The Search for the Perfect Math Program

This seems to be my biggest difficulty – picking out math curriculum. Maybe because I don’t really like math? I don’t know…

To make it clearer for me, I thought I would lay them out so that I can keep them straight. I keep forgetting which program is which. 😛  Note that there are probably HUNDREDS of different choices, but I’m only going to highlight the ones I keep hearing about. Most of the summaries are taken from Cathy Duffy Reviews.

Starting off, the qualifications I’m looking for in a math program are:

  • Use of manipulatives
  • Interesting text and colorful pages*
  • Well-laid out for the teacher to teach
  • Not merely rote memorization of math problems
  • Not a huge fan of spiral methods (concepts are learned and then repeatedly learned at each lesson)
  • Recommended by Charlotte Mason users
*Apparently I’m one of very few homeschoolers who think that colorful pages and interesting text is a GOOD thing. Some see this as a considerable drawback since it detracts from the actual lesson to see bright, kid-friendly images on the pages. My kids would be much more appreciative of fun pictures and interesting story problems, etc. So, take these reviews with a grain of salt if you are a “no-frills” kind of homeschooler. 😉  I’ve made note of the programs I consider “no frills,” so if that’s your cup of tea, look into those programs!

Life of Fred

  • Cost:  $16 per book
  • Ages:  Starts at around 2nd grade math, altogether 10 elementary texts. There is also a fraction book, one on decimals and percents, and a few on algebra, all the way up to college prep math.
  • Summary:  LOF is not your average math curriculum. Instead it is a series of books about a kid named Fred.  Here is a summary from Cathy Duffy:  “The books are written by Dr. Stanley Schmidt, a retired math teacher who loves math and wants to share his enthusiasm with students. Part of his strategy is to build his math books around the adventures of Fred, a very young genius who is a math teacher at KITTENS University. The stories shift from silly to serious, outlandish to edgy. They are likely to be very appealing to learners who prefer something more than “dry” math–students who like to “puzzle” things out. Fred’s adventures are the jumping off point for math lessons (e.g. Fred plays with his food and creates a polygon), or Fred might be pondering something mathematical, or teaching, or discussing a math topic with friends or students. Each lesson teaches a concept, albeit sometimes in a roundabout fashion through the story. Then there’s a “Your Turn to Play”—practice problems with complete answers and explanations if needed. Throughout the series, Dr. Schmidt tries to teach for conceptual understanding rather than mere memorization of formulas and strategies. Students often see the practical application of a math concept before they learn how to solve the problem. Students are likely to begin thinking about math more like solving puzzles or critical thinking exercises than lists of problems to solve.
  • Thoughts:  I like the idea of this book. It looks fun!  I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable having it be my ENTIRE curriculum though. I might consider this as an additional thing to do alongside our main curriculum. It would be fun to read and do together as a family or something my 9yo could do on her own. It reminds me a lot of the children’s book “Harold and the Purple Crayon” with a math bent.


  • Cost:  $60 – $70 per grade level kit
  • Ages:  Grades K – 6
  • Summary:  Horizons is produced by Alpha Omega Publications.  It uses the “spiral” approach (where several concepts are learned at once with frequent review).  From Cathy Duffy: Student books are printed in full color. Students complete from 2 to 4 pages per lesson depending upon their grade level. Even though student books are so substantial, this is not a self-teaching, worktext program. It needs to be taught from the teacher handbooks. Student workbooks provide the activity for lessons taught from the handbooks. The scope and sequence is a little advanced from the very beginning.  You will need manipulatives (not included).
  • Thoughts:  The colorful pages in the workbooks are nice, and I do like this program except for when I read how “advanced” it is. I have a K with some learning difficulties, so I don’t want an advanced program for him. The cost for this program is low, however, and it may be a better fit for my 9yo. I do keep reading that the constant review gets a little redundant, but I suppose you could skip certain review items once the child has mastered it.  It seems like the combination of being advanced + the constant (from what I hear annoying) review could equal being bored and resenting math time.  It’s hard to get a feel for the review when you can only sample a few pages online. The cost is a big plus for me, since kit includes the teacher book plus the workbooks.

