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Which Curriculum is the Best?

December 15, 2005

When parents decide to homeschool, one of the first questions raised in their minds is “which curriculum?” There are some wonderful lines of material out there for the home-schooled kid of every grade and bent. How to choose one?

Your homeschooling friend from the church says such-and-such worked better for her son than anything else, and she has tried a score of options. The magazines you read are advertising the most up-and-coming curriculum available. And then, there is your budget to consider... What if you choose a lemon and put your kid and yourself through misery for the next 10 months?

Good question.

I have not seen or sampled very many curricula. As a student, I used very little, but what I did use was a mixture of ABEKA and ACE paces. I don’t believe either one of them were tailored to meet my needs as a student. But I have no fear about choosing the correct curriculum for my children. You see, it’s not a question of “what type of curriculum,” but rather: “what type of child.”

Flash cards, cassette tapes, school books, and Curious George Learns the Alphabet was my first approach to teaching Joe Courage his ABCs. He was learning at a moderate pace, I suppose, but not with the lightning speed and enthusiasm he shows in other areas of life. I wondered why. An unplanned trip to Walgreen’s with Joe was what I needed.

We strolled down the crowded aisle, looking for a broom, and discovered a section of coffee table entertainment. Puzzles of all kinds, including 3D puzzles of cars and trucks, a map of the United States, and even a couple of children’s puzzles of numbers and alphabet pieces. We bought them all and spent less than twenty bucks. The first time Joe tried to put the alphabet puzzle together, he got frustrated and stomped on the pieces. His reaction was so violent that I was amazed. He was duly spanked, but the intensity of his emotions toward the puzzle clued me in: Joe has a “hands-on” brain.

Within twenty-four hours, he could put the puzzle together in a matter of minutes. He had tried and retried a hundred times without prompting. He would not rest until he had it figured out. Not only would he repeat the process again and again, Joe would hold each piece up and ask me what it was - or guess. “Is this M for mama?” I had to be fast in my response, because he was not going to wait around for me to reply; two seconds later there was another piece in his hand. A couple of days later, he was able to put the puzzle together while naming the letters and sounds to himself. “A is for a-a-alligator, B is for b-b-bear, C is for c-c-cookie, D is for d-d-daddy...” And that was the curriculum that Joe used to teach himself the alphabet.

Sight, Hearing, and Touch

You are probably already familiar with the three methods of learning; Sight, Hearing, and Touch. Almost everyone has at some time or other diagnosed themselves by saying, “Oh, I learn best by seeing something done...” or “I need to read it for myself; you’re not making sense...”

Ever wonder why some people prefer a map, while others do just fine following verbal directions? Why do some people read instruction manuals and information books while others prefer fiction for entertainment and seminars for learning? Aha! The light has gone on in your brain. Yes. Your child learns in a different way from others. Some may learn well with a good mixture of two, or even all three methods, but many will prefer one single method of learning.

Actions speak louder...

Joseph Courage is a hands-on learner. He needs action and touch. Joe needs to be physically involved in the lessons he is learning. He likes to work, play, sing, and talk his way through “schoolwork.” This manner of learning may be the most difficult for the average teacher to work with. Hands-on teaching requires enormous creativity and involvement. There are not many curricula that can meet this learning bent, unless they are project suggestion books and a series of games. There may be such a one out there, but I am not aware of it. I had a sister and a brother who learned this way. I believe my Mom is also a hands-on learner, thus her manner of teaching was more hands-on and creative than it otherwise would have been.
When I was a child, one of my Mom’s most used teaching tools was peanut-butter “play-dough.” She made it regularly and kept plastic containers full of decorating supplies (peanuts, raisins, M&Ms) on hand. We crowded around the table and created all kinds of things, only to eat them in the end. Almost every kid has eaten play-dough, but we did it legally and safely.

Here’s the recipe for peanut butter play-dough.
1/3-part peanut butter
1/3-part dry powdered milk
1/3-part honey
Mix well and knead for a few minutes until dough sticks together. Refrigerate leftovers in airtight container to keep for a week or more.

Another method Mom used was the Math-It games which we bought from the Moore Foundation ( or 800-891-5255). Also, for math we counted change, and had “business” over the kitchen table, buying and selling snack goods to each other. We played games that involved a lot of vocabulary, history, and facts. We learned to read by taking turns reading aloud behind an imaginary pulpit, making our voices carry and our words clear for the “audience” of four siblings and two parents. The critics were very strict.

Mom had project after project going for her own interest, from mushroom farming to making natural dyes. She read the instructions, but preferred to try things herself, and still does. We learned from her projects as well.

I think one of the best curricula for a hands-on learner is to work with someone. My brother Gabriel learned an immense amount from working on construction sites with other men from the time he was twelve years old. The conversation and practical skills he acquired on the job-site opened the door of knowledge for him, and showed him how to “teach” himself. Finding a genre of knowledge and a “teacher” you trust may be difficult, but it is definitely worth a careful look. A girl could work at a fabric store, flower shop, milk farm, novelty shop, restaurant, with a mid-wife, etc... A boy could work with a black-smith, carpenter, veterinarian, businessman, etc... So much is learned by working at a job: knowledge, discipline, confidence, social interaction, and much more.

As an aside, the famous Robert Kiyosaki, who wrote the book, Rich Dad, Poor Dad, recommended that before anyone starts a business, they should get a job working for a small company, and “work through” all the jobs in the company they can in order to get a well-rounded business education. I would safely guess that Robert Kiyosaki is a hands-on learner.
Godspeed, with your hands-on student!

