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Sonlight Curriculum Review

By Rebecca H. Davis

Reprinted with permission.

This year (2002-2003), I purchased Sonlight curriculum for both of my children (2nd and 5th grades). There are things that I really love about Sonlight and things that I find very frustrating about Sonlight. I will continue in future years to use parts of the curriculum, but I will be more selective about what I purchase from Sonlight in the future. I'll offer a few thoughts on what I like and dislike about the curriculum:

  1. One reason I chose the curriculum was because I work full-time and felt that I didn't have time to plan the children's curriculum AND implement it with my work demands. I wanted a pre-packaged program. What I found, though, is that Sonlight's curriculum, in my opinion, does not do a good job of integrating key subject/skill areas (math, science, writing). These subject areas are sold by Sonlight as "add-ons" and are not part of the "Basic" curriculums. The result was that I ended up spending an enormous amount of time doing curriculum planning ANYWAY. Part of this is because I found the add-on curriculums, perhaps because they are not the focus or strength of Sonlight, to be very weak. I basically discarded them after only a few weeks in favor of other materials. The English/writing curriculum Sonlight sells I would not recommend under any circumstances. For my children and their needs, I found it anemic. This meant that I had to spend a lot of time finding other materials and integrating them with the Sonlight materials/schedule.

    Further, one of the things that was frustrating was that there was so much material in the "Basic" packages that if we covered all of that material, we had no time left for writing, math, science, Spanish, etc. so we had to cut out a lot of the Basic curriculum. When I decided to homeschool this past year, I contacted one of my former college roommates who had been homeschooling for years. I told her that I was interested in Sonlight. She said that she and her family had used it also, but that she often stretched the Basic materials out over several years--did one "Basic" year over two years; another over three years. Having worked with the material this year, I can see now why she has done this and we will actually do similarly. We simply can't do all of the reading and materials in the "Basic" packages and still have adequate time for other things.

  2. I also chose the curriculum because it is heavily focused on social studies, especially history and geography. As a former political science professor, this was extremely appealing to me (and my children who share many of my passions and interests). This is one of the truly great things about their curriculum. I applaud them heartily for taking social studies seriously and for offering it to children in a way that is interesting, challenging, engaging, informative....I can't say enough good things about this aspect of the curriculum.

  3. I really, really loved the international focus of the curriculum. So many curriculums out there are very parochial. The public school system is terribly parochial in focus. My children had been in public school until this year and I was eager to give them an anti-dose to the America, America, America, America curriculum that they had had to this point (NOT that we are anti-America or that Sonlight is anti-America--it's simply that we wanted our children to have an appreciation for and understanding of other cultures, peoples, and political systems, too.) We chose Sonlights' Basic 2 (Intro to World History) and Basic 5 (Intro to Non-Western World Cultures) for our children. Again, KUDOS for Sonlight for their international focus. I love this aspect of their curriculum and can't say enough good things about it. My children loved learning about Korea, Japan, the Pacific Islands, India and more. This is one of the great things about Sonlight.

  4. With that said, however, I will add that some of the materials that came with the Sonlight Basic package were evangelical/missionary in their approach to other countries (sort of "please pray for the poor, starving heathens"). I threw these books and videos away within minutes of their arrival. Personally, as someone who is going through a strong anti-religion midlife crisis, I hated these parts of the curriculum. People who have a Christian orientation and focus to their homeschooling may be delighted by this aspect. It just wasn't for me. With that said, I managed to weed-out and purge all of the religious materials in short order and still found a ton of great stuff in the Sonlight packages. The religious dimension to the Sonlight curriculum does not pervade all of the materials. It is possible to be a committed agnostic and still use and enjoy their materials. Further, even though I discarded a few of the books that came with the package, I still felt that I had a wonderful value for the money.

  5. Some of the Sonlight materials (though not all) that were science materials were creationist in approach. One book in particular that we were sent, I found dogmatic and ridiculous in its one-sided attack on traditional science. While I worked as a professor, I taught research methods at the graduate level. I engaged students in many, many philosophy of science discussions. I can be extremely critical myself of "scientific methods." However, I found the book's one-sided, sloppy critique of science extremely inappropriate. This was just one book, though.

  6. Sonlight's approach is literature based and we love books. Sonlight's reading lists are EXCELLENT and I would highly recommend using their reading lists to select books. There are many books on the reading lists that I had never heard of and would never have known to pick up for my children had we not chosen Sonlight. I thank Sonlight for opening my eyes to some wonderful children's literature. One of the things that I really, really loved was how well Sonlight integrates (for the older children, beginning with Basic 3) its literature choices with its history/geography curriculum objectives and themes. It wasn't just that my son, following Basic 5, just read some text book about Japan. Instead, he read Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun (Newberry Honor), Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, The Big Wave (by Pearl Buck), and The Cat Who Went to Heaven (Newberry Honor). What great books!

  7. Sonlight's materials are challenging for many grade levels and flexible. I had my 5th grader do the Intro to World History with his 2nd grade sister since he had never had World History before (in addition to some of his Basic 5). He found the Basic 2 world history components engaging and he is exceptionally bright. By the end of the year (we're almost finished for the year), we had abandoned his Basic 5 (though we'll come back to it because we love the material) in favor of him just doing the history/geography components of Basic 2 so that we could focus more on some other objectives for him this year (mostly writing). These materials appealed and challenged both of my children, despite their different ages and grade levels. Next year, we plan to follow the same "Basic" curriculum throughout the year for both of them from the beginning.

  8. For next year, I have chosen a Sonlight curriculum. I will purchase their schedule (which I find a little bit useful, though much of it contains a Bible reading schedule and a prayer calendar, but doesn't include an appropriate math, science, or writing schedule!). I've carried their reading list for next year with me to every book sale I've been to this year. I've purchased many of the books that we'll use at great bargain bins. Others I'll just get from the library. I will purchase a few things from Sonlight's reading lists as well, I'm sure. I won't purchase the package this year or in future years. Mostly, I will approach Sonlight differently next year. I'll know at the outset that it is more material than my children can manage about some subject matters and less than they need for others.

In sum, I really, really like the literature and materials that Sonlight offers, despite its religious orientation that is inappropriate for my family. I simply don't think that it is a complete curriculum, despite how they market themselves. This is unfortunate for those like me who wanted a complete curriculum. It's also unfortunate, given the packages' cost. But having looked at several other prepackaged curriculums, I'm not sure that there is a better option. If we used anything else, we would miss all the wonderful literature that Sonlight offers (its rich). And many other complete curriculums are, in my opinion, too rigid, too similar in pedagogical approach to traditional school, too parochial, or too religious. I would recommend Sonlight, even recommend it highly. I just also feel a need to caution others that it is not, in my opinion, all that a child (or a working parent) needs.

Rebecca H. Davis

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