For homeschoolers, social studies can be sometimes a tricky subject to tackle.
Primarily covering geography, history, civics, economics and sociology, and possibly involving other social science disciplines, there is a lot of information to cover and a little technological help can often go a long way in helping plan, organize, teach and review the subject matter.
One learning program that is growing in popularity among homeschoolers teaching social studies is IXL.
A popular program among educators and parents alike, IXL’s extensive coverage of K-12 subjects, interactive learning method and powerful learning tools (such as adaptive learning algorithms and analytic tracking) can help students close skill and knowledge gaps relatively quickly and effectively.
We took a look at IXL to see if and how the program can help parents teach social studies at home, its useful features, and some of things they might need to look out for when using it.
What is IXL
IXL is a personalized online learning platform for K-12 students that has become quite popular both in schools and with homeschooling parents in recent years.
It offers relatively complete coverage of Math, Language Arts, Social Studies, Science and more, using fairly sophisticated algorithms to adapt its learning to a student’s skill level in real time, as well as providing parents and teachers with detailed insights into student learning, helping target and close specific skill and knowledge gaps.
For more information on IXL, including its strengths and weaknesses, you can read our in-depth review.
IXL Social Studies Topic Coverage
IXL covers Social Studies from Grade 2 to Grade 8 – that is, most of an elementary to middle school social studies curriculum.
At time of writing, it is missing a specific component for grade 1 and tends to roll some of the topics this grade level into the second grade. That said, for grade 2-8 IXL is pretty comprehensive in terms of subject coverage, aligning to common core state standards in social studies.
At each grade level IXL does a good job at extensively covering primary social studies subjects such as:
- US/World History
- Global Studies
- World Cultures and religions
IXL even covers essential social studies skills, such as identifying primary/secondary sources, fact vs opinion and so on, rounding out the overall social studies curriculum nicely.
To teach, IXL takes each of these subjects and divides them into subtopics that students and parents can browse and select from more easily.
For example, Economics might be broken down into subtopics such as basic economic principles, supply and demand and banking and finance.
IXL then further divides these subtopics into highly specific individual lessons that kids can work on.
In Economics, for example, Supply and Demand is its own subtopic and has a number of lessons on specific topics, touching on the concept, supply/demand curves, shortages and surpluses and more.
This allows students to work on skills and topics individually, rather than having them all lumped together in one big lesson and exercise, which can be helpful if students have a particular weakness in one of these areas that they would like to work on.
That said, some homeschools may want to broaden their social studies learning by including or incorporating elements from psychology, ethics and philosophy, art history and more.
In this case, IXL may be less useful as, while it does offer fairly comprehensive, standards-aligned coverage of the overall core of social studies, it doesn’t have much in the way of alternative subjects for parents and students to explore.
What it’s like Using IXL for Social Studies
In general, IXL’s lessons are structured as a logical and sequential progression of information.
In American History, for example, a study on the civil war begins with the first lesson covering the background and political/social situation in the pre-war states, followed by lessons touching on the outbreak and various notorious battles, the impact on society, the end of the war, and finally reconstruction.
In this way, parents and students explore topics in an orderly manner, much as with other traditional curricula.
However, lessons can also be accessed freely, allowing homeschoolers to use IXL as a kind of a la carte, as needed learning experience as well, letting it fit into many different homeschooling styles and preferences.
How IXL Covers Material
IXL uses a pretty particular system for learning.
Individual lessons in IXL are taught as sort of an integrated teaching/quizzing model.
That is, a certain amount of information and background is presented, complete with visual graphs, charts and pictures, after which students are asked a series of relevant and specific questions.
Some of these questions begin with a brief explanation of a concept and test a student’s understanding and application of it, while others provide a thorough and relatively in depth explanation afterwards.
In this way, IXL’s lessons often feel much like a digital and interactive textbook at times.
Explanations and explorations of concepts are often brief and to the point and information is very clearly presented and easy to understand, with little in the way of extraneous flourish.
We feel the immediate testing integrated into each step of the lesson can help reinforce what students are learning in real-time, helping strengthen knowledge retention in the long term.
In addition to providing facts and learning material, IXLs lessons are pretty visual and provide pretty neat and clear and full color diagrams, maps, photos and documents for students to look at and work with, something that is especially important in social studies.
The frequent use of timelines, maps and historical documents and sources can really help make abstract facts a little more concrete and easily understood, especially for younger students.
Learning with Adaptive Questions
Behind this explanation/question/answer methodology is a rather substantial question bank with thousands of questions of varying difficulty.