Ears to Hear

Very few children will turn away from some project or game that requires their physical involvement. However, not all children prefer to learn by the hands-on method. The hearing-learner will be impatient with the process and want you to “just tell me...” so they can get on with life. I am this way.

When I was a young student, games and projects were fun, but not in conjunction with learning. If I wanted to learn something, I wanted to be told how to do it, succinctly and articulately. Then I wanted my teacher to get out of my way and let me at it. Games and projects slowed me down and bored my mind; reading instructions was loathsome. I loved to memorize by listening to tapes or learning songs.

Mom made a series of cassette tapes accompanied by charts that taught phonics, and I can still remember them clearly. I would have preferred doing school entirely by audio tape or with a classroom teacher, and would have learned twice as much, twice as fast if that had been my sole manner of instructional input.

Even today, I have trouble reading directions. The page just goes blank when I look at it. I buy patterns (rarely) only to study the pictures and sew what “looks like it,” and rarely fail in this method. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is a true statement; seeing a picture is just like hearing something explained. Words on paper are not anywhere near the same as a spoken word. Homeschool videos were not around when I needed them. I have no doubt I would have preferred teaching videos over any other method of learning.

If you have a hearing-learner, reading aloud to them is a great way to start. Mom began to read aloud to me when I was tiny, and she claims that I was reading by the time I turned four. Even now, at thirty years old, when I think of a word, I can hear it said in my mind. When I spell a difficult word, I do so by remembering it being spelled aloud. I learned to spell Wednesday by hearing someone pronounce it “Wed-nes-day” slowly for me.

I still know my multiplication tables, because Mom chanted them aloud to me, and had me chant them back to her. Chanting the “times tables” drove my brother crazy, but for me there was no other way. I enjoy reading, but I learn better from books that are written in a conversational style, rather than those that are written in instructional form.

If you have a child who learns more easily by videos and tape curriculum, audited classes, songs and chant repetitions, and all other things taught by the hearing method, then it will be obvious to you what curricula to use for that student. If he or she is like me, hearing will open the door of ability to read for themselves. Once they can “hear” a word in their head when they see it, they will soon become “self-taught.”

Eye of the Beholder

This may be the most convenient type of student for parents to teach. Thankful are the teachers who have students who prefer to read the information for themselves!

My sister Shalom learns best by sight. In her case, a project was overwhelming and verbal instructions were either too fast or too slow. She had no patience with being told the teacher’s perceptions. Her mentality was, “who cares what you know; give me the book, and soon I’ll know it.”

Shalom spent hours in her room, surrounded by stacks of books that she studied with the patience of a sea turtle. The rest of us would walk by her door and peer in occasionally, simply amazed at her willingness to stay pinned to her desk. To force Shalom to study in a manner that was not comfortable to her was completely fruitless. She would sit through instructions and videos and family games, only to retire to her room to stay up all night studying and reading to learn what she needed to know. If Shalom ran out of books, her life was without form and void until she replenished the storehouse. Her walls and ceiling were lined with charts, maps, and posters of every sort.

It is important for a sight-learner to know how to find written information. My husband is a sight-learner as well. He could not survive on this planet without the World Wide Web. Everything he wants to know is available to him by typing in a small command. For the sight-learner, such a tool is almost miraculous. There is no limit to what he/she can learn if the ability to find knowledge is given to them. A local library offers the same type of resource. But, even in the library, a child needs to know how to look and where to look in order to find the books he needs.

Not only do sight-learners need to read instructional books, they need demonstrations as well. If your sight-learner is interested in medical topics, they will enjoy watching surgeries, births, and medical procedures in person, as well as on video. Seeing it done will give them the confidence they can do it themselves. The smallest children need to be lifted up high to watch mama or daddy perform the simple functions of life in the household. “Look, this is how you wash dishes...” “This is how you count money...” “This is the way you comb your hair...” Show-and-tell should be the teacher’s way of life for a sight-learner.
Math problems, at times, will need to be solved on the white board step by step, but do so in a very visual manner. Spelling words will need to be on paper as well. Diagrams and graphs will make sense to a sight learner, where they might look more like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to other children.

And remember, if your sight-learner asks you to “show me,” what he/she really means is, “I need to see it done.”

What Now?

I believe that all three of these methods of learning are likely to be found in your household. One child may need two methods to learn at their highest potential, and you might be completely different from that child. Experiment by teaching them something three different ways, and see which method seems to “ring a bell” with your student. Once you know how they learn, choosing a curriculum will be much easier and safer. You might discover that pieces of two different curricula are what you need for one child, whereas another single curriculum might meet your second child’s needs entirely. If your best friend recommends what works for her, find out how her child learns before you invest a year’s savings in learning material that works great for someone else.

And, if you are one of those teachers or students who has been badly burned by a curriculum that just didn’t take, take heart and let your hope return! You are not necessarily a poor teacher or a poor learner; you probably just need a new approach. Now you are much better equipped to find it!

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2 comments on “Which Curriculum is the Best?”

  1. Thank you so much! My husband, 4 month old, and I are missionaries in the Bahamas and are taking in an 8 year old boy that has been in a very unhealthy environment. He has some bad learned behavior and I am going to begin homeschooling him. I have read to him and spent enough time with him to know that he is a hands on learner. This article was so helpful to me. My husband and I are fairly young and have never home schooled before let alone raised an 8 year old. We are desperate for the Lord's wisdom and guidance so thank you very much!

  2. Hi. I am wondering if there is some kind of test that would determine how a particular child learns. I honestly can't figure out how my child learns best. Thanks in advance.