When Master Books began releasing their newly updated editions of the Math Lessons for a Living Education series, the questions started pouring in. It soon became clear that I needed to create an updated Frequently Asked Questions post. I’m so excited to be able to talk to you about these books! God has been doing amazing work through Master Books for years, and it thrills me exceedingly to be part of it. I asked Kristen Pratt, the head of curriculum development at Master Books, to help me out. Since she has worked in curriculum development for a number of years, she has agreed to interview me about these newly updated math books.
Hi, this is Kristen. I am married to Randy, who also works for Master Books. We have 9 children and 2 grandsons. We have been homeschooling our children for 20 years, graduating four so far. We owned and operated Pennywise Learning, where I helped thousands of homeschool families make curriculum decisions. After selling our business to CBD, the Lord opened up opportunity for me to work with Master Books. Using my own experience and the feedback from thousands of customers, I help design Biblically-based curriculum that is not only engaging for students, but easy for parents to use. It has been a delight to work with Angela. All of us at Master Books are excited to release Math Lessons for a Living Education.
Here is an easy-find index for the following questions. (But please take the time to read through this FAQ page in its entirety; it may answer questions that you didn’t know you had!)
1.What about this math series makes it special and unique? 2.Explain how and why the instruction is included. 3.How long does it take for the average daily lesson? 4.How do the placement tests work? 5.I have a previous edition - do I need to upgrade? 6.How does MLFLE compare to other math curriculums? 7.Can you explain the difference between skill level vs. grade level? 8.What does Charlotte Mason approach to math mean? 9.How hands-on is this curriculum? 10.Are there teacher's manuals for these books? (Can the curriculum be used independently?) 11.Can you explain the concept of the Place Value Village? 12.Is there mental math included? 13.What is your background in math/teaching? 14.Extra note from Angela...
Kristen: What about this math series makes it special and unique?
Angela: Kristen, I believe what sets this math curriculum apart is that it invites the child in to the world of learning, encouraging them to explore, discover, and make connections to the world around them. While many math curriculums use drill as their method of teaching elementary math, Math lessons for a living Education uses relationship with concepts, patterns, and real life experience. Children and parents alike love Math Lessons for a Living Education because it brings joy and excitement to a sometimes dreaded subject. Not only does it teach children the math concepts they need, it has the extra bonus of bringing them through the elementary years with their love of learning intact and their eyes open to the world around them. I don’t believe for a single moment that math needs to be dry or boring.
Kristen: How is the instruction included? Can you explain this, and perhaps give us some insight into why you chose to approach math instruction in this way?
Angela: Many math curriculums have instruction, which, most often, is written toward the instructor (in technical terms), who in turn, need to relate that information to the child. This type of design is lecture based. While there is nothing inherently wrong with lecture based curriculum, I have found that, in most cases, it is not conducive to growing the desire for self-education in our young children. In my experience and in the experiences of most of the moms, who have come to me for consultations, the lecture approach may have a myriad of negative affects on a young child’s learning experience. Many creative, right brain dominant children learn to hate math, while others simply learn to turn their brain off. This issue of keeping a child’s heart and mind engaged in the learning process is the very crux of the matter and the underlying “why?” of this series. We must reach, engage, and guide the hearts and minds of our children. Without this, what good is “education”? The very essence of this math series is based on this engaging the whole child. The first three books in the Math Lessons for a Living Education are written to be an interactive, exploratory experience for parent/teacher and child. (Books 4 – 6 are transitioned to being much more directed at the student with occasional parent/teacher involvement.)
When I designed Book 1, for example, I envisioned how eager children, at this age, are to explore with all of their senses. They don’t want to just hear that God made creation with all types of life cycles and patterns; they want to see it, hear it, touch it, explore it, process it, and apply it to themselves. The math instruction is wound in and all around every other aspect of that exploration. Throughout all of the levels of this series, the storyline, explanation (instructions/samples/teacher’s helps), and all concept teaching are interwoven. Sometimes the concept is worked right into the story, sometimes it is set aside as me talking to the teacher or student, and sometimes the student is guided through a hands-on discovery of the concept. There is ample instruction, practice, and review throughout each level. These books should be looked at as “whole books” which take the student on a journey through learning and applying mathematical concepts in a natural, holistic fashion.
