Homeschool Curriculum Choices: A Stream-of-Consciousness Analysis

So in the last week, I've gotten a message asking me to share how I chose curriculum, a message asking me what I think of the Classical education approach, and a message asking about how we investigated the various curriculum options. So, in this one post, without a ton of editing, bullet-points, or linkage, and while not-so-subtly showing off some recent pics of my family, let me just lay out what we did to get to where we are today-- happy & comfortable with the curriculum we use and the results so far.

Initially, I read a lot and asked a ton of questions... anything I could get my hands on and anyone I could talk to. I went to Mardel and scoured the curriculum selections they had. I sat in Barnes & Noble and scanned basic principles from a variety of homeschool, parenting, & education books. Considered the homeschool families I had known and asked questions, of both the parents and the children... what curriculum(s) they had used? How did they like it? What was it like? What are the benefits of the books they used? What did they do for science? Did they add in electives? Etc.

In doing that, for example, I learned that Saxon math is heavy on drillwork & review, and learned that Math-U-See is a very hands-on popular math program. I heard, from the kids, what they thought their particular curricula was strong in, and what they didn't like. From formerly homeschooled young adults, what prepared them for college and real life, and what didn't. I realized that some curricula are workbook-based and get consumed by each child, so you have to keep re-purchasing them (perhaps less expensive on the front end, but more expensive the more kids you have), and that others use books to educate (perhaps more expensive on the front end, but less expensive as you spread those costs out to multiple children).

[*** I should say that later (after we made our curriculum selection), I was fortunate to join an online forum that Sonlight hosts with thousands of other homeschool moms where I can ask questions, glean from those who are further down the road, and learn from the mistakes & successes of others. It is a real blessing and has contributed greatly to my sense of ease and confidence in the choices we make.]

Then I thought back to my own growing up years in public school. Engaging teachers in the elementary years. A fairly good enrichment program. No real science (except for observing tarantulas my 5th grade year) until 7th grade. Once we reached junior high, we got boring, hodge-podge history without any real chronological/geographical "flow". And where there was flow, it was presented in a way that could bore even a history buff to tears.

Good math, but the value of each year, and what was learned & retained, was often entirely dependent upon the teacher. Good elective options. A lot of phonics. Grammar. Worksheets. Sentences memorized (and soon forgotten) for T/F tests. Mostly US history, some Texas history, virtually no world history.

Personally, also, I had the tendency to be overlooked by teachers because I wasn't a problem child behaviorally and could fake it through tests and essays, even without Cliffs Notes. Sad to say, I often did minimal work-- except in areas of interest (which for me, was drumline, vocal performance, and government... and the occasional paper on Jane Austen). So I got good grades, but rarely felt challenged. Needless to say, from this experience & background, I determined that one of my aims is to provide a more tailored and engaging curriculum that will draw in the hearts and minds of our children.

So I investigated homeschooling as our oldest son reached ages 3/4-ish. Somewhere along the way, after hearing about classical education, Charlotte Mason, unschooling, workbook-based, computer-based, DVD-based, and other options... I came across Sonlight. For us, this was it! A curriculum that has a Christian whole-world perspective. Excellent books. They even tell you a list of valid reasons why NOT to buy their curriculum, so that you go into the experience educated and with your eyes open as to what you're getting. No monotonous drill work or a stack of worksheets for subject matter that ought to be fun and interactive... history, literature, bible, social studies... these things are all studied by reading excellent books together with your child. Particularly when children are young, learning ought to be a delightful experience.

Here's an example of learning history through good books, from our Kindergarten year-- Instead of memorizing the dates, places, and people of WWII, or doing a word find, or coloring a page with pictures of parachute men, we read an engaging, award-winning historical fiction novel written at a level he could understand about orphans living in an orphanage on the French countryside. Together, we experienced and discussed WWII through their eyes... learning about ration cards, Nazi soldiers, the scarcity of things like oranges and chocolates, where the Alps are, the role that clergy and people of faith played in assisting the Jewish people. These are all concepts that we discussed together and were not only grasped, but retained, by my then-5-year-old because we looked at the war in an emotionally-engaging way rather than through a coloring sheet or a list to memorize.

