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Singapore vs. Right Start, an Afterschooler’s Dilemma

Afterschooling with Singapore Math?

Afterschooling with Singapore Math?

The other day I was at the teacher store buying Christmas presents (yes, I’m weird), when I  decided to take a look at the Singapore math section.

Long time readers will remember that I’ve blogged about Singapore math before. A couple of years ago, I used the fourth grade Singapore Standards book to help supplement my son Bruce’s math work afterschool.

A math balance is a fun way for kids to develop number sense.

From our Right Start kit.

But with my daughter Jenna(4), we’ve been working through Right Start Level A, because I love Right Start.

I love the manipulatives…I love the constructivist approach…I love that handwriting doesn’t have to get in the way of progress… Dr. Joan Cotter is my hero!

The downside of Right Start is that parents have to set up a lot of stuff. You can’t just open a workbook and hand your kid a pencil.

Right Start Level A also seems to stretch out into 1st grade territory. So right now, Jenna’s on lesson 30 (out of 77), and we’re pretty much treading water.  I need to wait a bit for her to developmentally catch up and be ready to continue.  Some kids would be able to move faster. Some kids would need to move slower. But Jenna’s only four, and there’s no rush.

So while I was at the teachers store I picked up a copy of the Singapore Math textbook A for Kindergartners. It’s colorful (some would argue cartoonish), and really engaging for a little girl like Jenna, who loves to do “homework”. She breezed through half of the book in a few days, of her own accord, and then polished off a lot more over the weekend.

Earlybird Kindergarten Mathematics Textbook A (Standards Edition)

Now we’re at the point where Jenna really needs to learn to write the number 5 before she can finish up book A, and move on to book B. (Darn, that handwriting!)

Anyone familiar with Singapore can probably guess what we have not done this past week, which has allowed Jenna to breeze through those pages so quickly.

We haven’t been following all of the instructions that involve collecting toys to count, measuring objects in the house, or discussing potatoes as a food source.


That’s the real danger of using Singapore. It’s easy to skip all of the important, hands-on stuff, and just have your kid do workbook pages.

That doesn’t mean that I think Singapore is bad, I just think that parents need to be careful.

In our situation, I’m fine with Jenna using it as a fun workbook so that she can have “homework” like her brother. That’s because she’s been doing so many hands-on activities from Right Start.

But if Singapore was the only way I was supplementing math afterschool (or in this case before school), I would purchase the teacher’s guide and be a lot more careful.

Teaching is different than watching your kid to workbook pages, –even if you are drawing out dots for the number 5!

Earlybird Kindergarten Mathematics Textbook A (Standards Edition)

Earlybird Kindergarten Mathematics Textbook B (Standards Edition)

Singapore Math and Constructivism

I am a big believer in teaching mathematics from a Constructivist perspective, which means enabling children to develop their own meaningful strategies for solving problems, instead of just blindly teaching traditional algorithms.  It also means giving children time, space, and materials to explore mathematical concepts and create their own understanding, before you start imposing your own thinking upon them.

One of my favorite at-home curriculums for teaching math is Right Start, but I have always been curious about Singapore Math because it so popular with homeschoolers.  It is also popular with families who are Afterschoolers, even if they have never heard about that term before.

Even just a casual internet search will tell you that many parents who are confused about Constructivism, or unhappy with how it is being implemented in their children’s publics schools, choose Singapore as the at home alternative to help get their children “back on track”. I have even seen a blog that is very much dedicated to how much better Singapore Math is than current Constructivist textbooks.

The problem that I see with all of this public school curriculum bashing is that when I look at the Singapore Primary Mathematics Standards Edition textbooks, I see a lot of Constructivism.  In fact, there is enough of a Constructivist influence in the 4A book, that I have no problem with my son Bruce(6.5) using it on an Afterschooling basis.  Here are the main, Constructivist elements that I like about the 4A book:

  • Metacognition: There is an emphasis on helping students think about thinking.  There is also guidance through the thinking process.  This is very Constructivist!!!
  • Spiraling Curriculum: Most concepts are taught, and then revisited again and again throughout the year.  The Constructivist public school curriculums that I have seen also use this spiraling method.
  • Visualization: There are a lot of pictures and modeling.  A good Constructivist classroom would also encourage pictures, drawing and modeling to help reach visual learners.
  • Multiple Strategies: Again and again I keep seeing examples of more than one way to solve a problem.  Alternatives are shown beyond just traditional algorithms.

This is really surprising to me because some of the most vocal critics of Constructivism I have seen online are also parents who choose Singapore as their children’s math program.  They tend to keelhaul Constructivism and hail Singapore as their mathematical savoir. This is really bizarre, because comparing Singapore with a public school Constructivist curriculum like Dale Seymour Investigations is not like comparing apples and oranges; it’s more like comparing apples and pears.

If you were to think about math as a continuum with Back to Basics “just-teach-her-to-borrow-and-carry” on one hand, and pure Constructivism “she will discover every new bit of knowledge herself” on the other, then in my opinion, Singapore would not be considered a Constructivist program nor would it be considered a Back to Basics program.  It would fall somewhere in the middle, like Houghton Mifflin’s Math Expressions.  Falling closer to the Constructivist end would be programs like Right Start, Dreambox Math, and Hands on EquationsSaxon, Horizon and Life of Fred would be closer to a Back to Basics philosophy.