Kristen: How long does each daily lesson or exercise take to complete?
Angela: On an average, a daily exercise will take 30-40 minutes to complete. Because this series is based on real-life learning, the lessons and activities are not all exactly the same. On some days you will have more writing, while on other days, your student may be doing a hands-on activity or working through a guided exploratory exercise.
Kristen: How do the placement tests work?
Angela: With the older edition, when someone asked me where they should place their children in this series, I had nothing to tell them except “go look through the scope and sequences.” When Master Books started releasing these beautiful, new editions, we all agreed that placement tests would be a great tool for parents and teachers. With these placement tests, it is crucial that the child show complete understanding in the required concepts. Math Lessons for a Living Education may be a conversational and interactive approach to math, but it isn’t easy. I’ve had several people ask me if it is “up to the grade level” of other curriculum. (I don’t do grade levels, which I will address later!) My answer is always this: Math Lessons for a Living Education requires the student to engage their mind and SHOW their understanding of a concept in several ways.
In the younger books, they are required to orally narrate and show with manipulatives what they have learned. As they get older, they are required to show, write, and tell what they have learned. When you give the placement tests to decide where to place your child, make sure your child can narrate and show you that they know and completely understand the “why?” behind what they are doing. Just a little tip: it is better to back up and make sure that your child can narrate and show the concepts before you move forward, than it is to expect them to be able to grasp and own the harder concepts without that foundation of knowledge. You can always go more quickly when your child is proficient in the concepts and slow down when they need to.
Kristen: If I have a previous edition, do I need to upgrade to the Master Books edition?
Angela: I wouldn’t say you NEED to upgrade, but I highly recommend that you do – I would hate to see you miss out on all of the improvements! These new editions have been completely edited and updated. Books 4 and 5 (and 6 coming up!) especially are drastically updated with more practice problems and activities for those tricky concepts and full solutions manuals that show not only the answers, but the whole process of working each and every problem! You really can’t beat that for $30-$35/year!
Kristen: How does Math Lessons for a Living Education compares to other curriculums. For example, how does it compare to Life of Fred, Teaching Textbooks, Saxon, Horizons, A Beka?
Angela: I will attempt to keep my answers abbreviated by giving a short paragraph-long comparison for each of the mentioned curriculums. First, I need to explain that MLFLE is a unique combination of spiral and mastery. I believe that there is strength in both of these approaches of learning and review, so you will find that concepts are brought up over and over in many types of review activities (spiral), but the student is required to show absolute mastery of one concept before it is built upon (mastery). As far as scope and sequence, if I were to compare MLFLE to any one curriculum, it would be to Teaching Textbooks. Although there are quite a few differences, MLFLE brings in new concepts at a comparable speed.
MLFLE compared to Life of Fred. Similarity: story based, kid friendly. Difference: LOF story line is meant to be laughed at (the “silly genre” is popular with boys especially) and cannot be considered as character-building. MLFLE story line is carefully designed to lead the child to not only understand and relate to the world around them, but to understand and relate to the God, Who made that world. LOF is non-consumable and, from our experience, does not offer much in review. MLFLE is consumable workbook format, with child-friendly fonts, graphics, and spaces to work. MLFLE also includes many types of review activities and problems. The scope and sequences cannot be compared.
MLFLE compared to Teaching Textbooks. (In order to compare apples to apples, I am going to compare levels 3 [which is the first level available] through 7 of TT with MLFLE.) Obviously, the most noticeable difference is the format and price. TT is cd rom/dvd based and cost about $130-140 per level, while MLFLE is about $30-$35 per level. Actually, even more than the price, the most substantial difference between the two curriculums is the approach. While TT basically removes the need for a parent’s involvement (which adds the element of the teacher needing to make a concerted effort to remain aware of what the student may be struggling with), MLFLE turns math into a time of bonding, exploring, and discovering together in a non-taxing, burdensome way. With MLFLE, the teacher has constant awareness of where their student is in their learning journey and is able to adjust the speed of advancement accordingly. Each approach fits a certain need. The scope and sequences are somewhat similar (books 3 – 6).
