For a variety of reasons, such as math-phobia on the part of parents or students, math isn’t always the easiest subject for homeschooling parents to teach.
That said, choosing a curriculum that suits a student’s needs and fits a homeschool’s style can go a long way in making things a lot easier on everyone involved.
Math U See and Saxon Math are two high-quality and respected homeschool math programs that have long track records of producing strong math students.
While they are both quite popular programs, they are also very different in their approach to teaching math.
To help parents make a more effective and informed decision on which curriculum they should choose for their child, we decided to examine how these homeschool math curricula compare to one another.
What is Saxon Math?
Created by John Saxon in 1981, Saxon Math is a math program that aims to build strong skills in students through a more back-to-basics approach to math instruction.
With its incremental approach to teaching and strong core of practice, review and assessment, Saxon math is one of the more widely used and popular homeschool math programs and is something of a popular choice in many independent schools, as well.
What is Math U See?
Developed in the late 1980s by author and curriculum developer Steve Demme, Math U See is a curriculum that emphasizes a hands-on, multisensory approach to math instruction.
With its combination of straightforward lessons, tactile work and helpful instructional videos, Math U See has become a popular math option for many homeschoolers and co-ops across the US.
Both Math U See and Saxon Math are complete, K-12 math programs and are quite similar in their coverage of math.
Both programs teach math from the kindergarten level, starting with basic counting and number writing, and offer courses all the way through high school (Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Pre-Calculus and so on).
Interestingly, both programs offer courses in Calculus, which is good news for parents of students who might be interested in majoring in science or engineering in college.
One way in which Saxon and Math U See differ when it comes to their grade range is in how they name the levels of their programs.
Math U See, at least in its elementary school levels, tends to use a letter from the Latin alphabet for each grade (its high school books are titled according to their subject, as with most other math curricula).
As a result, grades 1-6 are called Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon and Zeta, while kindergarten is simply titled Primer.
The reason for this is that Math U See favors a skills-based approach. Rather than focusing on grade level expectation each book focuses more on a particular math topic (multiplication, division, fractions, etc).
Rather than worry about the grade at which they’re supposed to be studying, parents and students can instead work at their own pace and focus on developing specific skills and knowledge and closing any gaps that may exist.
It also makes using the curriculum less embarrassing to students who might be behind in their studies since there are few, if any, references to grade level expectations.
In contrast, Saxon is more of a traditionally structured curriculum with books labeled more or less according to grade level (Saxon K, 1, 2, 3, Intermediate 3, 4, 5, 6 and so on).
This makes things a little more intuitive and straightforward for parents moving into the program to know where to start and the approximate level of math they’ll be facing, but can make things a little more stressful for students who are a little behind their peers.
Homeschooling parents switching into a math program from another can sometimes find it challenging to figure out where they should start.
Placement tests can therefore be very helpful for homeschooling parents, taking a lot of the guesswork out of selecting an appropriate grade level.
Both Math U See and Saxon offer placement tests for just this reason.
Saxon Math assessments can be found pretty much wherever the curriculum is sold online. These tests are pretty straightforward, printable PDFs with about 20 or so questions that tests a student’s skill and knowledge.
Math U See, in contrast, actually has a digital tool on its website that can help parents figure out the approximate skill level of their students through a series of questions.
If a parent isn’t sure about their student’s skill in a particular area, they can helpfully click “unsure” and receive a short PDF quiz that they can administer that tests a specific math skillset.
Overall, Math U See’s tool is a little more automated than a traditional PDF test, yet still offers parents help (via an administrable quiz) in case they don’t have deep knowledge of their student’s aptitude in math, which is rather unique.
Math U See Vs. Saxon: How They Approach Math
Although the programs have a few similarities here and there, on the whole, Math U See and Saxon represent two very different approaches to teaching math.
Spiral vs Mastery
One important way in which Math U See and Saxon differ is in their overall curriculum structure.
Math U see is a mastery math program.
It tends to teach a single topic of math at a time (in fact its elementary books focus heavily on particular concepts in math), with students spending several lessons exploring that concept in a fair amount of depth and only moving on to another topic when they demonstrate a certain level of proficiency with it (mastery).
Consequently, Math U see can be a good fit for students who like or need to study one thing at a time and really dig into it and for those who get frustrated by curricula that frequently change topics.
It is important to note that a common criticism of mastery programs is their lack of periodic review of previously learned concepts.
That is, once a “pure” mastery program moves on from a topic, it does so completely with the understanding that the student has “mastered” the topic and doesn’t need much more in the way of practice and review.
To address this, Math U See integrates a continual review process, usually a feature of a spiral curriculum, where students get the opportunity to practice and review previously learned material, reinforcing their learning over time.