Making Math Meaningful

  • Cost: $40 per grade + $15 manipulative kit
  • Ages: Levels K – 6
  • Summary:  This program uses unique methods of presentation based upon sound research and a biblical Christian worldview. Detailed, easily understood instruction is given for the parent/teacher in the parent guide for levels K through 4. The guide directs parents in exactly what to say and do, so the program must be presented one-on-one for those levels. Student books are insufficient without lesson presentation from the parent guide.  It seems to move more slowly than other math programs in the primary grades because the goal is a very thorough understanding of concepts. For instance, in 1st: “…a significant amount of the work is drawing, recording or representing manipulative activity, and other work that develops conceptual understanding rather than workbook practice on computation skills.”  In 2nd: “Mathematical thinking and understanding of concepts is stressed, so concepts are introduced at a slower pace than in most other programs. However, by the end of the second grade book, children have learned mathematical concepts relating to equations, fractions, algebra, and other topics that often are not taught until much, much later.”
  • Thoughts:  From what I’m reading, this curriculum is unusual in that there is not a lot of memorization, but rather they focus a lot on the “why” of things.   There is nothing flashy with this curriculum. It is very basic and dry. Looking it over, it is very teacher intensive with things needing to be demonstrated and drawn out for the students, and it gives you word-for-word what to say and do while you teach.  This does make it simple, but it seems like it is only simplifying a confusing process. For instance, read this review: “I bought this curriculum based on all the rave reviews. For K level, the manipulatives and lessons are great for teaching mathematical concepts…however as we proceeded onto grades 1 and 2, this curriculum became increasingly laborious and un-necessarily “wordy” and tedious. For example, in the first grade, word equations are so loooong and discriptive my child was confused before we even had finished reading the problem. In my opinion, this curriculum tries to teach simple concepts in a VERY COMPLEX, TEDIOUS and DIFFICULT manner (the long way!). By second grade my daughter would be in tears almost daily…”    I don’t think this is the program for us. It could be useful as a supplement to another program if the student was lacking the “why” understanding of a problem. With its heavy manipulative use and almost no written work, this would be a great way to explain how math works to a student who didn’t understand something. I just don’t think it’s good on its own.

Teaching Textbooks

  • Cost:  $120 to $185 per grade level
  • Ages:  Grades 3 to 7, then algebra, pre-calculus, and geometry
  • Summary:  This is a computer-based program that also comes with a workbook. The interesting thing about this program is that it teaches it directly to the child, and you (the teacher) are not needed.  An entire lesson is given with cartoon (comic-book type) drawings, so it is interesting but not silly.  My daughter tried the demo, and she did enjoy doing the problems. Once you learn the lesson, you are given multiple math problems that you type right into the program. If you’re wrong, the program explains to you why you were wrong and gives you another try until you get it.  “Problem sets include continual review of previously-learned concepts.”
  • Thoughts:  This program is tempting to me! Math is not my strong suit, and it would be nice to push it off on a computer program that will teach the necessary skills in a fun and thorough way.  However, I don’t want to just shirk all of it all the way off my plate just yet. After all, this will be my first year homeschooling.  However, I think that if it becomes an issue for me to teach the math skills directly from a book, this would be my number one go-to program.

Math in Focus

  • Cost:  Around $250 for 1 grade level (plus more for manipulatives if desired)  Note:  It appears that they do have their entire book line-up online, and you can view it at the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Virtual Sampling site.  I would definitely consider using their teacher edition books solely online since that is the bulk of the program if money is an issue for you. (The teacher editions are approximately $200 of the $250 price tag per year.)  You can sign up yourself to view the pages by visiting this page and entering your info, choosing “homeschool” as a school district. From there you can view ALL of their programs online.
  • Ages: K-6
  • Summary:  Math in Focus is a revised Singapore Math program. Many homeschoolers have heard of Singapore Math and that it is an advanced math program that comes from…well…Singapore – where math is well-known by kids at an early age.  It is probably the most advanced math program around.  Now along comes Math in Focus, which teaches the same advanced skills in an “Americanized” way. In other words, you get the same lessons with colorful pictures, lots of space in the text and workbooks, etc.  This is a teacher intensive program. From Cathy Duffy: “Lessons concentrate on a single concept rather than providing continual practice on previously-learned concepts. However, review is provided in a section at the beginning of each chapter…The goal of Math in Focus is to teach concepts so thoroughly that frequent review is unnecessary.” Each lesson moves from concrete to pictorial to abstract. (Concrete = manipulatives, pictorial = lots of drawings showing the lesson with thorough explanations, and abstract = actually doing the problems.)  They offer a “Virtual Manipulative CD-ROM,” but this is very expensive.
  • Thoughts:  I really like the looks of this program, even with the hefty price tag. The gorgeous textbooks, the well-thought out planning, and the extremely thorough coverage of each skill makes this a top-notch program.    I like the incorporation of concrete, pictorial, and abstract. I like it that it is not heavy on review. I like it that concepts are taught thoroughly to the point that ” it does not try to teach every concept every year. Instead, it focuses on fewer topics but teaches them thoroughly so they need not be retaught continually.”  It feels like I might actually be able to teach this program and have the kiddos walk away with a solid knowledge of math concepts.  However, when I look at the explanation of mental math and bar models, it seems as if this program takes a simple process and makes things very complicated. For instance, in grade 3 book A, you’re told to find 6+9.  In order to do this, you must break “6” down to 5+1 (because you have to think ahead that 9+1 is going to get you to 10 the quickest).  Now you’re at 9+1 = 10.  Then you take 10 + 5 (the other number from when we broke down 6 into 5 and 1) to get 15. Therefore 6+9 = 15.  Supposedly, this helps you to do bigger math mentally (rather than on paper) later on.  However, all of that confusion doesn’t sound like anything I want to get into when it’s very simple to add 6+9 on fingers (and likewise simple to add larger problems on paper).  Given especially that my daughter has already been through a different program and has learned to add and subtract “normally” and not mentally, I think we’ll have to skip this program given how much a foundation mental math is to Math in Focus.