MLFLE compared to Saxon. Again, the biggest noticeable difference is the format and price, with Saxon being considerably more expensive. Actually, besides the price, there are two HUGE differences between Saxon and MLFLE. Saxon is extremely left-brained, part to whole. MLFLE is whole-picture to part, adaptable to either left or right brain dominance and any type of learner. The scope and sequences are not similar.
MLFLE compared to Horizons and A Beka. (I am going to combine these two because, except for their review patterns – Horizons is spiral, while A Beka is mastery – these two are extremely similar). The biggest difference between MLFLE and A Beka/Horizons is the teaching/learning approach. Where A Beka and Horizons (and all of the other curriculums mentioned above) use the typical drill and review to teach (the mind), MLFLE uses elements from the Charlotte Mason method (story, copywork, oral/written narration, hands-on manipulative mastery) to reach the heart first, than the mind. MLFLE is based on the belief that a child learns what he cares about far easier and more permanently than something with which he has no connection. Horizons and A Beka are a bit faster paced in their scope and sequences than MLFLE (although by MLFLE 4, they are much more similar in speed).
MLFLE compared to Math-U-See. For similarities, both are hands-on, and both are based on the child really understanding the “why” behind what they are doing. For differences, MUS is video based and follows an extremely unique scope and sequence. MUS is more expensive. MLFLE is story based and uses elements of the Charlotte Mason method. Their scope and sequences cannot be compared.
Kristen: Can you explain skill based learning verses grade based learning?
Angela: It says in 2 Corinthians 10,”When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.” (Paul was talking about people who thought they were all that because they graded their religion by comparing it to others around them.) I’m going to warn you right now, if your coffee has cooled down or you need to use the restroom, you may want to go take care of it now, because, even though I know I’m preaching to the choir, this could get long! (I’m only partially joking – if you heard the sound of something being dragged, that was my soapbox.)
We live in a world of comparison and classification. We humans feel the insatiable desire to find a “normal” in order to somehow gain conformity and control. Grade levels,* as set forth by the powers that be, are part of this arbitrary system. They are a man-made measuring system that fit very few of us, without us being molded to fit it. (Add to that, they fluctuate from curriculum to curriculum – another reason I find them undependable). Proverbs 1:7 says that beginning of knowledge is the respect and reverence of the Lord. This means that to learn anything worth learning, it needs to be founded and grounded in the awareness of the greatness of God – not fear and trembling that we won’t measure up to some made-by-man expectation.
Many of us would love to completely throw the grade book out the window, but since we live in a world that is governed by the afore mentioned arbitrary system of classification, normalization, and conformity, we struggle with the insecurity that our children won’t be ready to live in that world. In order to be world-changers for Jesus, many of them will need to go on to higher education, which requires them to get “good grades.”
We get stuck in a cycle of insecurity and bravery – always with the nagging question in the back of our brains, “Is it possible to allow my children to learn by skill level and still be able to gain the those good grades when they need to?” I believe the best way to answer that is to compare socialism and capitalism/free enterprise. We all know from studying history that socialism has disastrous results and that true free enterprise brings prosperity and growth. Just like free enterprise produces more scientific discovery, bigger medical advances, more jobs, and a healthier economy, allowing our children to learn at their own speed and follow their passions produces a better education, and in the end, better results even in the graded world. (This is one of the reasons that homeschoolers average much higher results on standardized achievement tests.)
