Math U See vs. Ray’s Arithmetic – A Review

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Our family has been homeschooling for 13 years now; we even have a brand-new graduate on our hands. Crazy, huh? Complete madness, really.

I’d be lying if I said it’s always been easy. Math has been my Achille’s heel for my entire life, and homeschooling has been no different. It’s been essential for me to find resources that circumvent my un-mathiness to provide an excellent education to my kids. I’ve used four different math curricula over the years, from K-12, with varying results – Ray’s Arithmetic and Math U See for the elementary years.  We did Ray’s for about three years, and then changed to Math U See. It’s been nine years since we made that switch and we’re still using it. Here’s my take on both:

Ray’s Arithmetic

In the beginning, way, way back when my new grad was just a little thing and the unwitting guinea pig to her inexperienced parents, we used Ray’s Arithmetic. I don’t really recommend this curriculum unless both teacher and child are very mathematically minded. It looks fine in the beginning, but I was lost by second grade. (Lest you think that’s me and not Ray’s, I may not be a math gal but I DID get a B in high school Calculus, to the wonder of all. So I’m not completely hopeless). I’ve heard that some math naturals love it, and I’ve seen other families get good results, but if you’d rather parse verbs than untangle equations…maybe move on. There are also some newer helps out that I didn’t have, so definitely check those out if you try this one.

When I finally realized that Ray’s wasn’t working for us, we’d been slogging through it far too long. Homeschool pro tip: if it isn’t working, change it. Don’t pussyfoot around. Identify the problem and change things up to address it.  These dang kids grow up way too fast. (Um, but don’t panic either. Be chill. Enjoy the ride and all that. Just don’t torture yourself for years with a curriculum that doesn’t fit you or your kid, that’s all).

Anyway. Sorry. Having my first grad is something of an existential mom crisis. Bear with me. Thank you. If you still want to consider Ray’s after my less-than-shining review, here’s some pros and cons:

Pros of Ray’s Arithmetic:
  • Classic. This is the classic arithmetic from the American schools of the late 1800’s, around the same time as McGuffey Readers. It’s a reprint and essentially unchanged from the original.
  • Progresses through the three developmental stages of math: Manipulative, Mental, and Abstract. This is a classical approach, which I’m all about.
  • Inexpensive. You can pick up the first book on Amazon for $8.99 new, or cheaper used. You can also find the lessons free, along with free video instruction, at this Ray’s Arithmetic website.
  • New teaching aids. This might be a game-changer on these. There are more resources available for teachers and parents using these books now than when I used them. In 2012, Cathy Duffy put out a Parent-Teacher Guide for Ray’s Arithmetics, which has good reviews and would certainly be a help in navigating the material. I haven’t personally seen it, though.
Cons of Ray’s Arithmetic:
  • Material is presented differently than most of us grew up with, presenting a learning curve for the parent/teacher. I don’t have a lot of time for teacher learning curves, these days.
  • I had no teaching aids when I tried this; it was 2008, I think when we hung up our Ray’s. I strongly recommend checking into the Parent-Teacher Guide to get the most out of it. The book itself is just the student text, no helps. In its time it was used in the classroom by teachers who were trained to use it, but I’m no Laura Ingalls.
  • The way story problems are used.The way the problems were presented ended up being a roadblock. The curriculum is touted as making kids good at story problems, but Erin, my grad, was the kid who used the most Ray’s and to this day she hates story problems with a fiery passion.
  • No key for Primary Arithmetic, which covers the first couple of years. I may be able to solve a pageful of second-grade math problems, but I do have other things to do. Even with a calculator, it’s tedious and time-consuming.

Next up after we freed ourselves from Ray’s: Math U See.

Math U See

Math U See is pretty sweet. We’ve been using it for elementary math for 9ish years now, and I have never regretted the change. The curriculum makes use of a set of base-10 manipulative blocks which are used to teach basic arithmetic all the way up through fractions and introductory algebra. Fraction and algebra lessons use additional overlays with the blocks.

We have used the Primer Lever up through Epsilon (fractions) so far, and have been delighted with the results. Like absolutely any other curriculum out there, though, it’s not for everyone. Here are the main pros and cons:

Pros:
    • Video Instruction. I’m no math teacher, friends, but Steve Demme absolutely is, and I get to pop him in the DVD player at will. Ideally, the parent and student watch the DVD lesson together and work through some practice problems before the student settles in to work on her assignment solo. (Less ideally, the parent can slap on a new (or review) lesson while she goes to help another kid with another lesson, change a diaper, stop the chicken broth from boiling over, and change the laundry. This method takes a little longer to make progress, but we get there in the end, and I have a grad to prove it.)
    • Teacher manuals. This is important for me. Have a mentioned I’m not a math teacher!?
    • Built-in hands on. Beyond the manipulatives, lessons will also take you to the kitchen or other parts of the house to study measurements, etc., hands-on.
    • Integrated Manipulatives. The lessons integrate the manipulative blocks right in. You don’t have to try to figure out how to do that yourself, it’s just part of the lesson and the practice pages, which works very well.
    • Good for different learning styles. So far, I have used Math U See with 5 kids. We have: the practical non-academic who hates math, the super-studious kid who loves math, the verbal dancer/artist who really hates math, a budding engineer who doesn’t care about school much but breezes through his math, and the seven year old who begs for school and seems to know most of his math already, somehow. They have all done well on Math U See, through calm and stormy periods in our family life. Each student can go at their own pace; in some chapters, we use all the worksheets, and some we don’t. It’s simple to go to mastery and then just move on without excessive, repetitive work. (Now and then for a tough lesson I might print up some practice sheets from the website. They’re keyed to the lesson numbers, and access is free.)
  • Systematic and Cumulative – each level primarily covers one topic, so you will be covering adding one year, subtracting the next, then multiplication, then division, then fractions, etc. Every lesson includes review and practice sections to keep everything fresh.
  • Reusable – mostly. The manipulative kit is an up-front investment, but it is used with every level. I figure that since I use 7 or 8 levels per child, for 8 children, it comes out to about $1 per year per kid if I use the used-on-Amazon price for the starter kit, or $1.50 per year per kid if I got the bigger, newer set from MathUSee.com. (If I had used it from the beginning for my oldest ones, anyway. Also, the lesson DVDs and Teacher Manuals are a one-time purchase that can be used over and over, year after year, and also have a respectable resale value if you are so inclined. Any homeschooling parent of more than one kid knows that reusable curriculum is the key to keeping expenses down. Which leads me to my first con…
Cons:
  • Consumable Workbooks. Yeah, this is a real downer. I’d love to see them switch away from this model, to a completely reusable format. I used to have the kids copy their answers into a notebook so I could reuse the workbooks, but then I found out this is illegal. I was crushed to learn this, so I hope I’m not ruining anyone’s day, but yes, it really is. So I stopped. There’s no way around this problem unless you use a curriculum that doesn’t require a workbook, like maybe Saxon, which some love and some hate. Any Saxon-lovers (or -haters), drop a comment and let me know your experience! So, yes, every year we buy new workbooks, and sometimes the test book too. Since I don’t test on every single chapter, the test booklet lasts me a few years.
  • Hard to bargain shop. I am a relentless bargain hunter by both nature and necessity. Amazon has good prices and middling selection; Math U See has everything, of course, but prices are higher and shipping prices are not cheap. Sometimes you can really score on Ebay, but you have to plan ahead and not be shopping for curriculum three days before your school year starts. Ahem.

There you have it! Our experiences with Ray’s Arithmetic and Math U See. Have you used either or both? What did you think?