Now, I should say that this curriculum is not for everyone. We all have different backgrounds, we all come with different values and aims... but I will say this: Sonlight consistently brings educational materials to my child that are worth using. The books they choose, and the way they present them (in the context of the historical chronology) -- it just makes learning fun. And that is one of my top aims with my younger, elementary-aged children. When my children are young, I want a few simple things for them-- to sense and see a real dependence on and dependability of God, their Creator... and to delight in learning about the world He made. I would consider it a huge failure and a real tragedy if I took the precious little curious minds God gives to young children and squelched that natural desire to learn and grow and explore and engage with the world.

Hear me: I am not saying that ALL other methods do this. I am simply saying that for me, and for our children, I believe Sonlight is the tool that allows me to best fan the flames of curiousity and inquisitiveness that are necessary for a lifelong inclination towards learning.

So, maybe you are a young mom looking at homeschooling. Contemplating. Wondering if you can. Wondering how you'd even do it, and what it would look like if you did. Here's what I suggest: talk to as many people as you can. Glean wisdom in what to do as well as what not to do. Talk to moms who have kids like yours-- maybe you've got a late-talking girl or a boy who can't sit still... talk to moms who have homeschooled kids like these. See what they did... if they waited to get started, if they did school in between backyard playtimes, how they handled the practical things.

Then start to look at curriculum options. Some moms are really keen on making sure they cover every single topic of a scope and sequence and don't want to even unintentionally miss anything that they "should"... so they might enjoy the predictability and confidence that can come from using a workbook-based curriculum. Or a DVD instructor. Or computer, internet-based courses (generally for older children)

Some moms want to dive deep into ancient languages, teach according to "classical" education methods, or study topics in a pre-arranged, methodical order. There are websites and books devoted to those kinds of homeschools.

Some subscribe to a philosophy of child-led learning, where the mom maybe insures a constant continuum of progression in math and grammer, say, but lets the child's interests determine what kinds of things they'll study and then design a curriculum around that for each stage. (For example, if your daughter is really into birds, doing a study on the sciences involved in birds-- the physics of flight, the biology of their structure/etc, reading books like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"-- ok that's a joke, but reading bird-themed books, writing papers/journal assignments about birds, drawing birds, feathers, nests for art work, etc.)

And then I've already told you about book-based studies like Sonlight. There are other companies that do this same sort of approach also.

And then each homeschool family adds their own flair. Some people do unit studies and go bonkers over Egypt for 6-20 weeks. Some use the "extra time" gained in homeschooling to pursue advanced studies in fields of interest (horse lessons, piano performance, internships, community college/college level courses while still in high school years, etc.). The possibilities for a personal configuration of your homeschool are endless.

All that to say, it can seem overwhelming. But something that helps me with homeschool curriculum is something that helps me with life in general... once I find something that "works", something that fits, something that I feel that God has led me to, I don't go looking for something different unless prompted by Him or unless significant problems arise. I'm not the gal scouring catalogs to see if some other company can "trump" what I've currently got going. I focus in on the children God has given to me, and I try to see what will help them at the level they're at to continue to love learning, grow in their understanding of the world, and develop godly character. Once we make a decision, we stick with it and I tailor it to our needs if necessary (although one of the benefits with Sonlight is that it's all pre-planned, so I can take it at whatever pace we like).

If we need to drop something, I'm not freaking out about it (I don't think we ever completely finished a textbook in all my years of schooling). If we need to slow down a bit, we can. If we need to take a break (particularly in these young years) for a week to focus in on character issues, we do. God gave these kiddos to us and I want to be good stewards of not only their minds, but their hearts and personalities as well. We want to try and help develop every part of them-- not just turn out a gaggle of little Einsteins (not to be confused with "Little Einsteins", which we love but still don't really want our kids to be like once they're adults, you understand). While we are very interested in their intellectual development and providing stimulation for their minds and skills, our aims are more focused on launching them towards their eternal joy and God-given purpose than their ultimate financial "success" or the number of degrees they may one day obtain.