How does this apply to these math books? Each book covers a certain level of skill. The number on each book does not indicate or equal a grade level; they simply denote which book you are on, in the series. (Because there are six books in the series and there are six years in the elementary years, it stands to reason that one book per year is probably going to be about average.) Each book climbs in skill level. When your student has mastered the skills in one book, he is ready for the next one. Each child should be allowed and encouraged to explore, discover, and learn through each skill level at his own learning speed, whether that is pedal-to-the-medal or Sunday-drive, enjoying the delights of the journey.
I can promise you this, whether you use the words “grade* level” or “skill level,” if you, as the parent/teacher, will be patient and allow your child the time they need to own these elementary concepts, it will make both of your lives easier when they hit that higher math. Learning math to own the concepts not only teaches them the concepts, but it grows their critical thinking skills, and gives them an I-can-do-this attitude toward the hard stuff in life.
*We as homeschooling parents are responsible for the 12 years of our children’s education before they graduate from our school. To keep the learning process organized, many of us assign goals for learning for each year and call that a “grade’s worth” of our child’s education. I believe that this is a healthy and flexible way to organize our homeschools. To mirror the Scripture about the love of money being evil, I would like to say, grades are not evil – they are inanimate “objects” – it is the love of control that uses grades that is inappropriate for a Christ-centered home.
Kristen: What does Charlotte Mason like approach mean?
Angela: I have given MLFLE the tagline “Math lessons with a flavor of the Charlotte Mason method or approach.” I have admired many aspects of the CM method for quite a long time. I have learned that copywork and narration are powerful learning tools. MLFLE uses copywork as a memorization tool. The student copies entire facts in order to memorize and review them; they use narration to help them assimilate the concepts. If a child can orally narrate the process of a concept, while they are showing it with manipulatives, they have mastered it. Charlotte Mason taught that education is a science of relationship. I agree with her. The stories, projects, and indeed, the whole approach of MLFLE is a powerful teaching/learning tool.
If I may give a small personal side note… When my children were younger, I was dealing with teaching my son, who had sustained brain damage from encephalitis. As a toddler, he had reacted terribly from a vaccine containing mercury. He lost his speech for almost two years, and when it returned, it was garbled and nearly indecipherable. Nothing I had ever learned about teaching prepared or helped me to deal with this! Specialist told me that there was no way he was ever going to learn to read or do basic math because there had been too much damage to the language processing center of his brain. The neural pathways were damaged or destroyed which inhibited his ability to pass information to his long term memory. There were days, weeks, and even months that we would hammer through a simple concept, only to have no recognition the following day.
I would not take “No” for an answer; I had decided that he would learn to read. It took us four and a half years to successfully reconstructed new pathways, but he could read. I knew that the comprehension was next, because he was only catching parts of what it meant. It was around this time that I came across Charlotte Mason’s method of narration. Between training with the Lindamood-Bell organization and implementing their techniques (I’ll talk more about that later), and researching ways to implement oral narration with my son, we saw miraculous growth in reading and math comprehension! Copywork, narration, real life hands-on application through stories, and encouragement to form relationships are a powerful foundation for true education. Charlotte Mason said that education needs to fit the child. By incorporating these simple but powerfully effective methods, any child, with any learning style and ability can learn!
Kristen: How hands on is this curriculum? Do you use math manipulatives?
Angela: MLFLE is extremely hands-on. Right from the beginning of the series, students are encouraged and instructed to learn through handling objects. Each book has a manipulatives section in the appendix (besides these, only simple household products are needed). Hands-on projects are sprinkled throughout the books on all levels. From baking, cooking, simple sewing projects, and creating, math concepts are brought into real life.
Kristen: Is there an answer key or teacher’s manual? Can this be used independently by a child in the higher levels?
Angela: Books 1-3 have an answer key and the teacher’s instruction blended right into the book. Books 4-6 have complete instruction manuals, showing every problem, included in the appendix. Starting in Book 3, the instruction is written mostly toward the student, so yes, older children are able to work independently. Even in Books 1 and 2, there are sections, which may be worked semi-independently (depending on the student’s ability).
Kristen: Can you describe the concept of the Place Value Village houses?
Angela: I made this video showing the concept.
