With its warm, narrative approach, clear instruction and thorough coverage of the subject, Life of Fred can be a more interesting and approachable option to standard math programs, helping students reduce their fear and gain a greater appreciation for math in the long run.
What We Like
But Be Careful
What is Life of Fred Math?
Written by former math teacher, Dr. Stanley Schmidt, Life of Fred is a series of math books for students in early elementary through college.
Covering everything from basic numeracy and addition to complex analysis, Life of Fred takes a rather unique, literature-based approach to teaching math.
The series consists of a variety of humor-filled illustrated books that use an engaging story-driven instructive approach, rather than more traditional textbook instruction.
What Ages or Grades is Life of Fred Intended For?
Life of Fred is a surprisingly wide-ranging math series, not only compared to programs that use a narrative or literature-based approach, but compared to most homeschool math programs in general.
Life of Fred is perhaps most well known for its elementary series, which are intended for grades 1-4.
This series comprises 10 books and has a relatively unconventional naming structure that represents levels A-J ina somewhat more amusing manner.
Its books, in order, are:
- Ice Cream
Together, these books cover the fundamentals of elementary school math (and more) – starting with basic counting and numeracy, they progress through essential operations and geometry, and end up teaching decimals, exponents, sets, averages and so on.
Life of Fred also has an intermediate series, which continues the learning introduced in the elementary math series and reinforces/expands on some of the more advanced topics, such as exponents, division, sequences and series, geometry and so on.
The intermediate series is comprised of similarly unconventionally named books (levels K-M) that are, in order:
The final sections, or divisions, of Life of Fred books essentially cover math from the 5th grade through early college.
Unlike the previous books, the books at this level are titled in a relatively straightforward manner, i.e. their title refers to their overall subject matter.
As of writing, they are:
Pre-High school Mathematics (Middle School)
- Decimals and Percents
- Pre-Algebra 0 Physics
- Pre-Algebra 1 with Biology
- Pre-Algebra 2 with Economics
High School Mathematics
- Beginning Algebra
- Advanced Algebra
- Linear Algebra
- Five Days
- Real Analysis
- Complex Analysis
As can be seen, as a series, Life of Fred is quite expansive.
We typically consider a homeschool math curriculum to be fairly complete if it covers K-12 math.
Life of Fred, on the other hand, continues the learning (with its same format) well into the college years, which can be helpful for college age students who have become used to its style or for adults looking for an approachable way to brush up on college math.
It’s also important to note, particularly for homeschools, that the Life of Fred series isn’t arranged by grade or age, but by a series of unconventional titles and, later, by concept.
Without any mention of what grade level the contents of a book are supposed to be at, Life of Fred can be less intimidating/embarrassing for students to use if they are learning outside a typical pace of learning, such as if they are precocious math learners or if they are behind in their learning.
That said, as with many other homeschool math programs, due to Life of Fred’s unconventional style and unique scope and sequence, it can be a bit tricky for parents and students to know where to start with the book series.
Life of Fred itself recommends that students, especially those below the 4th grade, start at the beginning of the series in order to figure out their level as well as to get a sense of the overall story and any language or terms that may come up again later.
However, while possible (due to the relatively short length and easy nature of these books), this approach isn’t always ideal.
While Life of Fred does offer a lot of help on its site to help direct parents to the right general area in which to start, there is no real official placement test available online that would offer a quicker result.
With Life of Fred, parents and students essentially only require the series’ books to teach/learn the material.
Starting with Fractions (5th grade and up), parents can purchase optional books containing extra problem sets for each course (called Zillions of Practice Problems), but by and large Life of Fred’s storybooks are more or less self-contained.
That is, they contain the program’s instructional material (woven, as it is, into the story) and assessment/review questions, and students work things out in their own notebook or sheets of paper.
Overall, Life of Fred is pretty simple and easy to own compared to other math curricula.
With no extra teacher’s manuals, student workbooks or test books to purchase, there aren’t a lot of moving parts to keep track of or to clutter up a house.
Similarly, Life of Fred’s books are non-consumable, and can therefore be re-used as necessary with other students or more easily resold, thereby reducing their cost of ownership over time for some families.
Life of Fred Approach to Math
Narrative Approach to Math
Life of Fred doesn’t really follow a traditional, textbook method of teaching math.
Rather unusually, it uses a narrative, storytelling approach that weaves explanations and demonstrations of math concepts into an engaging, character-driven storyline.
Life of Fred centers around a 5 year old math genius known as Fred Gauss who is a professor of mathematics at KITTENS University.