Well, I've said more than a mouthful. But that's what we do and have done. I love homeschooling. Our children love schooltime with mommy. And really, more importantly to us, they love to learn-- about God, about the world, about stories, about people, about history, about life. We are enjoying the journey so far, just three years into it.

Whatever curriculum you use or choose, look at the pros & cons... talk to people who have used it. Talk to the kids who grew up with it. See how it matches up with your family dynamics and your children's learning styles. Don't just take my word for it, or anyone else's. No one method is "the right" way to homeschool. Try to do your research on the front end so you don't end up 4 weeks into a year and already hating it. There is such a plethora of resources available that really, there is something to suit almost any and every possible situation, parental philosophy, or learning need.

Be engaged with your kids' education. Be aware of your children's needs. Model a genuine delight in reading and learning. These are all significant and will contribute greatly to your child's education, regardless of your "method" or curriculum. Blessings to you... I hope this helps someone. :)


Mary and Doug said...

Thank you for this post! We are a Sonlight family too and you put what I have been trying to express into an informative post that I will link to my friends who have questions. Once we found Sonlight, we didn't need to look further. I'm so thankful for the many options to suit the many types of home schoolers.


Bethany Hudson said...

Thanks for taking the time to write this, Jess. I'm looking into curricula right now for my daughter, who is almost 2, for when she starts school...yeah, I'm very pro-active like that :-P And this gave me a lot of food for thought.

I had to laugh at the "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" comment. Wouldn't your kids be surprised, thinking it was about birds??! It reminds me of when my husband was in the second grade. He had finished this big project way ahead of time, so his teacher sent him to the library to find a book to read. He found one called "David Copperfield" and, thinking it was about the magician, got all excited! Alas, it was actually the Dickens' classic, and he didn't make it past page 1!


Jessica said...

Which books do you recommend to a mom of a preschooler?
The kids look adorable! Silas is so big and Marantha's hair is really long. Thanks for sharing the photos!

Jess said...

Here's a link to a post from a couple years ago where a bunch of homeschool moms chimed in with their recommendations...

HOMESCHOOL BOOK RECOMMENDATIONSPerhaps it will be helpful to browse recommended homeschool titles there... and I'd welcome anyone else's recommendations here as well. One of the most helpful for me was Raymond & Dorothy Moore's Home Grown Kids.

Julie said...

Thanks for this post. We're hoping to homeschool, too, and I'm already feeling like I need to at least start researching options.

I wonder--do you (and any others, of course) find Sonlight to be comparable in price to other curriculums/gathering up a hodgepodge of materials?


Leslie said...

Great post, Jess! A friend from high school has asked me a bunch of questions about homeschooling, with SL in particular, so your post came at a great time--it saved me a lot of typing!


Kim said...

An idea from a public school teacher:

I think all these organized curricula (whatever the plural is for curriculum!) are GREAT! I think if I was a homeschooling mom though, I would be freaking out about "What are they SUPPOSED TO BE LEARNING?!" (Mostly because I teach special education, and I already am freaking out about that.) So an idea to check any curriculum might be to check the standards for each grade against the grade standards published by the local public school district (ours are readily available on our website, as is our curriculum map for each elementary grade). I would imagine that in general the homeschool stuff overshoots the public school standards, but I would (myself) want to be sure it at least met them.

Again, I am not a mom, just a teacher, but it might just be another way to pick a curriculum? I don't really know. :)

Jess said...

That's true, Kim, and some states do have homeschool laws that require students to study a particular course of study (this is more true as children age). Which is definitely something to look into and be aware of (and something I didn't mention because Texas has zero homeschooling laws, wonderful state!).

