can be intimidating, particularly because there are so many options available. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, that’s okay! Many home educators try out a variety of different curricula before finding what works best for them and their children. Finding what works is a process. Sometimes, learning what does not work can be as important as learning what does work.
Remember, your curriculum is simply the collection of texts, media, activities, and assignments that you use to build learning. If you use a math workbook and base ten blocks, these are both part of your curriculum. Everything you teach, or that your child learns — whether it’s a textbook purchased from a publisher or a learning experience you put together yourself — is part of your curriculum. If you find a bug on your back porch and help your child identify it, that, too, is part of your curriculum!
Curriculum can look like a lot of different things. There are thousands of different curricular resources available for purchase, in a variety of formats, aligned to every possible educational philosophy, grade level, and family need. Some programs and materials are designed with homeschooling in mind; others are created for educators more generally, but can be adapted and used by homeschooling parents. Some materials are designed to serve as your full curriculum; others are supplemental.
While some homeschooling parents may prefer to buy a complete curriculum, we recommend choosing several different curricular materials for any given subject. This way, if you find that one curricular resource is not working well for you or for your child, you have the others to fall back on. For example, for math you might choose to purchase a textbook with a workbook; sign up for an online program that allows your child to practice the concepts they are learning; and use a book of math puzzles at roughly your child’s grade level. Supplemental materials can provide continuity if you need to look for a program to replace one you find isn’t a good fit.
Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. Keep in mind that the purpose of a curriculum is to create learning. If a curricular resource is not a good fit, you can discontinue using it and look for something else. Similarly, implementing a curriculum as-written is not as important as creating the desired learning; you don’t have to use an entire program if your children have already mastered the learning outcomes being covered. Your curriculum should work for you, not the other way around.
Types of Curricular Materials
Here are some types of curricular materials you might consider selecting:
- Boxed curricula. These all-in-one programs are intended to provide everything a child needs to learn at a given grade level. They are created and published by a wide range of curriculum developers, including public virtual charter or correspondence schools, traditional education publishers, individual private schools or umbrella schools, private publishing houses devoted specifically to homeschooling curricula, and individuals or small groups of homeschooling parents. In practice, few homeschooling parents rely fully on a boxed curriculum.
- Textbooks and workbooks. Textbooks — secondary sources which represent current knowledge on a particular discipline or topic — are produced by many of the same publishers who produce boxed curricula. Many textbooks are aligned to state or national standards. It is important to get recent editions of textbooks (published within the last 10 years or so, if possible) to avoid outdated terminology and to make sure that your children are learning about modern discoveries. Textbooks are often accompanied by workbooks, which provide your children with prompts and space to write their answers. Many also offer answer keys and/or instructor copies which provide suggestions for teachers to add enrichment activities.
- Nonfiction informational books. Libraries are full of nonfiction books for children on topics like science, history, and the arts. From books about recycling to illustrated biographies to picture-filled Usborne Science books and illustrated cross-sections of cities through time, nonfiction children’s books are a perfect supplement for textbooks. In fact, home educators with a more eclectic/relaxed homeschooling philosophy may rely entirely on books like these (as well as other non-textbook resources and materials) as they design their child’s science, social studies, and arts curriculum.
- Literature and media. Books, films, television, music, online videos, podcasts, etc., can be great primary sources for your child to experience or analyze, and may prove excellent supplements to any reading, science, social studies, or arts curriculum. For example, you might watch science documentaries with your child, or listen to history podcasts.
- Activity books and kits. Thousands of authors have published books full of fun and educational activities. Many of these books come with a kit that includes materials and instructions. Sometimes the kits are sold by themselves. These range from engineering and math (Legos, robotics, etc.) to biological and physical sciences (grow-your-own mushrooms, soap making kit) to fine arts (ceramics, knitting) to language arts (magnetic poetry, journaling prompts). Hands-on activities can be part of your child’s curriculum if they are paired with interpretation and analysis.
- Educational toys and games. Many toy and game manufacturers include educational games or educational uses as part of their catalogue. These offer a great way for children to interact with one another while they are learning. Some video and computer games can also be educational.