So what do I think of Singapore Primary Mathematics Standards Edition?  I think it’s pretty good, but for a complete homeschool program I still prefer Right Start.  For Afterschooling though, I can see the benefit of using a cheaper, more colorful program like Singapore, if your child preferred it.  The pages are smaller and easier to complete, so if your kid gets a “buzz” from completing pages, then Singapore would facilitate that.

If you do use Singapore Standards edition for a homeschooling program, then you really would need to buy the complete program, including the word problem book.  As a former public school teacher I have to say that there are not nearly enough word problems in the textbook alone to adequately prepare kids for state standardized tests.

Our own experience with Singapore remains limited.  I brought the 4A textbook home for my son Bruce in the middle of Christmas break last week and he completed 23 out of 161 pages in about three days.  Part of this is because the Singapore 4A geometry section is much easier than the third grade Houghton Mifflin Math Expressions work Bruce has been doing.  The multiplication section was all review for him too, because he has completed Dreambox 3rd grade.  But Bruce liked the Singapore textbook.  It is a lot more “fun” to look at than Right Start Level D, and he willingly plowed through pages in 4A.

For a more experienced opinion of Singapore, I’d like to include my friend Claire’s earlier comments from my K-1 Summer Bridge page:

For parents who have sticker shock at the price of RS, I would recommend Singapore Primary Mathematics. Note that these are *NOT* the “Singapore Math” workbooks sold at Barnes & Noble (those are by a different publisher and are substantially “dumbed-down” from the original program).  I prefer using a “hands-on” program like RS to a workbook-based one like Singapore in the primary grades, but RS is pricey and very parent-intensive. Also, Singapore is easier to accelerate and/or up the challenge level for a bright student.

I would recommend getting the Primary Math textbook and either the workbook or the Intensive Practice book (depending on whether the student is average or advanced).  The Intensive Practice book is only available in the U.S. edition but it is very easy to match up the topics in the Stds. ed. text with the ones in the IP book. The Stds. ed. text is full-color and has more of a “cartoony” look to it. I actually prefer the “cleaner” look of the US ed. books myself, but overall feel the Stds. ed. is better.  The books are available at Singaporemath.com, Christian Book Distributors, and Rainbow Resource Center.

Thank you Claire!  Finally, I would like to add my own thoughts about Singapore Math and gifted children.  Just because my six year old can burn through 23 pages of 4A in a few days doesn’t mean he should. Gifted children deserve instruction too.  The deserve attention. They deserve good teaching, and they deserve experiences. They do not deserve to have their curiosity or love of learning drowned in busywork, endless workbooks, or too much isolation.

I think that parents of gifted children should have a clear and consistent message. Too often society says: “Oh, that child is so smart.  Just send him off in the corner with an advanced book and he will be fine.”  In my opinion, that does a huge disservice to gifted children.  I would hope that nobody reading this would use a curriculum like Singapore that way.  Instead, here are some of my favorite 4th grade level activities that you might consider combining with the 4A Standards edition, to “jazz it up” a bit:



 More to come!

Staying Sane Over Christmas Break

Do you want to know what I’ve been waking up to every morning of vacation?  My six year old Bruce hovering and inch from my face saying “Wake up Mom; it’s time to do spelling.”  The first morning of vacation I didn’t move fast enough for him, and he said, “You’re asking for it—Freeze Out!” and yanked the covers off of me.  I couldn’t really object because that’s how I often resort to getting him up and ready for school each morning.  🙂

Two days into my Afterschooling Over Christmas Break project, he had read through eight books and I needed to add an extra poster board of options.  He’s also done four Hands On Equations lessons, finished third grade in Dreambox Math, and as result, has earned a lot of time playing Lego Ninjago on the computer.

There has also been a lot of piano playing over the past few days, since Bruce suddenly decided he wanted to learn how.  I’ll probably write more about this later because I have a lot to say about gifted children and intensity.  Suffice to say for now, yesterday I was basically chained in the living room trying to keep Jenna occupied while Bruce (entirely of his own accord)  spent about six hours at the piano learning 23 songs from his Primer Level Piano Book.  I’ve never seen anything like it. When I would try to get him to take a break from learning he would become irate.  So instead of waking up to my six year old asking me for a spelling lesson this morning, I woke up to piano playing instead.

Today was my husband’s first day of vacation, and as soon as we had breakfast I grabbed my canvas grocery bags, said “See ya later sucker!” and drove off in his new car!  (Okay, maybe I didn’t really say that, but there was some evil laughter involved.)  I finally got the chance to go to the teacher store by myself and look through all of the homeschool math curriculums I’ve been curious about.

Granted, twenty minutes of examination really can’t tell you everything you need to know about a program, but it seemed to me that the only similarity between Saxon and Math Expressions was the quantity of work they have children do.  Philosophically, they are quite different even though both programs are published by Houghton Mifflin.  Singapore Math Standard Edition seemed a lot more similar to Math Expressions, in terms of how they fall somewhere in the middle of the Back to Basics vs. Constructivist spectrum.  (Please correct me if I’m wrong about this!)  From what I could tell, both programs teach multiple strategies along with traditional borrowing and carrying methods. Where they differ, is that Singapore employs a lot more curriculum compaction, whereas Math Expressions has kids do page after page after page of work.  I went ahead and purchased a Singapore 4a textbook just because I wanted to examine it further, and see what Bruce thought about it.  Maybe it will keep him busy…