Math Mammoth

  • Cost:  $34 per grade level  or ALL grade levels for $136
  • Ages: 1-6
  • Summary:  This program is generally available for download (or on CD), but you can purchase workbooks through places like Rainbow Resource. This is a mastery program where review is not done frequently, and it is compared (by Cathy Duffy) to Singapore Math (mentioned above as an advanced program) although not quite as advanced.  There are color images in the workbooks, and the text does refer to some manipulatives.  There is no teachers manual – only the student “worktext” where the lesson is explained and the student solves problems on the same page.  Each concept is introduced with many lessons covering that concept before the text moves on to the next thing. The program comes with a math sheet generator to allow you to create your own worksheets, and it also comes with multiple web links where you can explore the internet for further instruction on each concept.
  • Thoughts:  Wow, hearing that this program is similar to Singapore math with half the price tag for an entire 1-6 program is making me re-think Math in Focus! I could purchase the entire program for what it would cost me to buy half a year of Math in Focus. Nonetheless, this looks to be an inferior product (hence the price difference) and would require a lot of printing costs. The lack of a teacher’s manual, the cheaper-looking images, and the especially the short explanations given at the beginning of each lesson are concerning to me.  I would need to do a lot of improvisation with this program, and given that I’m not a huge math whiz, this probably isn’t the program for me. I would need to use the worktext, hunt around the internet with the links given, and come up with my own manipulative usage to demonstrate the concept. However, if you want a no-frills program that is basically a cheaper version of Singapore Primary Math, this is worth a try at such a low cost!

Math on the Level

  • Cost:  $295 for the entire program
  • Ages:  K to 7th grade approximately
  • Summary:  MOTL is unique in that it is purchased as the entire program – no messing around with different grades or levels. You purchase it and own the entire program for all of your kids. As a matter of fact, there are no grade levels at all!  You simply progress through the 146 concepts that are listed in the binder. This is teacher intensive, and it does not give you a “script” to follow, but it does give you ideas on how to approach the concepts you’ll be teaching.  ” Once a concept has been learned, it is added to the “Review Chart” and scheduled for daily review for a week or so, then every few days, gradually dropping down to every 3 weeks where it stays unless dropped or replaced by another concept that incorporates the lower level skill.” These review problems are called “5-a-day” since there are 5 review problems every day that the parent needs to create.  One of the books ,”Math Adventures,” gives parents tips on how to incorporate the lessons you are learning with every day life.
  • Thoughts:  I like it that the Math Adventures book shows you how to include math with your everyday life. It seems very individualized and family-oriented. It also seems like it takes a lot of work to put together to create that individualized plan. Per Cathy Duffy: “MOTL is a demanding program for parents to use. They have to learn the system (which should take a few hours), then they have to select and track objectives to be taught, create the 5-A-Day problem sets, teach the lessons and work through practice problems with their children, and evaluate progress on each objective, recording and planning for the next lesson.”  Realistically, I don’t have that kind of time, but it does sound like a nice program! If I had 1 child or even 2 that were near the same level, I might consider this one more. I’ve heard a lot of good things about it.