To keep things challenging, IXL uses a fairly interesting adaptive learning algorithm that changes up the material depending on a student’s knowledge in the subject matter, presenting different material and asking more or less challenging questions depending on how well a student is doing.
The material may start with relatively easy broad strokes, but, depending on a student’s background, delve into more sophisticated topics and ask more difficult and thought provoking questions, which we think is quite interesting and effective for home learning.
Analytics and other Useful Features
As a rather complete K-12 digital learning program, IXL has a number of features that parents can use to help make learning more effective.
IXL is one of the more powerful learning programs we’ve seen when it comes to analytics and progress tracking.
Diving into far more depth and giving parents far more granular information on their child’s progress and offering powerful diagnostic tools and testing, IXL can often be used to help figure out where a student’s strengths and weaknesses lie down to the individual academic skill.
When it comes to using IXL for social studies, unfortunately IXL does not offer its full diagnostic capability.
This feature is currently restricted to math and language arts as they are more hard skill-based and easily trackable as opposed to social studies, which is more knowledge base
We found that IXL does, however, track student performance in social studies pretty well and can provide pretty useful information, identifying trouble spots and gaps in subject learning that can then be the focus of further, targeted review and teaching.
This can give parents a clearer and more real-time idea of how they can more effectively restructure their lesson plans around their students current knowledge base, helping individualize the learning a little bit more.
For example, if a student were learning about early US history and completed the topic unit in IXL, with analytics tracking their responses, parents may find that their student’s understanding of Jamestown and the early New England colonies is strong (answering most questions correctly), but their understanding of the Southern Colonies and its society is weaker (getting more answers wrong).
Parents would then know that they should add a targeted unit of study on the southern states into their lesson plan that would enrich and complete their students’ understanding of US History.
Points and Awards
IXL is a gamified learning system to a degree. As kids answer questions they earn tokens that can be redeemed for virtual prizes later.
This gamification can add a little excitement and a quiz-show feel to the question and answer style the program uses, particularly when it comes to subjects that a student has less interest in (perhaps in economics), giving them a little extra incentive to work on the material.
Putting It Together: Blending Ixl And Homeschool Social Studies Learning
While it can be used as a standalone program, IXL really doesn’t have as much as some other programs in the way of formal teaching – there is not much in the way of videos, animations, multimedia lessons or even long instructional texts to be read.
While it’s true that information and learning is integrated into each question, and the unit lessons are progressive, starting out with lots of background information for kids to learn before getting into the nitty gritty of each subject, we don’t think it covers social studies in quite as much depth as some parents may like.
While all the information is certainly there, IXL presents it much more like a fact-based, standard textbook.
As can be seen above, its explanations and discussions are short and to the point.
It is not written in the highly engaging manner of a fun textbook or high-interest living book, either of which may engage students with more interesting writing, and trigger in-depth discussions and topical explorations.
That said, as a supplement to homeschool social studies and learning material, we think IXL can be hugely beneficial and is really where the program shines.
Homeschooling parents can use their choice of social science textbooks, living books and curricula as a primary method of introducing topics and imparting knowledge in a way that captures a students imagination and can trigger a discussion.
They can then reinforce that learning in a far more targeted and organized way with IXL’s lessons and targeted questions.
As an example, below is one possible way of integrating IXL lessons into a Charlotte Mason exploration of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe.
Because of its highly varied, standards-aligned and broad subject bank, IXL can also be of great help in ensuring the overall comprehensiveness of a homeschool social science program, adding value to the often eclectic social science curricula out there by filling in specific informational gaps they may have.
IXL’s flexibility actually makes this quite easy to do so, as well.
Since users are free to access some or all of the skills in each social studies subject, even moving up and down grades as needed, parents can configure its resources to best match their homeschooling curriculum of choice.
They are free to pick and choose what best compliments what they are studying as they see fit, tailoring the learning to the interests and needs of the student and focusing more or less time on certain subjects or eliminating certain subjects altogether, if necessary.
Overall, we feel IXL can be used in tandem with just about any social studies program out there, and can be particularly beneficial when used in conjunction with high-interest non-traditional textbooks, literature or curricula in social studies, ensuring that essentials are covered in each subject.
How much parental involvement is required when using IXL
IXL is really designed to be used by students more or less independently of their parents.
Unlike some other programs for younger kids, it doesn’t really have a learning pathway per se that guides kids from lesson to lesson, but it is designed in a way that parents can assign topics and students can follow through pretty easily.
