One of my favorite things to read on people's homeschooling blogs is reviews of curricula and other homeschooling materials. Since we've been at this homeschooling thing for eight years now (Yikes - that's a long time!), I figure I should have some experience that might be useful for others.
I'm going to start with reviewing the only two "core" curricula that we've used. Our very first year, we used Five in a Row. Since then, we've been Sonlight devotees. Both curricula are literature-based, so you can see our bias right from the beginnning. Now, on the the specifics.
Five in a Row - Volume 1
One important caveat to this review: We used Five in a Row when Ga'hoole Girl was in kindergarten, 8 years ago. I don't know how the curriculum has changed over the years, so make sure to do your own research before doing any purchasing.
Five in a Row is a literature-based curriculum for young children. The basic idea is that you read the same book to the child each day of the week - i.e. five in a row. Then, each day, you do activities that relate the book to a particular "school" subject. One day, you would do some math activities, another day might be geography, etc.
The wonderful thing about this curriculum is the books. We still read these books out loud as a family. They are just amazing. Some of the titles include Grandfather's Journey, The Story About Ping, and The Rag Coat. I just looked at the website, and it looks like they have added some new titles. Some families really like digging into a different subject each day instead of doing a little bit each day, so the different subject each day can be appealing.
Now the negatives. First of all, Ga'hoole Girl did not enjoy reading the same book each day for five days. By the third day, she was bored of it. Mr. Math Teacher, who was the homeschool "teacher" at the time, found that the activities required more preparation than he was interested in doing. (Remember that Wild Man was two years old at the time.) The program is also not great if you are interested in any kind of systematic approach to academics. Knowing what I know now about kids and learning, I wouldn't be as concerned about this as I was eight years ago. But, if you are looking for something to cover the usual "school" subjects in an orderly fashion, this program is probably not it.
If you use FIAR, you also will need a way to teach reading and math. FIAR involves lots of language activities, but does not "teach" phonics. In the same way, you do math activities every week, but there is no systematic approach to introducing math concepts. They do sell a Bible supplement to go with FIAR, but it is, again, not a very orderly approach to studying the Bible. We tended to rely on family Bible reading and AWANA for most of Ga'hoole Girl's Bible education that year.
The bottom line: I recommend this program for families who are happy to take a relaxed approach to homeschooling and have a parent willing to do the needed preparation for the daily activities. If you want a more laid-out, systematic curriculum, this is probably not for you.
We have used Sonlight for 7 years now, covering Cores 1-6 (Cores 5-6 have taken almost two years to do). I will give an overview of my thoughts on Sonlight, but not spend much time on specifics. For one thing, the early Cores have been changed to Cores A-C and I haven't used them. There have also been recent changes in their language arts program that I'm not familiar with. And, we're only on Core 6. There are another 5 Cores plus their electives that I know very little about.
Sonlight is a literature-based Christian curriculum for homeschoolers. Each Core covers a particular subject in social sciences. So, Cores 1,2,6, and 7 all cover World History; 3,4,100 cover American History; 5 covers Eastern Hemisphere; 200 covers History of God's Kingdom; 300 covers 20th Century History; and 400 covers American Government. Each Core includes an Instructor's Guide and all the necessary books for Bible, history, geography, readers, and read-alouds. The upper level Cores include literature within the Core. The lower level Cores include the readers and read-alouds but have a separate Language Arts component. Sonlight also sells science curricula but they aren't part of the Core.
The Instructor's Guide ties everything together in a Sonlight Core. It maps out all the readings and assignments that are supposed to be done each day. The Language Arts and Science Instructor's Guides are laid out the same way so it's easy to see what to do that day. Sonlight is literature-based, so there is lots of reading all the way around. Through Core 7, there are read-alouds that are intended for the parent to read to the child. In our family, we read these at night as family read-alouds. Many of these are Newberry Award winning books and are just wonderful. The student is assigned readers, as well. In the early levels, the content of the readers is not tied to the content of the rest of the core, so you just order based on your child's reading level. Starting in Core 3, the readers usually match the subject of the Core. Most of the readers are historical fiction, although some are biographies. There are also some books that don't really "fit", but they are great books (i.e. The Hobbit, and The Phantom Tollbooth).
Sonlight uses very few textbooks. Most of the history is taught with Usborne books or trade books. Historical fiction and biographies are also staples. Daily Bible readings are assigned along with the Bible curriculum.
Advantages to Sonlight:
1. The Instructor's Guide. You could go out and buy or borrow all these great books and read them to your kids, but Sonlight has laid out everything in the Instructor's Guide so you don't have to do all that research on your own. They also include guides to each of the books, giving questions that you can use for narration as well as things to make sure not to miss.
2. The Christian approach to everything. Sonlight does not use a majority of Christian books, but everything is laid out to help kids think about all their subjects from a Christian perspective.
3. The books. Sonlight has a wonderful bunch of books put together to help us educate our kids. They don't shy away from potentially controversial books, either. The Instructor's Guide includes warnings about books that we might want to "edit" as we read or suggestions of topics that we may need to handle carefully. Many other curricula have students read 3 or 4 books in the entire year. Sonlight has students reading 20 or more books each year.
4. The forums. The Sonlight forums are an amazing resource for parents who use the curriculum. There are boards for each curriculum level where we can discuss how we are using the curriculum and get suggestions for how we may want to tailor it to fit our own family. We can also find general hints on homeschooling and places to discuss "non-homeschooling" issues.
5. Flexibility. The Sonlight Instructor's Guides are great for giving a day-to-day outline of how to use the curriculum with no modification. But, it's not hard to modify things to fit your family. For example, we are currently doing Core 6 with a 7th grader and a 4th grader. Ga'hoole Girl does the readers with the Core, but I have Wild Man using other readers. A Core can be completed in 36 weeks, but can be stretched to two years or more if you slow down the reading or go off on "rabbit trails". We also don't follow the assigned readings by day - I try to follow them by the week.
1. Lots of reading. This works great for our family, but can be difficult if you have a child who doesn't read well or if a parent can't do much reading aloud (for example, a parent who has TMJ might have trouble doing all the reading in Sonlight).
2. Language Arts. I wasn't real thrilled about the Language Arts in the early Cores. That being said, Sonlight has completely revamped their early Core Language Arts so I can't comment about how it works now.
3. Bible. Some years, I have loved the Bible curriculum with the Core, and some years I haven't been happy with it. For example, I didn't at all like the Core 5 Bible book, but I really like Core 6. They do include daily Bible reading that will get you through the entire Bible in two years. This is separate from their Bible curriculum.
4. Cost. Sonlight sells their Cores as a package so you pay less than if you bought everything individually. But, it's still pricey. I think it's worth it since I'm thrilled to have all these wonderful books. Some people buy the Instructor's Guide and a few of the main books and get the rest from the library. It's not ideal, but may work for some people.
Bottom line: Sonlight is an excellent curriculum that could be used by most families. I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of what they offer. Check out their website for more details.
More curriculum reviews later!