The books broadly (but not necessarily chronologically) follow his life as he grows up, has different little adventures and learns to use mathematics in everyday life.
Written in a deliberately playful and humorous style, Life of Fred is designed to engage and amuse students, integrating the math learning into the overall narrative, providing lots of small illustrations and unusual fonts for effect.
Rather than being a straight math textbook, Life of Fred is really more of a living math book, i.e. a book written by an expert on the material deliberately written to engage the audience and draw them into the subject.
Consequently it should be familiar to, and easily work with, Charlotte Mason homeschools and those familiar with literature-based teaching.
Interestingly, this style continues all the way through the book series, well into the college-level courses, providing a sense of continuity that can be helpful and familiar for those growing up with the program.
It is also an approach that isn’t seen everyday in courses like Linear Algebra or Real and Complex Analysis.
Math concepts are broken up into smaller, easier to digest topics and these are taught a little at a time, circling back to revisit concepts in greater depth both within a book and within the series as a whole.
Consequently, students are introduced to a variety and number of topics within a given book without it feeling overwhelming or stagnant, and learning tends to be bolstered by more frequent, periodic review and repetition.
This is as opposed to a mastery curriculum, such as with Math U See or Math Mammoth, where students explore a single topic deeply for a greater period of time until some level of proficiency (mastery) is reached and another topic is introduced.
Life of Fred is also something of a conceptual math program.
Rather than emphasizing the memorization of math facts, formulas and strategies for solving math problems (although there are some, to be sure), Life of Fred emphasizes a practical understanding of the math concepts, explaining how concepts work and how they can be practically used.
Consequently, there is a greater emphasis on logic and critical thinking about math rather than drill and computational skill development.
In fact, compared to other math curricula (even other conceptual math programs) Life of Fred seems to place special emphasis on connecting math learning to its application, helping students understand how their math might be of use in a real-world problem or situation.
We think this can be pretty beneficial to students, particularly those who have had a hard time with math in the past and have written off the subject as being something to just get through and be done with.
Life of Fred books are pretty short and, at a lesson a day, families can go through the series quite quickly, even with students at a young age, which is something parents might be uneasy with, especially in a subject as fundamental as math.
As a result, the program recommends that parents and students (especially those in elementary) periodically and comprehensively reread the series so that they can review concepts and pick up on anything they may have missed.
They generally recommend doing so in the first two grades and before moving on to fractions.
This process is known in education as spaced repetition, and is a fairly well recognized technique, particularly with math and science.
The idea being that information is better retained and internalized if studied over a period of time, rather than in a single burst.
This is thought to be due to the fact that spacing out learning and repetition allows for greater opportunity for review, gives students more time to let things sink in in the long run and is less boring and tiring overall.
Topics Other Than Math
Finally, Life of Fred often integrates a variety of educational facts into its books aside from math.
Although not as regular and central as the intended math learning, really being somewhat periodic asides, throughout the book series Life of Fred touches on different topics in:
- Language arts and grammar rules
- And more
Interestingly, at the pre-Algebra level, things are a bit more focused, with each of the books bringing in select topics from certain areas of science, such as:
- Pre-Algebra 0 touching on Physics topics (friction, motion, pendulums, work, etc)
- Pre-Algebra 1 touching on Biology topics (Avogadro’s number, chromosomes, DNA, etc)
- Pre-Algebra 2 touching on Economics (demand curves, partnerships, Definitions of different economic systems, etc)
How much a homeschool appreciates this extra information (or what it does with it) is really up to the homeschool and its philosophy, obviously, but we think it can add a little flavor and multidisciplinary learning to Life of Fred.
How it Works
Using Life of Fred is pretty straight forward as the books are pretty much self-contained.
The books are written to the student and can be read aloud with parents (by younger students or those with reading challenges) or used as a self-study program by older students.
Much like a storybook, books typically start off with Fred doing or encountering something that kicks off a multi-chapter story that serves to introduce and explore math concepts.
In a this way, math concepts are introduced and detailed as students read along in a surprisingly thorough manner given the unusual look and feel of the book’s teaching style.
Each chapter is pretty short, usually between 6-10 pages depending on the book and the complexity of its topic, and there are a lot of small illustrations and fun fonts to keep things lively and visually interesting for kids.
Following each chapter, students have an opportunity to practice some of the concepts they have learned in a section called “Your Turn to Play.”
Essentially, these are a few practice problems that let students try out the math they’ve learned for themselves and are usually a mix of computational and word problems.