The program does a good job indicating which topics are being worked on and what students need to do, and IXL is a pretty focused program overall – there is very little that will cause them to get lost or wander off task.
That said, because the social studies component is aimed at ages 7 to about 14, and because there is a good deal of reading involved in each lesson, with the younger grades in particular we think that parents will need to be present more often.
This is mainly due to the fact that students are still working on their reading and comprehension at this point, and may become intimidated or confused by the text, even if it tends to be short and quite to the point.
This may be especially true for more complex social studies topics that are introduced at younger grades, such as basic economics, world cultures and government, where young kids may need an adult with the life experience necessary to properly contextualize the information they’re presented with
Pros and Cons of IXL for Homeschool social studies
Finely detailed, topic-based approach makes it very adaptive to different homeschool programs
IXL is known for dividing larger topics and material up into bite-sized chunks that allow students to work on very specific individual skills rather than having to learn or review a larger amount of material.
With social studies, while the program is divided up more around individual bits of knowledge rather than a skill per se (an individual lesson on the Louisiana purchase, for example), the concept is more or less the same.
IXL allows parents to peruse the overall topic list and choose the individual lessons they want their student to work on, letting them configure learning based on their own needs, pace, primary learning material and curriculum focus in a far more flexible way than when topics are grouped into larger chapters and units.
Flexibility in grade level learning
IXL not only allows parents to pick and choose which lessons and topics they’d like their student to work on, it also gives them access to all grade levels in social studies, helping them better tailor learning around actual student needs.
If a homeschool’s pace of learning or the curriculum they’re following is a little more advanced in economics, geography or civics, for example, students and parents can explore topics from higher grades.
Similarly if a student is a bit behind in certain areas or with certain skills (map reading in geography for example), they can easily go back and shore up the basics.
Analytics can be fairly insightful
When it comes to social studies, students are exposed to a lot of information about a wide variety of topics spanning a number of relatively unrelated subjects.
Consequently it can be easy for kids to develop specific gaps in knowledge that can go undetected for sometime.
With its highly targeted lessons, question based learning and detailed analytics, IXL can help track a student’s responses and let parents identify any specific areas of knowledge that students might be struggling with, helping them build lessons more tailored to actual student needs.
Excellent use of visual and written text
While IXL has a particular question-oriented way of helping kids learn, it does integrate a lot of visual information as well.
This can help students grasp some of the more abstract concepts of history, geography, economics, civics and the like.
Similarly, while it does rely heavily on written explanations, rather than integrating a lot of audio and video, the text is usually kept short, factual and to the point, making it easier for students to read and absorb information on their own, promoting independence. .
Fairly in-depth explanations for material
Although perhaps best known for its adaptive question bank, IXL doesn’t just provide the questions, it also does a good job at providing relatively high quality explanations for the questions it asks.
In this way, IXL imparts and reinforces knowledge, and can even fill in gaps from other programs that may exist, making it an excellent, standards-aligned supplement to many homeschool programs.
Not every child learns best with this method
While IXL’s question and answer style is an excellent supplement to many programs and can even be used as a primary method of instruction for certain subjects in a pinch, not every student really enjoys or does well with this method of learning.
Those who dislike being quizzed or who suffer from test anxiety may find it boring or even stressful and may disengage from it after a while.
Not as multisensory and multimedia as some other programs out there
While IXL does use a fair amount of visuals when it teaches the wide variety of subjects that make up social studies, such as maps, photos, diagrams, timelines and so on, it is primarily a text based learning program, containing less in the way of engaging audio-video or interactive games as some other programs out there.
Not every IXL feature is available for social science
Unlike math and language arts, social studies is far less about skills than about knowledge and understanding.
As a result some of the more quantitative functions of IXL, such as its diagnostic tests and skill recommendation engine, aren’t readily available or useful for the subject matter.
With a diversity of subject matter and information to be learned, social studies can be a tough subject to teach at home.
IXL’s extensive and comprehensive coverage of the core subjects of social studies, combined with its adaptive question bank and in-depth analytics can make it a very helpful tool for homeschooling parents.
In particular, we feel that it can be an excellent supplement to high-interest social science curricula and learning material, providing effective targeted review and even filling in critical knowledge gaps with its high-quality standards-aligned lessons.
About the Author
Anne Miller is the editor of The Smarter Learning Guide and is a passionate advocate for education and educational technology. A mom of two, she majored in English Language and Literature and worked as a substitute teacher and tutor for several years. When not writing she continues to root for the Yankees and the Giants.