Although it doesn’t offer quite as much spiral review as a spiral curriculum, Math U See tends to offer more in the way of periodic review and revision than most other mastery math programs.
In contrast, Saxon Math is a spiral math curriculum.
With Saxon, math concepts are broken up into small, bite sized pieces and introduced a little at a time.
Students are introduced to a topic in math, learn a little bit about it and then move onto another. Later on, they will revisit that first topic again in a little more depth.
As a result, and in contrast to mastery programs such as Math U See, students studying with Saxon tend to cover more new topics in a given time and have the opportunity to see how concepts link together a little more naturally.
As a result, Saxon can be a good fit for students who get bored or intimidated while studying one topic for an extended period of time, as well as those who need to review concepts frequently over time to properly absorb them.
Conceptual Vs Procedural
Another difference between Math U See and Saxon relates to their overall method of math instruction.
Math U See is a conceptual math program.
This means that, similar to programs such as Singapore Math or Math Mammoth, it tends to focus more on helping students understand math concepts and the logic behind them, i.e. why math works the way it does, rather than keeping the focus on how to solve math problems.
Consequently, rather than spending a lot of time memorizing and drilling math facts and learning specific ways to solve problems, students spend more time honing their problem solving and critical thinking skills, learning and exploring different strategies for solving problems, working on their number sense and developing mental math skills.
The overall idea with conceptual math is to help students develop a deeper understanding of math and to learn to flexibly apply different strategies when approaching new or unusual math problems.
In contrast, Saxon is more of a procedural math program.
It tends to teach math with the goal of helping students learn how to solve math problems accurately and quickly, with less of an emphasis on exploring the why compared to conceptual math programs (although there are some, in line with common core standards).
A more traditional, back-to-basics approach to math, students in Saxon spend more time learning math facts, doing practical math exercises and generally honing their skills through revision, repetition and drill.
When it comes to problem solving, procedural math problems tend to have somewhat fewer compared to computational problems, and tend to emphasize the use of a particular, systematic approach that students can understand and use when necessary.
A long standing argument in the field of math education, which is better ultimately depends on the student, the homeschool and their preferences as both Math U See and Saxon can produce quite strong math skills in their students.
For example, a student who hates traditional drill and memorization, who enjoys understanding why they’re doing what they’re doing or who simply prefers to explore and use different approaches for problem solving may prefer Math U See’s conceptual approach.
Those who prefer a more direct method of studying math, where they are given specific steps to follow, or who prefer to learn to solve math problems quickly and effectively may instead prefer the traditional, procedural approach taken by Saxon and similar programs.
Parent Led vs Self Study
Both Math U See and Saxon Math are more parent-led than independent study.
At the lower grades, i.e. to about high school or so, parents in both programs are relatively heavily involved in teaching and managing the learning.
In both programs, as with many other homeschool math programs, there is a slow transition to more independent study, with students expected to do an increasing amount of work on their own and parents being expected to step back into more of an oversight role.
That said, with Math U See there tends to be more of an interaction between parents and students beyond the earlier elementary grades, with interactive dialogue between teacher and student (talking their way through the logic of a problem or topic, exploring math concepts together and coming up with step by step solutions) being a key part of their Build, Write Say framework of introducing math concepts.
Use of Manipulatives
A further difference between Math U See and Saxon is in the use of manipulatives during teaching.
With Saxon, there can be a good deal of manipulatives use in teaching at the K-3 levels. Following this, the instruction becomes more traditional, with most of the instruction coming from textbook learning, some illustration and practice.
In contrast, Math U See actually integrates manipulatives throughout most grades, well into Algebra 1 in fact, in order to help students better grasp abstract math ideas.
As such, Math U See can be said to be a little more multisensory and helpful for students who learn better when able to touch, feel and explore physical objects rather than just reading about them.
Use of Technology
Homeschools using both Math U See and Saxon Math do have a variety of digital tools available to them, should they so desire.
With Math U See, a core component of the learning is a series of short (<15 minute) video lessons aimed at parents, where company founder and longtime educator Steve Demme explains various concepts and topics in math clearly, concisely and often visually and provides demonstrations on how to introduce concepts effectively.
These videos can be of great help to parents who are new to homeschooling or whose own math skills have become a bit rusty.
They can also be integrated into a lesson, with both parents and students using the videos to introduce a topic before diving into it in more depth with the written teaching material.
In addition to these videos, Math U See also offers digital learning packs that include digital copies of the learning material, as well as digital manipulatives sets that can be used on a tablet in place of physical versions.
With Saxon Math, because it is such a popular and widely used math program, a number of different companies have popped up in recent years to provide helpful technological solutions for parents.
There are, for example, video course providers that can help make teaching Saxon a little easier.
There are also various online learning platforms and even methods for taking the entire course digital.
