No more word problem tears: A review of Singapore Math.
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I wasn’t the greatest math student, I’ll admit. I put off learning my times tables until 5th grade. I goofed off in class. But as long as word problems were few, my grades were good, and high school math was fun.
I didn’t understand what to do with the information I had. How do you know which number to divide by which? I would feel so stupid.
It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that a physics teaching assistant insisted we learn to document our word problems his way. I started to get word problems correct. I didn’t know how it worked, but I liked his system and my higher grades.
So, when I pulled my kids out of school to begin homeschooling, I was very concerned about choosing the right math curriculum. Like “Handwriting Without Tears”, I wanted to set my kids up for success. I wasn’t aware of any shortcomings in their math education up to 2nd and 3rd grade, so my decision about curriculum was based on its merits alone.
I had worked as an Education Technician at a nearby school district and used Saxon Math to teach some kids who were a few years behind in math, and some other kids who needed the extra one-on-one support to learn math well. I was very comfortable with Saxon, and noticed that Susan Wise Bauer recommended it highly in her book, “Well-Trained Mind“. But it didn’t address The Word Problem like I wanted.
Susan also recommended the Singapore Math program. I had heard good things from a visiting math professor who taught Lego Robotics after school in my classroom while I was a long-term substitute teacher. She warned that it was a different approach to teaching math, and I would need to educate myself in the proper way to use the approach. I figured that I would learn as we went.
Students have to master concepts before moving on, and fewer skills are taught in a school year, but the kids understand the “why” behind multiplication and area and so on. The progression of concepts was chosen based on child development theory. The students begin with manipulatives, and then start to draw diagrams to represent what they need to solve, and these diagrams are essential when the students start to solve multiple-step word problems.
Since both programs prepare students for high school math at a pace that gets geometry in before the SAT, I didn’t look any farther. Upon brief research on the internet, I found that Singapore scored in 1st place internationally in the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study for 4th and 8th graders. If a math program can do that for a country of kids, surely, it can make a positive difference in my own.
Quest to buy the text
We were going to take the plunge. Next step, buy the books. Which textbooks and workbooks do you buy? What’s up with A and B books?
Singapore breaks their math program down into semester booklets. Each semester has a paperback textbook and a single-use workbook.
Okay, so my kid is going into 4th grade. I’ll buy the 4A and 4B books for the next school year.
NOT SO FAST!
This lesson can be applied to any shift between math programs. Often, as is the case with Saxon and Singapore, the publishers offer free placement tests on their websites. Take the time to print them up for several grades, in the case for Singapore. And don’t print the higher grades. Back up a few years.
No kidding. My son, who scored A’s in math in 3rd grade, had to start the 4th grade in the 2B book. My daughter, going into 3rd grade, started in the 2A book. And I was pushing it. They could have comfortably started a semester before.
Also, there are three editions of the primary math program: Primary Math Common Core Edition, Primary Math US Edition, and Primary Math US Standards (CA Standards). Always buy the “US Ed” or “US Edition” of whatever math book you choose.
Where to buy
I bought them and the teacher guides for each semester, from the Singapore website: Singaporemath.com. I used them for years, and their customer service is great and their shipping is fast. They even called me to ask if I made a mistake in my order because I ordered 2 of the same item. They have free shipping on orders over $50. Be sure to check for damaged books. I’ve been very pleased with saving a few dollars for a bent corner. So, for our first year, I bought 2B and 3A for my son, and 2A and 2B for my daughter. I also bought the extra practice books (see below) for each child.
These books are also available at CBD and Amazon (careful – make sure they look like the books at singaporemath.com) and other sellers. Check around for best price and shipping. I never did encounter any sales, but, knowing what books were needed for the next year or two, I would stock up if damaged books became available. Remember – these are single use workbooks.
Home Instructor Guides vs. Teacher Guides vs. Answer Keys
If this is your first time teaching Singapore, I recommend the Home Instructor guide for at least the first year. You are going to be learning right along with your child and you will need a reference to explain extra activities to do with the kids using manipulatives and concepts. The answer keys don’t have any helps, other than offering you the opportunity to work the problem backwards. I highly recommend reading each lesson out loud with the child before setting them loose on practice problems. The Teacher guide is more appropriate for the classroom application.
Extra Practice and Speed Drills and Assessments
We tried both. The kids did not like the speed drills, but I thought they were beneficial. I have noticed that my mental math has sped up considerably, but I am not sure about the kids’. The Extra Practice slowed our pace through the main text considerably, but I think it was a good choice for our first few years using Singapore. The kids needed the extra reinforcement. The Assessments are only printed for the other two versions of the program. In each text, there are comprehensive review exercises, often in pairs. I would assign the first review as a review, and the second one as a test. Honestly, most of the time I didn’t bother! But if you need a test, there is a way you can do it.
Each Home Instructor guide will have a list to buy manipulatives, as well as some copies to make. I found that the linking cubes and the base ten cubes helped tremendously (affiliate links to Amazon). We also used poker chips, multiplication flash cards, and an inexpensive deck of cards.
Flags on the play
I implemented this policy from the beginning: if a problem was wrong, its problem number was circled, and a flag (affiliate link to Amazon) was placed at the top of the page to indicate one or more incorrect answers on that page. Before moving on to the next lesson, they had to figure out what was wrong, and correct it. It didn’t matter how many times it took them to get it right.
If it wasn’t a simple mistake, it became obvious quickly. Sometimes we had to back-track a couple lessons to approach the material differently, but usually it just required a brief review of the lesson, sometimes with the child reading it to me out loud.
Each afternoon I would correct their math workbooks and extra practice and place their flags as I came across wrong answers. Then I would write on a post-it note on the front of their book what I expected them to do the next day. They would usually begin with addressing the flags on their own. Of course they could come to me if they were stumped. Then we would read the lesson out loud together. They would do some sample problems.
We would read more, and they would eventually finish the lesson and arrive at the practice pages. On their own, they would complete the page(s) I assigned. On Fridays, they would set aside their Singapore, and do a lesson in “Life of Fred”, which was highly satisfying, because they were supposed to do it all on their own. Big stuff!
The kids were able to complete about 2 and 1/2 books a school year, which brought them up to “grade level” by the end of 5th grade. I couldn’t believe how confident they were in the face of complex, multi-step word problems.
For 6th grade, I transitioned my son to Saxon Math for Algebra 1/2. My daughter wanted to continue with Singapore another year. When it was her turn for Algebra, she wanted to take the Singapore Algebra, otherwise known as New Elementary Mathematics.
New Elementary Mathematics
What a disaster. The first lesson went right over my head and we spent over a week working through the problems. It struck me that the author might be very arrogant to make the first lesson so difficult; I can’t come up with another motivation. After the rough start, she wanted to continue. In a month, however, it became clear that this program was not going to work for us, and I handed her the Saxon Algebra 1/2 book.
My Final Recommendation
Singapore Math was a game changer in our homeschool. Both kids have ROCK SOLID arithmetic skills and have gone on to sail through Algebra and Geometry. No more word problem tears. I highly recommend this program if your kids are in early to mid elementary years. If you are starting a new math program in 5th or 6th grade or higher, I recommend Saxon Math.
Thanks for taking the time to read this review. If you have any questions regarding the program, or would like me to review another curriculum, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, if you sign up for my newsletter, I’ll let you know when I have published new reviews. Thanks again!