  • Cost:  Around $100 per year (including manipulatives)
  • Ages:  K through high school
  • Summary: Math-U-See has a unique formula that involves “teaching the teacher.”  It includes DVDs of a professor that teaches YOU, and then you turn around and teach your children what you just learned. Some also have the kiddos watch the DVDs too. The DVDs are very good at explaining the math formulas and concepts. Math-U-See also is heavily reliant on manipulatives that reinforce the concepts learned on the DVD.  The program also comes with student workbooks that are consumable.  This is a wonderful, well-rounded program that is very popular.
  • Thoughts:  Just about everyone I know is either using or wants to use MUS.  So right away I figured this was THE program that I HAD to have. So I checked into it pretty extensively, and it does look like it teaches math very well.  Families that use it either love it or don’t.  I just don’t get the sense that it’s the right fit for my kids.  Whether or not we would use the DVDs together or just by myself, I think my kids would be bored at a stiff presentation of a math concept. When I watched the DVD samples, it reminded me of being in college. Blech. The books are black and white with lots of math problems on each page.  I can see, however, how it would be helpful to have a teacher teach me how to teach my kids, but listening to a teacher teach me math is an experience I’m not ready to repeat. 😉  A lot of people rave about this program though, so it is definitely worth taking a close look at!
As of right now, I am torn between Horizons and Math on the Level, but I’m leaning more toward Horizons.  I’ll be honest that I wrote this review with my heart set on Math in Focus, so I’m a little saddened that I won’t be going with that now, but I’m glad I didn’t waste the time, effort, and money on it when it’s obvious that it isn’t a good fit for us!  I will probably also purchase the first Life of Fred book to see if it’s a good fit for our family (since it comes highly recommended by many including Charlotte Mason users), and I’d also like to purchase a Family Math book for the fun experiments and games. I would likely use Life of Fred and Family Math on Fridays as a “fun” day, using Math in Focus the other days of the week as our main program.
UPDATE:  I’ve decided to go with Horizons Math for both of my kids.  I took a closer look at Math on the Level, and with that program, you are given NO guidance as to how to teach a concept. You are only given ideas on how you might present it. You make the entire program yourself by making math problems that your kids need to work on. You create the problems, you create the teaching formulas, and you chart everything to make sure they’ve learned it. That’s too much freedom for me! I understand what the author is saying about not “forcing” kids along a certain path (which is what happens with a textbook math program), but it doesn’t give me enough guidance to feel comfortable going with that program. I’d rather do Horizons and slow it down as I see fit (if needed).
My 9yo is switching from Saxon math that she has done in her school, and it appears she’s about a grade level behind based on Horizon’s placement test.  Sigh. Fancy book covers are going to be needed to cover up that big “3” on the covers I guess.  I’d rather take it easy on her than go forward with things she’s not comfortable with though. We’ll get the manipulatives necessary. You can by them pre-arranged through Rainbow Resource, but I think I’ll pick up most of it at the dollar store and then hunt around for the other items cheaply. I’ll get a copy of Life of Fred (Apples) as well as a copy of Family Math. We should be all set! Right now, Alpha Omega (makers of Horizons) is running a sale on all purchases through April at 20% off with free shipping over $35, so I am THRILLED. That further cements it in my mind that this is the right choice. (I always pray for CLEAR signs…lol.)
I’m interested in hearing what your thoughts are on these programs or others!? Has anyone used the above and loved or hated them? Do you have other recommendations?

About wiseowlhomeschool

Homeschooling mom of 3 Work at home medical transcriptionist Christian Conservative
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17 Responses to The Search for the Perfect Math Program

  1. We use Horizons as well and mostly love it. Although, the repetitiveness gets boring for my 7 yr old. We skip lessons, or just do parts of lessons since it’s the concept we’re trying to master. Kind of like review. We are in the Grade 2 book now (used it for K, not 1) but I think next year I would like to supplement with a “fun” book so maybe LOF. We are just up to the point where we begin grouping for mulitplication. I think we’ll stop here for the year and pick up again next fall, focusing on addition facts for the summer. (Yes, we continue math all summer.) Thanks for putting all this together. I too hate math, and like you probably because I’m terrible at it. I’ve considered several of these programs and it’s nice to be validated..we seem to think a like. I think you’ll be happy with Horizons.

    • K Hawkins says:

      We have used Horizons for the past two years. We used it last year for first grade and this year for second grade and for 5K also. I have enjoyed using it so far. With my 5K son, we used it up until about 2/3 of the school “year”. It seemed a little too advanced for him so we stopped using it with him. We did continue using it for my second grader though. We have decided to switch for our upcoming school year (first and third). I have looked at LIfe of Fred and Teaching Textbooks for my third grader and unsure for my first grader. Maybe no strict curriculum for him at all. Thanks for this post! It really helps!