The main difference between Math U See and Saxon here is in who generally provides the digital solutions in question.
With Math U See, the videos and digital learning aids are provided by the company and held to their standard. With Saxon, there is a lot more choice but the quality can be dependent on third party company standards, requiring parents to do a little homework before making an investment.
Common Core Alignment
Generally speaking, both Math U See and Saxon Math correlate with Common Core standards, even if they both pre-date the move to Common Core by a couple decades.
Parents should note that Saxon Math has several editions on the market.
Its newer editions and the Intermediate series being aligned to Common Core standards, and its numbered editions adhering to its own scope, pace and sequence (i.e. not Common Core aligned).
Look and Feel
The learning material for Saxon Math and Math U See are fairly similar in terms of look and feel.
In both programs, student texts, instructor’s guides and workbooks are printed in black and white and aren’t generally as filled with engaging illustrations and visuals as some other programs out there.
That said, both programs do a good job at making their workbook pages easy to detach and keep in a binder.
Both Math U See and Saxon Math are comprehensive and complete K-12 math curricula that do an excellent job at teaching all the concepts and ideas that students need to know in a good deal more depth than might be found in a typical public school.
Both programs also do a good job at explaining math simply and fairly clearly so that students understand them, and both programs tend to be more or less on grade level in terms of pace of learning.
Where Math U See stands out, compared to Saxon but especially compared to most other conceptual programs out there, is in its more casual, gentler approach to teaching math.
Throughout all levels of the program, from Primer to Calculus, Math U See provides a lot of careful and clear explanation of math concepts, using a combination of visuals, video instruction and friendlier, straightforward explanations that minimize the use of unnecessary jargon.
While math concepts are taught in a professional manner, and students definitely learn the proper math vocabulary they need to know, Math U See often goes out of its way to provide common-sense explanations to make them easier to understand, even when higher level math is involved.
At times, lessons may link concepts to real life objects, such as cakes or paperclips, while other times it tries to help students understand things by offering stories, mnemonics, and tips that students can use to better grasp the underlying idea.
As a result, while both Saxon and Math U See can be effectively used by students of all abilities, it can be particularly well-suited to students who have struggled with math in the past or suffer from math phobia.
Note: Prices correct as of writing. All prices in USD.
Overall, Math U See can be a little more expensive than Saxon.
A universal set for Math U See, containing everything needed to teach that level, can cost (roughly) between $130 and $190.
In contrast, a Saxon grade level set can cost (depending on the retailer in question) about $100-130,
That said, it is important to know that a universal set for Math U See does include a manipulatives kit and an instructional DVD for that level, as well a lifetime access to that level’s digital packs.
Because a universal set for Math U See offers more in the way of instructional value for a little more money, we would say the two more or less balance out in terms of price at the end of the day.
|Saxon||Math U See|
|Full Math Curriculum||✅||✅|
|Approach to Math||Spiral||Mastery|
|Conceptual or Procedural Math||Procedural||Conceptual|
|Common Core Options||✅||✅|
Bottom Line: How do I decide between Math U See and Saxon Math?
Math U See and Saxon Math are both high quality and highly-respected math programs that can produce fairly strong math learners.
The programs are quite different, both in their structure and in the way they approach math.
To help parents decide which might be best for them, we’ve produced the chart below.
|I’m a parent and…||Consider|
|I’m teaching grades K-12||Either|
|My student wants to learn Calculus||Either|
|I’m looking for a math curriculum that teaches students why they’re doing what they’re doing and encourages them to explore different strategies for solving problems||Math U See|
|I prefer my student learn from a more traditional math program, with lots of practice and revision and an emphasis on learning math facts and computational ability||Saxon Math|
|I prefer a program with lots of hands-on learning past the grade 3 stage||Math U See|
|My student gets bored or is intimidated by the prospect of learning a single math concept for a long period of time||Saxon Math|
|My student gets frustrated jumping from topic to topic and wants to dive deeply into one thing at a time||Math U See|
|My student does best with lots of repetition and drill and doesn’t mind memorizing math facts||Saxon|
|My student hates drill and memorization||Math U See|
|I’d like a Common Core curriculum||Either|
|My student has had difficulty with math in the past and can benefit from an approachable curriculum that can explain things in a more common-sense, relatable manner||Math U See|
|I’m looking for a gentle, on-grade curriculum||Saxon|
|I’m looking for a Common Core curriculum||Saxon|
|My own math skills are a bit rusty and I could benefit from a brief video refresher||Math U See|
|I would prefer to have some digital options to help teach the program and would like the flexibility of choosing my own provider||Saxon|
|I would like any technological solutions to be provided by the curriculum developer themselves (and come with a set)||Math U See|
For More Information
To learn more about these programs you can:
Read our in-depth review of Math U See
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.