But, really, there isn't even a national standard as to what kids are "supposed" to learn. So that's kind of a nebulous concept, and one that often does trip up new homeschooling moms. There are books devoted to "What Your 1st/2nd/3rd Grader Should Be Learning" (all the way through the grades), and any homeschool mom can check those out if she feels squirrely about it, and like you said, Kim, I've checked some random state guidelines to get a feel for what is learned in public school classrooms across the nation. Most any mainstream homeschool curriculum these days is going to meet those basic standards.

What I like about Sonlight is that (like you suggest) it far exceeds what any public or private school student would be reading/doing/learning at the same grade level, and yet it's done in less time, and with far more interaction. But, hey, I'm big on Sonlight. :)

Thanks for piping up!

Julie said...

Forgot to say that I like the new pictures of your kiddos--and Maranatha is looking suddenly very GROWN UP!!!!


Heather said...

thank you for posting this. I'm actually looking at Sonlight for my daughter for kindergarten. Are you still using Sonlight past kindergarten into grades 1 and beyond or did you switch after kindergarten? i really like what i see with their kindergarten package.

Jess said...

I'm currently halfway through Sonlight's Core 1 with my oldest for first grade, and about to order Core 2. I've been very pleased with their material, although I should say that I'm not a fan of the Usborne books that they typically use as the "spine" for their younger years of history studies, so we purchased everything but those books and have used Mystery of History for those core history lessons instead. Aside from that, we pretty much do Sonlight for everything.

We use the Singapore Math option, but if I ever hit any problems or snags with that, my first stop after that would be to go to Math-U-See-- I've heard excellent things about it and it seems that most kids who have any "problems" understanding/grasping math for any reason often excel with Math-U-See.

One thing I would highly encourage you to do is to register at their online forum and give yourself the opportunity to access the collective wisdom there. There are thousands of moms there who have used Sonlight for anywhere from fifteen or more years to those who are newbies, just starting out.

It's been so helpful for me to "hear" from other Sonlight moms about how they use the program, what they've enjoyed, what they've tried, etc... there is so much wisdom there, and once you get one "core" you have automatic free membership there, so you really ought to take advantage of it.

Anyway, yes, I've been very pleased-- with their PreK 4/5 program and with their Core K program. We're currently really enjoying and learning a lot from the Core 1 program, and I anticipate the same with Core 2. My tentative plans/hopes at present are to stick with Sonlight as our main curriculum at least through Junior High, all things being equal.


Heather said...

Thank you Jess. I'm going to register on the online forum now!

DKJAZ Santibanez said...

Jess, I know quite a few homeschooling mums here in Australia who are quite big on Charlotte Mason. Did you look into this method much and what are the major differences compared to Sonlight. I have been doing a little research as I can already see in my 2 y.o how much he loves to learn. Thank you for the loving and thoughtful way you encourage women to love the Lord and their families. You have been a blessing to me. Katherine S.

The Arab Musicians said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Jess. Very helpful. And I'm so glad you threw in the family pics--they're beautiful!

Jess said...

I have read about Charlotte Mason, and think she (like the Montessori methods) has a lot to offer to homeschoolers. Many moms I know combine CM's methods (narration, nature journals, etc.) with Sonlight.

I don't know enough about it to talk specifically about points where there may be differences, but I do know that a good number of Sonlight moms use CM's ideas and incorporate them into how they use the great books SL brings to the table.

Lisa said...

Jess, Thank you so much for this wonderful blog! I can't remember how I found it, but it was just what I was looking for! We are considering homeschooling our 4 year old after pre-k and I am overwhelmed by the idea of it. This post helped us so much as to how to navigate this huge decision. I love what I see in Sonlight. Also, I love the other posts you have on marriage and family. Thanks so much!

Tara Barthel said...

GORGEOUS photos!!! Thanks for sharing them.

And thanks for the winsome & wise post.

Tara B.

Luke said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You make excellent suggestions. And I'm so glad to hear that Sonlight has been such a joy for your family. May it continue [smile].


Wendy said...

Excellent post!! Thanks!! While we're not using the Sonlight curriculum, I LOVE the Sonlight catalog!! I use it to find interesting books to supplement the curriculum that we're using ;-)

Laura Holcombe said...


