Saxon Math is not for everyone

(Updated in 2018)

People sometimes ask me of my opinion or review of Saxon math. What I've written here applies in particular to Saxon Math's high school courses and middle grade levels. (The grades K-3 are by a different author and are quite different; more on that below.)

Saxon Math uses an "incremental approach" where math concepts are studied in little pieces over several lessons, and those lessons are strawed over a long period of time, intermixed with lessons about other topics.

In other words, if one lesson is on some particular topic (say, percentages or inequalities), it's almost guaranteed that the NEXT lesson is NOT on that topic. It jumps around from topic to topic constantly, and this is by design.

Saxon's method also includes a feature where after a lesson is taught, there are very few practice problems about the topic of the lesson. Most of the problems are mixed review problems, and they practice concepts from earlier lessons, not the concept or skill of the lesson.

This PDF file contains three entire lessons from Saxon Algebra 1 so you can see for yourself how each lesson mostly has exercises about OTHER topics.

This type of arrangement helps students to MEMORIZE the content, since they get to practice any particular topic for quite a few days (though just a few problems per day). The downside is, it encourages many students to simply use rote memorization, and it does not guarantee nor promote conceptual understanding. Also, this approach can be very confusing to some students, and worse yet, turns some of them to math haters.

The instruction in the lessons seems adequate as do the exercises and problems; I don't see big problems there. And I know many people like Saxon Math and many students have done well with it. It's possible to learn math well using Saxon Math, no doubt about it. But Saxon math can also be be disastrous. Personally I would rather see some sort of middle ground between constant review and the need to focus on new concepts.

If you do use Saxon, and notice that it's starting to turn your child against math as a subject, please consider other options. Also check that the child is not simply using rote memorization to get through, but that he/she does gain understanding of the CONCEPTS also.

The early levels aren't written by John Saxon but by Nancy Larson. She believes in conversation between the parent and the child, and that shows in the materials. The early courses are fully scripted, which I know some parents like and some don't. The suggested conversations seem good overall. Manipulatives are emphasized, which often is very good, but not all children need a lot of them. And in the early grade levels, the very tight spiraling works better than later on, so it's much less likely that the early grade levels of Saxon Math (K-3) would cause a child to start hating math because of the curriculum. Those levels of Saxon can work perfectly fine (depending on the child).

The middle grade levels are written by John Saxon and Stephen Hake. Here is where the tight spiraling can become a stumbling block.

I feel that homeschooling parents need to be aware that Saxon is not necessarily the "gold standard." It works for some children, and not for others, like all the other curricula out there... but over the years I've gotten the impression that for some reason (maybe because of its popularity), many parents, especially those starting to home school, tend to think of Saxon a bit higher than necessary. They just automatically choose Saxon because "everyone uses it." So then there is more of a chance of real damage being done than with most any other math curriculum. It seems that people tend to have the mindset that it should work (even when it isn't working) since so many other people use it.

So, I'd like to bring some awareness to the potential pitfalls of Saxon Math from 4th grade onward, and the main potential problem is the tight spiraling. The instruction is good and the exercises/activities are good but the organization of the materials can cause trouble.

But no matter what curriculum you use, remember that the TEACHER (you) is the most important part of the whole experience! You can try to adapt the curriculum, such as do less problems or use it in a different order than the table of contents indicates (though with Saxon that would be challenging). The TEACHER is what can make the biggest difference in how and what the student learns. Don't be a slave to any curriculum, not to Math Mammoth either!



I'm not the only one who feels critical of Saxon Math's approach. I've read plenty of other opinions along the same lines... here are two I found on Amazon:

"I am a math tutor, and I have to say that this Algebra book was not useful at all! The organization of the concepts is illogical, the 'progressive' methodology is confusing and the practice problems are badly conceived. The girl I tutor had already forgotten the lesson she had just learned within a few days because instead of providing enough problems to enforce the lesson taught, the creators of this book decided to review previously learned lessons for the majority of their exercises. I found myself having to re-teach lessons every day." (R.U. Kidding)

"Tutoring higher math, from Algebra I through Calculus and Differential Equations, for nearly 30 years, I feel qualified to blast this book! I tried to use it with home-schooled students. They were becoming increasingly confused, so I changed their books quickly. The 'Saxon' students that I have tutored in higher level math, needed remedial tutoring in Algebra I concepts before I could move on to their current grade level subject matter. Although Saxon is quite revered among homeschoolers, I cannot see why. The topics are not clearly defined. The same concepts are repeated over and over, lesson after lesson. If one needs to look up information, they cannot be sure which section of the book to read. The flow of concepts is erratic, at best. It is, in my opinion, detrimental to homeschoolers, who are quite often very intelligent, and deserve a much clearer, more concise text, that covers more topics associated with classical Algebra I." (Denise Sipe)

Read how professor Hung-Hsi Wu has worded it (emphases and the additional note are mine):

"But I think that what perhaps disturbs me the most about Saxon is to read through it, I myself do not get the feeling that I am reading something that when that the children use it they would even have a remotely correct impression of what mathematics is about. It is extremely good at promoting procedural accuracy {Maria's note: this means teaching procedures such as the correct motions of the long division algorithm, or what to do to find the lowest common denominator, etc.}. And what David says about building everything up in small increments, that's correct, but the great pedagogy is devoted, is used, to serve only one purpose, which is to make sure that the procedures get memorized, get used correctly. And you would get the feeling that-I think of it as a logical analogy-you can see the skeleton presented with quite a bit of clarity, but you never see any methods, your never see any flesh, nothing-no connective tissue, you only see the bare stuff.

A little bit of this is okay, but when you read through a whole volume of it really I am very, very, uneasy. There are lots of things in it that I admire, but something that is so one-sided-you think once more about yourself and you think about what happens if this thing gets adopted. There might be lots and lots of children using it. And suppose that hundreds of thousands of students are using this book and they go through four years of it. Would you be willing to face the end result? That here are hundreds of thousands of students thinking that mathematics is basically a collection of techniques."


See also reviews of Saxon math left at HomeschoolMath.net.

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