At the upper levels (Fractions and up), every few chapters Life of Fred introduces a spiral review, called a Bridge.
This is essentially a short quiz or test on the material learned in those chapters and serves to assess student learning and retention to that point, which is helpful.
There are about 10 questions in these bridges and students have to solve 9 of them to advance and get 5 tries to do so, each with a different set of questions.
At the end of the book is a final test of sorts, called a Final Bridge, which is 15 questions with 5 tries.
In general, although packed with knowledge, Life of Fred books are pretty short (usually under 150 pages at the elementary level) and easy to read.
They are filled with humor and illustrations, and are written in a very playful style, and so do a wonderful job at introducing math ideas and concepts in a way that kids will enjoy reading, even on their own.
As a result, unlike most other curricula out there, it isn’t uncommon for students to read through several books (or even the whole series, depending on reading ability) in a given year.
Consequently, parents may wish to consider purchasing the series as a set, rather than one book at a time, and also may wish to follow the program’s suggestion of periodic re-readings and review of concepts to ensure that students fully understand and retain the information they find in the books.
One thing that parents may wish to be aware of is that Life of Fred is not exactly a straight to the point textbook on math.
By weaving the teaching into a narrative, the learning tends to come in a more roundabout way and the text can include frequent asides and non-math learning material (or even introducing more advanced math concepts from time to time) that, while educational, may distract certain kids from the main point.
Similarly, the answers to the questions for each chapter are located on the next page, which can make it a little easy for students to sneak a peek and may require parents to make measures to prevent this.
Although, author Dr. Fred Gauss has his own answer to this issue:
Overall, however, we believe that Life of Fred is an extremely approachable math program, one that makes math and math concepts far more understandable for children and far less of a stressor in their lives, and can be particularly beneficial to students who have had a hard time with math so far or who suffer from math anxiety.
In addition, its playful, yet thorough, storytelling approach can be an excellent fit for literature-based homeschools and those that emphasize learning through living books, such as Charlotte Mason homeschools, eclectic homeschools and unschools.
We also appreciate the program’s emphasis on the real-life, practical applications of math, something that is often missing in math programs and that can instill a great deal more meaning into a student’s learning, which in turn can create more engaged students.
Is Life of Fred a Secular Math Program?
In our opinion, Life of Fred is more of a faith-neutral curriculum rather than a purely secular program per se.
This is due to the fact that, while there is no real religious content to the books, there can be occasional mentions of God or Fred going to church or praying here and there, which may bother those looking for a 100% faith-free curriculum.
Is Life of Fred common core?
No, Life of Fred very much follows its own scope and sequence when it comes to math and does not align with common core standards.
Is Life of Fred a complete curriculum?
Despite its unusual approach to teaching math, i.e. through a story, Life of Fred is a complete math curriculum.
Its series covers all the math topics and concepts that can be expected from a grades 1-12 curriculum (and into college), and explores the concepts in a thorough, in-depth and approachable way.
Life of Fred is also known to periodically introduce certain ideas and concepts at earlier levels than some other programs, particularly when it wants to illustrate a point or demonstrate the usefulness of an idea, such as , for example, by sneaking in some calculus symbols or algebraic concepts as an aside.
As a whole, Life of Fred teaches the same level and quality of math as many other homeschool math programs, just in a simple, easy and fun way so that students can appreciate and understand math better.
In fact, because kids tend to like the books and the way they are written so much, they may choose to read them on their own, which can help them be more receptive to and willing to absorb the information presented, which can make Life of Fred far more effective in the long run at inspiring a love of math than some other, top-down programs.
One issue some parents may have is that, with only a few questions per chapter and a short, spiral quiz every few lessons, there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of practice included in the elementary series.
Consequently, some parents may wish to supplement it with some extra practice here and there, particularly for students who need a good deal of drill and practice to really absorb and retain their math learning.
Given the clear and thorough math teaching of Life of Fred, these can be from a formal curriculum (such as Math U See, Singapore Math or even Kahn Academy) or just math games and exercises.
That said, many other students, particularly those with an aptitude for math, may find Life of Fred to be enough and there are certainly many homeschoolers that do just fine using Life of Fred as a sole math curriculum.
In addition, for the older grades (starting at Fractions), Life of Fred offers a book of extra practice problems, called Zillions of Problems, which contain a variety of word problems and offer complete answers with step-by-step demonstrations and, combined with the main books, do offer quite a bit of practice overall.
How intensive is Life of Fred for Parents?
Overall, Life of Fred isn’t very intensive for parents or difficult to teach.