      • A lot of families just use living books for math! As a matter of fact, there’s a site devoted just to that idea: Maybe that will help with your 1st grader. Of course there’s always Math Lessons for a Living Education through Queen Homeschool as well, that might be helpful. I’ve looked at it, and it didn’t seem a good fit for my little guy because he’s just not “in” to farm life, etc. Teaching Textbooks is a really neat concept, and if Horizons doesn’t work for us, I’m thinking I’ll definitely be leaning that way!

    • Thanks Michelle! I hope you enjoy LOF. I picked up “Apples” and it does look very cute and fun. I’ll do the same for Horizons – if it’s too much review, I’ll just skip over that part (and try to ignore that annoying perfectionist in my head that says we have to do all of it). 🙂

  2. Jennifer-Anne Creekmore says:

    Did you do any research on Abeka or BJU press math programs? I currently use Abeka and like it but it moves pretty quickly and seems to be introducing concepts very rapidly. Someone recently told me to look into BJU press and I was just wondering if you had included them in your research. Thanks 🙂

    • Hi Jennifer-Anne! Unfortunately I didn’t look into those programs. I used the Cathy Duffy quiz in her book to find out teaching style, learning style, teaching method, etc., and these just didn’t jive with what I liked or my kids would enjoy. For instance, Abeka is not a good match for “wiggly” kids (of which I am blessed with THREE lol). You can read through some reviews for BJUP here: A lot of people love it, and I don’t see anything that would make me nervous about it…there were SOME bad reviews though, so check them out and see if those bad points would matter to your home. (Bad summaries: No drill in math facts, difficult to understand for higher-up grades, didn’t advance the kids fast enough, difficult “new math” focus as in my review for Math in Focus above ^^, geared toward classrooms vs homeschool, etc).

      Hopefully you can find the perfect fit! Picking a math program is so much HARDER than the other subjects it seems!

  3. roomforatleastonemore says:

    ” I took a closer look at Math on the Level, and with that program, you are given NO guidance as to how to teach a concept. You are only given ideas on how you might present it. You make the entire program yourself by making math problems that your kids need to work on. You create the problems, you create the teaching formulas,”

    I have MOTL and I would have to say I disagree with this statement you made above. Have you seen the entire program and used it?

    The book definitely DOES give you guidance on how to teach concepts. In fact, it is all laid out in the teaching books, 4 of them in fact. You also don’t create the problems; they give you HUNDREDS of sample problems. You just need to rewrite them in their 5-A-Day papers. MOTL also gives you the ANSWERS. It is very easy to use!

    Came over from your SCM link to this and just had to share about our experience with MOTL, which we’ve used the past 3 years with multiple ages and levels including 2 in kindie this year, 1 in 4th, 1 in 5th and 1 in 7th grade. 🙂

    • I have not seen the entire program or used it. I read reviews on blogs and forums, checked out the sample pages, etc. Thanks for the info! I had read a few comments along the lines of “if your child doesn’t understand the presentation in the book, there isn’t a lot of help to explain it a different way.” This could be a problem for someone who isn’t very “mathy” – like me. 🙂 I need things nice and scripted, lol. If Horizons doesn’t work well for us though, I’ll take another look at MOTL since it sounds nice and CM friendly!

  4. Mandie says:

    Thanks for sharing this comparison. I’m torn between Singapore or Math-on-the-Level. I couldn’t help but laugh a little at one point in your review (in a joyful way, not a mean way). I had never heard of Math-in-Focus before, but your sample problem of 6+9 = 5 +10 is EXACTLY what I’m hoping to find in a math curriculum. Isn’t it amazing how something that is awful for one family fits perfectly for another? $250/year is more than I can afford, but your review is reassuring me that Singapore will likely be a good fit.

    • LOL, that IS funny Mandie! I would think that Singapore would be a good fit if you like Math in Focus. MIF is the “Americanized” version of Singapore – more colorful, more pictures, etc. Remember though that you COULD view the entire teacher’s book online and maybe only purchase the workbooks. Just a thought. 😉 Best of luck making things work in your family!

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  7. nidicolous says:

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  9. jill says:

    thank you thank you!! this has been quite helpful. still no choice made, but lots to think about!

  10. Em says:

    Horizons also doesn’t offer very much teacher guidance so good luck! I almost despised the curriculum! Thanks for the reviews! Well written!

  11. twinky34 says:

    It’s been awhile since you’ve written this post. Looking back, would you still recommend Horizons?

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