If you're talking about math curriculum in home school circles, chances are you've already heard of Saxon Math. It's been around for over twenty years and is a well-established and generally respected curriculum. Most of us who work at Exodus have used Saxon at one time or another, and we've been selling it since 1994. In that time, we've heard a huge spectrum of comments: lots of people love it, but there are plenty who don't. And although we have heard a number of good reasons why some people dislike it, we haven't heard enough of them to stop recommending the program.
The philosophy of Saxon is that learning need not be difficult, but it does take time. As a result, the publisher takes an "incremental" approach, which means they introduce concepts in small pieces and then continually review that concept as they add more pieces. Topics are never dropped; instead, they are gradually increased in complexity, allowing them to become second nature.
How Do These Work?
Saxon Math can be divided into three basic groups, each of which are designed differently:
Kindergarten to Level 3:
In these levels, Saxon is designed to be completely taught by the parent or teacher. A kit always contains a teacher manual, an extremely important book which includes fully scripted lesson plans, telling you exactly what to say and do. It also includes a meeting book, used daily. In the "meeting," students learn and practice skills like reading calendars, using a thermometer, and making graphs. From grades 1 to 3, a set of two workbooks with flashcards is added to the mix. It has been our experience that some parents try to use just the workbooks, but we would discourage that plan, as we believe they are, at best, expensive drill books without the teacher's edition. Throughout all four levels, there is an emphasis on using manipulatives (not included in the kits), with which students learn about counting, patterns, geometry, and many other concepts.
Our Honest Opinion:
Saxon generally moves fairly slowly and repetitively, but at these levels that is especially true. The kits are fairly expensive (more so when you add the manipulatives), and the lessons are time-intensive for both parent and child. Although we've met a number of people who really like these levels, they have been exceptions rather than the rule. We cannot highly recommend Saxon K-3 for most families, and generally steer our customers towards Horizons or Singapore (and sometimes Math-U-See) at these levels. If you do choose to use it, we would recommend skipping the kindergarten level entirely and starting with the first grade.
Levels 5/4 to 8/7:
In these four levels, the format of the series completely changes, and this is where we begin to strongly recommend Saxon. In the kits, there are again three pieces, but this time they are the softcover student textbook, solution manual, and the tests and worksheets book. The textbook offers all of the teaching material, including daily warm-ups, the introductory material for new concepts, example problems, practice sets, and daily work. In the current editions, all four of these levels include 120 normal lessons and 12 "Investigations" (one after every ten lessons). The lessons are fairly readable, and the number of problems in the daily work is manageable, a few practice problems and usually between 25-30 questions in the problem set per day. The test and worksheet book offers manipulative copy masters, multiple copies of drill sheets to go along with the lessons, and tests to be offered regularly. The solutions manual is a step-by-step answer key for every problem in the book (and for the tests).
Our Honest Opinion:
We really do think these books are one of the best choices around for grades 4-8. Granted, we've heard complaints about them, but (in general) find those complaints come from unimaginative teachers. We remain convinced that the books will offer a solid preparation for the higher levels of math and that they can be adapted for use by most families. There are a variety of ways to do this, and we would be happy to talk to you about some of the possibilities. If you would like additional help incorporating the [seemingly disorganized] concepts into a unified whole, take a look at the DIVE CD-ROMs.
The numbers "5/4" mean the book is meant for an "average" fifth grader or a "bright" fourth grader. But, if possible, we recommend using them even younger. It won't work for everyone, but we think being done with 8/7 by the end of sixth or at most seventh grade is a good goal.
Algebra 1/2 to Calculus:
Starting at Algebra 1/2, the format changes again, though only slightly. The kit still includes three pieces, but it is now a hardcover student textbook, a small answer key, and a test booklet. A solution manual is available seperately, but no longer part of the kit. The textbook no longer conforms to the 120 lesson format, and no longer has the investigations. The answer key provides the answers to the text and solutions to the tests, and the test booklet is simply that; it does not include worksheets. The solution manual is like those in the earlier grades, offering step by step answers to the questions in the daily work.
While the 3rd editions are still available, the newer 4th editions of Algebra 1 and 2 no longer include the Geometry element. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt now makes Geometry available as a separate course. The homeschool kits for these editions now include the Solutions Manual.
Our Honest Opinion:
We have heard increased negativity about these books over the last few years, but think a large number of the complaints are due to lazy students: algebra is hard and requires discipline! We understand that people are different and that Saxon isn't for everyone, but we pose the question: which option is better? Every possibility we know of* has its own weaknesses (we hear complaints about them too). We've seen Saxon prove itself in test results for years, and personally know several students who have done extrememly well in both college and military careers after using Saxon. David Schormann (teacher and developer of the DIVE software) thinks Saxon is the best choice and offers his own defense here. If you have a math-minded student, we are still confident to suggest Saxon, especially in conjunction with the DIVE CD-ROMs.
* The only other options we would suggest seriously considering for a "normal" homeschool setting (in which the student is doing most of the work on his own) are:
Teaching Textbooks (which are user-friendly, but more expensive and don't have as much depth or go as far—plus they aren't generally available at Exodus), and
Elementary Algebra and Geometry by Harold Jacobs (more logical texts, but harder and don't offer quite as much teacher support).
If your student has been using and doing well in the newer edition of 8/7, it is possible to skip Algebra 1/2—take a placement test to see if this would be wise.
As you can see in this section, most Saxon products are available to purchase separately, but we recommend the kits or bundles for all grade levels. You'll get everything you need, plus an automatic discount is built into the kit pricing.
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