- Field trips and experiential learning. Allowing children to get out “into the field” to learn through experience can be a powerful part of the curriculum. From identifying animals and plants that live nearby, to testing the pH of local water sources, to conducting scavenger hunts around your town or city, to making use of local resources like museums or history centers, children will benefit from discussing and analyzing their experiences with you.
- Instructional technology. Many software programs are designed to be educational; for instance, learn-to-type software, language learning software like Rosetta Stone or Duolingo, software that teaches computer programming skills, graphic design software, etc. Apps and websites that offer interactive learning content like Brain Pop and Brain Pop Jr. also fall into this category.
Where Can I Find Curriculum?
Most curricular materials are available for purchase online, either new or used. But here are a few other places you may want to look before purchasing curriculum online.
Your School District
Your school district may be willing to loan you copies of the textbooks and other curricular materials that are used in your local school system. They may also be able to sell you textbooks at a discount due to bulk purchasing. In a few states, school districts are required by law to make textbooks available to families who homeschool.
Your Public Library
Your public library may have curricular materials that you can borrow for free. Some libraries have a policy against carrying textbooks, and libraries have limits on the length of time you can check out a book; this means your public library is probably not the best place to check out textbooks. However, libraries have a wealth of both fiction and nonfiction books, as well as activity kits, instructional technology, and other resources, which makes them an indispensable resource for homeschooling families.
Many home educators draw on their local public libraries regularly for curricular and supplemental materials, and homeschooling families frequently visit their local library at least once a week. Your librarian may also be able to give you recommendations for curricular materials that fit your child’s needs and your educational philosophy.
Local used bookstores may carry discounted curricular materials in their education section. They will also likely carry nonfiction children’s books that may supplement your home library and serve as additional curricular materials.
University K-12 Curriculum Collections
Many colleges and universities that offer teacher training programs employ a librarian whose expertise is in educational materials and maintain large collections of K-12 curriculum materials which can be checked out or viewed. You may need to establish a community borrower account to access them.
Many local homeschool groups host curriculum fairs, or can point you to local used curriculum vendors (in some cases, local homeschooling parents set up consignment curriculum stores in their garages or a spare room). They may also be able to advise you on additional local curriculum or textbook resources.
How Can I Determine Quality?
Not all curricular materials are created equal. A curriculum one homeschooling parent loves and praises may not fit another parent’s instructional style or educational philosophy. Additionally, some curricular materials are created from a specific religious or philosophical viewpoint that you may or may not share. Even outside of these considerations, the curricular materials marketed to homeschooling parents today range in quality. There is so much out there that you may feel overwhelmed!
Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:
- Curricula developed by individuals with professional credentials in education or curriculum design are more credible than those that aren’t.
- Curricula that have undergone pre-publication review by multiple people with professional credentials are more reliable than those that haven’t.
- Curricula that are designed to meet your state’s learning standards are likely to be more focused than those that aren’t (read more about standards here).
- Curricula that are used by a school system in your state or are approved by your state for use are more likely to be effective than those that aren’t.
- Curricula that are reviewed positively by many reviewers are likely to be more functional than those that haven’t.
As much as possible, you should try to view a curriculum before you make a decision. As noted earlier, you may be able to review curricular materials at used bookstores, homeschool curriculum fairs, or your local university’s collections. Online curriculum retailers or publishers may let you view samples, or try out a software for free.
Curriculum review should not happen only when you are looking for materials to purchase; it is something that should happen all year long.
Many home educators start with one curriculum and find as they go along that it does not work as well as they had hoped; they may switch to a new curriculum partway through the year or change curriculum providers when selecting curriculum materials the following year. Using a curriculum that is aligned to state standards can make the transition from one curriculum to another easier, if you find you need a change.
Parents should also check in regularly with their child about how they are experiencing the curriculum. Sitting down with your child at the beginning of the year to look over and review the materials will help your child understand what they will be learning and how the materials are structured, and will give them the opportunity to ask questions. Sitting down with your child periodically through the rest of the year will allow them to provide feedback on how they feel the curriculum is working for them and critique the curriculum in ways that will inform your future curriculum selection.
Homeschooling allows you to tailor the curriculum to your child’s abilities and needs. Inviting them to participate in curricular review is part of that process. Remember, a curriculum that worked well for one child may not work as well for another child. Listen to your child, and stay flexible. Don’t force something that is not working.