The books are short, written clearly and plainly and speak to the child and so, even with young children, there isn’t much in the way of preparation or pre-requisite knowledge required to teach from the program.
At the older levels, are designed to be used as more of a self-study course, so parents can step back into more of an oversight role.
Consequently, Life of Fred is more or less open and go as far as math curricula are concerned, and can be a good choice for parents who are new to homeschooling, who have a busy homeschool or for those who are uncertain about their own math skills.
Pros and Cons of Life of Fred
Life of Fred is quite an affordable program.
Elementary level books typically cost less than $20 each, while middle and high school math books typically come in at less than $50 or so, and each book is more or less self contained – there are additional no teacher’s guides, student workbooks or test books to purchase.
As a result, several years worth of math can be purchased for around the same cost as a single year’s curriculum in another program.
Highly approachable and gentle math instruction kids enjoy
Life of Fred is a very approachable way of teaching math, whose storybook approach and lack of excessive drill and assessment can take a lot of pressure off of students, making it easier for them to learn and come to appreciate math.
Covers math for grades 1-12…and beyond
Life of Fred contains books that span the elementary, middle and high school levels, and even extends well into college level math, with books on Calculus, Statistics, and Analysis.
Unique, humor-filled narrative approach
Life of Fred is taught with a storybook-like, narrative-based approach that incorporates lots of humor and illustration to make learning as clear and painless as possible while still keeping the math learning thorough.
Presents information clearly and thoroughly
Despite using a narrative approach, Life of Fred explains math pretty clearly and in a way that students will understand.
The program also makes the extra effort to connect math learning to real life situations, making the subject more intuitive and impactful for students
Life of Fred is pretty flexible as well. It can be used on its own, as a spine or as a supplement to other math programs, depending on a homeschool’s preference.
Simple, easy to use curriculum for parents and students
Life of Fred is a pretty lightweight curriculum without a lot of moving parts to keep track of or purchase.
The program’s books form the bulk of the instruction and, aside from some optional practice books at the upper levels, there isn’t need to purchase any additional material.
It is also a self-study program that gently guides students through math learning once they are old enough to read it on their own, potentially saving busy parents quite a bit of time.
With students expected to do their work on loose paper or in notebooks, the Life of Fred books are non-consumable and can be reused or resold if needed.
Not quite as much built-in practice, particularly at the elementary levels, as some other math programs
With only a few questions at the end of each chapter and a periodic spiral review component every few chapters, there isn’t quite as much practice available in each book as there might be with other math programs.
Some students can benefit from extra practice and may need to purchase the supplementary books (if they are available for the grade level) or supplement the program with outside practice material.
Extra information and facts are interesting and fun, but can distract
Life of Fred contains lots of brief asides sprinkled throughout the text that, while fun to read, educational and interesting, can be a bit of a distraction for some students, causing them to lose focus on the math.
Who is Life of Fred Ideal For?
Students who get bored with traditional textbook approaches to math
With its high-interest, storybook approach to math, Life of Fred can be a great program for students who find sitting and learning math from a traditional textbook (or being taught from one) a miserable experience.
Fans of narrative approaches to education
Charlotte Mason homeschools and other fans of story-based learning may enjoy Life of Fred’s approach to teaching math, where math facts, formulas and concepts are woven into humorous and highly engaging stories about a young math genius named Fred and his adventures.
Students looking for a gentler, more approachable math curriculum
Life of Fred eschews traditional drill and endless memorization of math facts and formulas for a narrative approach that uses humor and engaging storylines to explain math concepts and relate them to real life scenarios, making math a lot easier to understand and more approachable for kids, particularly those who have had a hard time with math in the past.
Students with math anxiety
With its humorous, storybook approach, commonsense explanations and less of an emphasis on assessment and drill, Life of Fred can be an excellent curriculum for students who feel anxiety when presented with traditional math learning methods.
Homeschools on a budget
As entire sets of Life of Fred (covering several years of learning) can be purchased for less than the cost of a single year’s worth of some other math curricula, Life of Fred is an affordable math program that can fit most homeschool budgets.
Given that it is nonconsumable, it can also be more easily reused, purchased secondhand or even resold, if necessary.
Parents looking for a curriculum their kids won’t fight them on
Life of Fred’s engaging and often humorous approach to math can make the books a lot of fun for students to read on their own, meaning it is likely that parents won’t need to spend as much energy fighting their kids to do their math readings with the series.
Students who do best with short lessons
Some students become overwhelmed with longer math lessons. With chapters that are usually less than 10 pages, and with only a few practice exercises per lesson, Life of Fred keeps learning relatively short and easy to digest.