Kristen: Is there mental math incorporated? How are math fact families addressed?
Angela: Yes, there are mental math exercises throughout all levels of the series. In Books 1 and 2 , mental math is brought in through the student’s oral narration of concepts and facts, patterns, and concepts they have discovered. In Book 3, the student moves up to exploring mental math in equation form. As the books progress in difficulty, the mental math exercises become more complex, adding in concepts that have been previously learned. Fact families/facts are taught through “right-brain flashcards,” which show the entire fact and copywork of facts. Multiplication facts and skip counting is taught and practiced throughout Books 3 – 6. The goal by the end of Book 6 is for the student to be able to complete all of the facts, through 12 x 12, in a multiplication grid in less than 3 minutes.
Kristen: What is your background in math/teaching?
Angela: Kristen, thank you for giving me an opportunity to share a little about my background; it’s a topic that I don’t get to talk about all that often. I have nearly two decades of experience in teaching, researching, and working to find solutions for children who have been left in the cold by a broken system and view of education. I mentioned earlier that my own son, who is now 22 years old, had some pretty profound learning delays caused by brain damage.
I am going to focus on that experience as an example of what my math/teaching background includes. As I mentioned earlier, my son was basically written off by the specialists with whom we consulted, but I wouldn’t take their negative answers as final. Instead, it only served to fuel my determination to see him not only read, write, and understand mathematical concepts, but to be able to function at a high level of competency.
I embarked on a journey of research and discovery that opened my eyes to the world of learning styles, learning ability/disability, brain connectivity, and even the spiritual side of the learning process. I spent several years working through Lindamood-Bell training and materials that focused on teaching children to visualize/verbalize their way to better comprehension in both reading and math, through actual brain-training, and at times, even re-training.
Following this experience/training, I spent several years developing and testing various types of learning materials – tweaking and adapting them to each student’s needs. Finally, I felt like I had a learning system that wasn’t only research based, but research proven! I was getting profound results! Through a unique blend of brain strengthening exercises, elements of the Charlotte Mason method, and the spiritual aspect of heart-deep teaching/learning, I began laying out the prototype for a math curriculum.
Because I had homeschooled for many years, I was extremely familiar with the available math curriculums. Many of them had made their way through our homeschool in a seemingly endless parade of buy-try-sell. With each one, I learned a little more about what elements were missing and what needed to be added in order to reach the whole child. This prototype went through its first trial two years before the first edition of MLFLE Book 1 went to print in August of 2010. In the years since then, I have had the honor and the privilege to speak with families all over the country, who can testify to the results of this approach to math. Nothing stirs my heart more than knowing that there are children exploring, discovering, growing, and loving learning because I wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Praise Jesus!
An extra note from Angela…
MLFLE approaches teaching math from the Why? side before the How? side. Where many curriculums bring the student through the how part first (which works for some types of learners – but not most), MLFLE shows the whole picture first and then breaks it down into understandable pieces. I like to compare it to putting together a jig-saw puzzle. It’s extremely difficult to put together a puzzle if you haven’t seen a picture of what it is supposed to look like. Creating that picture is the Why? of the puzzle. It doesn’t matter if you know how to put together a puzzle, if you don’t have a picture of what it supposed to look like, your Why? is unclear. Everyone benefits from seeing the whole picture first!
Most of the children who struggle with math get lost in the pieces. It makes all the difference in the world for them to be able to understand the why before diving into the how. The reason these books don’t have separate teacher’s books is that they are written in a “learning journey” style. This means that the parent/teacher is learning and discovering right along with their child. There are MANY notes to the teacher scattered throughout the books, so you don’t have to worry about feeling unguided. There are plenty of review problems throughout the books, and the student is required to SHOW what they are learning at every step of the way. Most math books use drill as a means of “teaching.” MLFLE encourages the student to turn their brain on, keep it on, and keep connected to what is going on in their own learning journey. MLFLE is an internal growth program, which encourages the child to explore and think outside of the box – to learn for themselves, and to learn with purpose.