Just wanted you to know how much I enjoy your blog. How great that we don't have to "know" one another to be Sisters in Christ! I tune in when I need to adjust my perspective, consider something new or get inspired. You are a real blessing to me. I have enjoyed both your thoughts about homeschooling and particularly family/life issues.

Another avid reader and political thinker,
Laura Holcombe
Homeschooling family of three children :)

Erika said...

What a fabulous and well-timed post! Thank you for sharing. This coming year will be our first homeschooling a fourth grader and a kindergartner. Your thoughts are spot-on with what I am hoping we will find when we use Sonlight this next year. I literally cannot wait.

I also really appreciate your note about the Usborne books. I've really not been a fan of most of them that we've seen so far, so I'm thrilled to see mention of an alternative should we find that they not work for us.

cornhusker said...

Hi Jess! We are just finishing Core K with Sonlight and loved it! One person mentioned cost - it's not cheap, but you're paying for "real" books that you will use over and over. Plus I love the instructor's guide - you don't have to do much prep work at the K level. Also, it's WAY cheaper than our private Christian school. We're sticking with Sonlight.

Everyday M.moms said...

Lovely kids, lovely pictures, lovely post, lovely everything!

Come and Participate on our latest photo challenge,


Kim said...

Question-does sonlight cover phonics? I ask because I know that some kids I have worked with in various settings who have done Montessori education couldn't read phonetically, but could read early. I didn't know if other individualized curriculums, such as homeschool-developed curriculums, included phonics instruction.

And if they do, I'd love to hear about it! :) I am always looking for students need things so individualized that anytime I can find stuff and adapt it I love it. :)

Johanna said...

Great post! We are also a Sonlight family. We have used P3/4, P4/5, and are gearing up to start core K next year for my older's 1st grade year and middle's P4 year. Love, love, love it!

Great pictures of your family, too!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post and I love the RED!!


Ruth said...

I love the new look for your blog. The other was nice too, but for some reason my computer had trouble pulling it up. It would usually freeze the first try, and I would have to force quit and retry. See how much I like your blog? I would go through all that just to read your posts. :) The new background comes up with no problem. Yea! It is very happy and cheery looking too. We did Mystery of History while spending some time in Germany. The Lord really used it to stir our hearts about His workings in all the world and throughout all times. History truly is His Story! I thought Mystery of History was one of the best Bible studies I've ever done. It was for the kids, however, I think it blessed Mama more. Don't you love that about home schooling?

Lindsey said...

Jess --

Thank you for your post! I'm a mom of twin 22 month old boys (and one baby on the way) and I plan on homeschooling. With all the great curriculum out there it's hard to choose but you made some things very clear in your post. How old were your little ones when you started actual curriculum and if you don't mind, what did you use?


Wonderful World said...

Thank you so much for posting this! I love Sonlight, but I thought for our first year of school I would try to do it less expensively! It didn't work out so well :) This year (1st grade) I'm going with my first mind. One of my concerns has been teaching more than 1 core. I see that you are doing that and I would love to e-mail you about how you make that work. If you ever get a spare moment I'd love to hear more about it. My e-mail address is
Thanks again for sharing!

tami said...

i loved this post! i am in the middle of choosing new curriculum after 16 years of homeschooling!! argh- can it be that long?! i now have 5 children under 8 and it's a whole new ballgame than just the 2 older ones i had before. i am gonna use Sonlight for a reading list to cull from for science and history and Saxon for math but I think I'll be using Rod and Staff for grammar and spelling. Bible- I'm still kicking around but I have a few resources in mind.I totally enjoyed this post!

Raising Olives said...

We are also a Sonlight family. We have used Sonlight for over 5 years now and still love it. We have 9 children 1-12 years and all of the "school age" kiddos are in the same core. It works beautifully for us and allows our family to grow closer together as we study and learn together.


Jess said...

Ha! Kim, I'm just now reading back through this post and realized I never answered your question.

Yes, Sonlight has a phonics progam as well, which is how our kiddos have all learned to read thus far. :)