Older students and adults looking for a non-intimidating way to explore essential and higher math
Life of Fred books go far beyond the typical K-12 level of math and extend well into college level mathematics. Combined with their humorous and casual style, this makes them an interesting option for older students and even adults looking to improve their math skills.
Who is Life of Fred Not Ideal For?
Students looking for a multisensory program
Life of Fred primarily teaches math through its reading and exercises.
There are no manipulatives to use or videos to watch that can help students who prefer more tactile or audiovisual approaches. for example.
Students who need or enjoy tons of practice and drill
Although comprehensive and thorough in its math instruction, Life of Fred doesn’t offer quite as much practice and drill per lesson as some other programs out there.
Students who require, or prefer, lots of practice after every lesson may not appreciate or benefit from the program as much without supplementing the core books.
Parents looking for a traditional, back to basics math program
Life of Fred’s imaginative, narrative-based approach to math, while relatively unique and certainly appealing to many parents and students, may not fit with every parent’s idea of how math should be taught, particularly with parents who grew up with more traditional, procedural math programs.
As a result, they may not be as comfortable with the program and its style, even if the math learning itself is fairly thorough.
Students looking for a to-the-point curriculum
With its storybook approach and frequent asides, Life of Fred isn’t exactly to the point in the way it teaches math.
It is not a textbook that will simply introduce a concept and then provide practice questions for skill development.
Students who prefer a more concise and straightforward math program may become frustrated with Life of Fred’s style of teaching.
Note: Prices current as of writing, all prices in USD.
There are quite a few books in the Life of Fred series, and generally speaking the prices tend to increase as the texts become longer and deal with more complex topics.
Elementary Series – about $19.00 each
Intermediate Series – about $19.00 each
Pre-High School Series
Pre-Algebra 0 with Physics: $39
Pre-Algebra 1 with Biology: $39
Pre-Algebra 2 with Economics: $39
Zillions of Practice Problems for the above: $24
Beginning Algebra (Expanded Edition): $49
Advanced Algebra (Expanded Edition): $49
Geometry (Expanded Edition): $49
Trigonometry (Expanded Edition): $49
Zillions of Practice Problems (for each of the above): $39
Calculus (Expanded Edition): $57
Statistics (Expanded Edition): $57
Linear Algebra (Expanded Edition):$61
Five Days of Upper Division Math: $24
Real Analysis: $49
Because Life of Fred can be a quick read, and because students do tend to enjoy reading them, it can make sense to purchase a set of books rather than doing so piecemeal.
This can save some money, allow students to more fluidly progress at their own pace, and makes spaced repetition a little easier to accomplish.
Life of Fred Elementary Package: $190
Life of Fred Intermediate Package: $57
Life of Fred Pre-Algebra Set: $165
Life of Fred High School 1: $176
Life of Fred High School 2: $98
Life of Fred College Set: $297
As always it is important to check current pricing whether any offers or discounts apply.
Overall, Life of Fred is a pretty affordable math curriculum.
Piecemeal, each book costs less than $20 and provides a fairly thorough introduction to math with no need for additional parent guides or student workbooks.
When bought as a set, the books allow parents to purchase several years worth of math learning for what is, essentially, less than a single year’s learning with a more traditional homeschool curriculum.
Is Life of Fred Worth the Price?
Despite its affordable price, we feel that Life of Fred can provide students and parents with a good deal of value.
It is a comprehensive math program that touches on all the math topics that students need for grades 1-12 and teaches its concepts thoroughly and clearly.
To do so it uses a rather unique method, weaving math instruction into an engaging story and making the process of learning math far more interesting and approachable, turning math studies from a chore into something students might actually want to do.
The books themselves are fun to read and nicely illustrated and most students should be able to read and re-read them on their own or with their parents without much of an issue, something that is particularly useful for students with math anxiety and for busy homeschooling parents who may not have the time for a fully teacher-led program.
Finally, it is quite a flexible program and can easily be used as a more user-friendly spine for (or supplement to) other homeschool math material, depending on a homeschools needs or desires.
Math isn’t always the easiest subject for students (or parents) to deal with.
With its warm, narrative approach, clear instruction and thorough coverage of the subject, Life of Fred can be a more interesting and approachable option to standard math programs, helping students reduce their fear and gain a greater appreciation for math in the long run.
About the Author
David Belenky is a freelance writer, former science and math tutor and a tech enthusiast. When he’s not writing about educational tech, he likes to chill out with his family and dog at home.