Mastery VS Spiral Math: The Only Way To Choose

Mastery vs spiral math pin

Upfront, I am going to be honest and say that I am biased when it comes to mastery vs spiral math. 

And I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any homeschool mom who isn’t biased.

I have tried…we’ll let’s see…about a million different math curriculums with three kids over the past 6 years of homeschooling.

I have spent a lot of money and developed some pretty strong opinions on the way.

Most of those thoughts live in the Reviews Tab of this blog, but today is not about reviewing any particular curriculum.

It is about understanding how math curriculum is actually structured.

The large majority of homeschool curriculum out there teaches math in two different ways: mastery math or spiral math.

****Yes, there are some exceptions, and I actually listed them further down.

In this post you will find:

  • Why Knowing The Difference Matters
  • Math Mastery Approach Explained
  • Pros and Cons of Math Mastery
  • Popular Mastery Homeschool Math Curriculum
  • Spiral Method Approach Explained
  • Pros and Cons of the Spiral Math Approach
  • Popular Spiral Math Homeschool Curriculum
  • My Personal Opinion About Mastery vs Spiral Math
  • The Only Way to Choose Between Them

Why You Need To Understand The Difference

apple and orange

Depending on how your kid’s brain works, math will be one of the most challenging things that you teach.

It will also be one of the most important. 

For that reason, you really do need to understand the type of curriculum that you are buying and how it is structured. What your friend says is the best homeschool math curriculum on the planet – might not work at all for your individual kid’s needs.

The more that you learn about the two different styles, I think you will have a solid feeling of what will work with your unique student.

Which will directly contribute to more happy homeschool days than bad ones. 

When I first started homeschooling, I had absolutely no idea that there were different styles of math curriculum.

I mean, math is math, right?

Nope. That only applies in one-size-fits-all public schools.

After having a terrible experience with this math curriculum, I started to learn about the difference between spiral and mastery math.

They really are polar different math philosophies. Once I started recognizing which type worked for my kids, it greatly narrowed down which curriculums I was picking between.

****If you already have a math curriculum that isn’t working, it may be that your child isn’t responding to the spiral or mastery approach. Understanding the difference and then choosing a new style may make all the difference for your kid. 

Mastery Approach: Laser Beam Focus

math mastery is like a laser beam

The mastery approach can actually be pretty well understood from its name. The student is introduced to a new concept and will continue to work on it until they have completely mastered it. 

They are laser beam focused. 

The child learns the math concept forwards and backwards. They may even be asked to teach the concept back to you as a final demonstration of their mastery. 

With a solid foundation underneath them, the child will then move on to the next math concept.

There is little review, if any, after mastery is achieved.

Pros of Math Mastery Approach

pros and cons being balanced

  • The child is able to truly focus in on one concept and learn it well. Which makes a lot of sense, especially in a subject like math.
  • The child is encouraged to work and learn at their own pace. That might be a quick pace during some math lessons, and a slower pace during others. 
  • A strong foundation is built before adding in new information.

Cons of Mastery Learning

  • Many mastery curriculums have precious little review. Without enough review, mastery could be lost when kids start to forget concepts.
  • The child may take longer to truly master something and the curriculum could run out of worksheets/material to practice. The parent may not know how to proceed at that point. 
  • Children may become frustrated or bored with studying the same math concept every day.
  • The child may feel like a failure if they continue to miss the “mastery mark” and cannot move forward
  • The concept of *mastery* can be very stressful as the child and parent may feel there is no room for errors. And perfection is an unreasonable expectation at any math level. 

Popular Mastery Math Programs

  • Math U See
  • CTC Math
  • Kahn Academy
  • Math Mammoth
  • Beast Academy

Spiral Program: Round and Round

spiral math approach represented with a spiral notebook

A spiral program gets its name from the wire in a spiral notebook looping back around over and over again.

Here is how it works:

The child will learn a new math skill almost every day. The math lessons are like taking baby steps towards understanding a larger math concept – breaking off a little bit at a time.

The child will practice their new skill with a certain number of practice problems, and then they will do a larger number of review problems. The review problems will be a variety chosen from math skills already introduced (maybe even from an earlier grade level). 

If the child doesn’t fully grasp the new math concept right away, that’s okay. It will be reviewed many more times throughout the curriculum, giving the student many more chances to practice the skill. 

Again, think of that spiral going back around over and over, holding that notebook tightly together. 

It might sound overwhelming to think of learning something new *every* day, but keep in mind that the spiral approach is usually very incremental. It is focused on taking small steps that build over time. 

Pros of Spiral Math Approach

pros and cons on sticky note

  • Small, incremental steps towards understanding math
  • New, fresh lesson every day
  • If a child struggles with a concept, it doesn’t become a roadblock to learning new things
  • Spiral review that helps kids stay sharp on math skills

Cons of Spiral Approach

  • Some kids may not want to spend so much time on review
  • Children may start to feel overwhelmed with learning something new every day. It could start to feel like too much to remember or keep up with.

Popular Spiral Math Curriculum

  • Teaching Textbooks
  • Horizons Math
  • Saxon Math
  • Life of Fred
  • Abeka Math
  • Christian Light Math
  • The Good and the Beautiful Math

Math Curriculum That Attempts to Blend Spiral and Mastery

puzzle pieces

Yes, there are a few math curriculums that have chosen not to pick a side. 

Singapore Math, Rightstart Math, and BJU Press Math have put together a sort of hybrid curriculum that blends the mastery and spiral  approaches together. 

I have not tried any of these options with my kids, but I would be very interested to flip through them. 

Where I Fall On Mastery VS Spiral Math

scale comparing mastery and spiral math

As I said above, I have tried a ridiculous number of math curriculums.

I have consistently found that mastery method curriculum has been the most frustrating for my kids (and me!).

My kids don’t want to do the SAME thing every day. It made math feel boring and stifling to them. 

If they struggled to reach the “mastery level,” then they started to doubt themselves and think they weren’t good at math.

I have absolutely run out of workbook pages (before reaching “mastery”) which made my kid feel stressed and like a failure.

I also felt overwhelmed as the teacher when it came to checking off “mastery.” Does that mean no errors ever? That can’t be right, but the response I received from curriculum customer service was vague.

On another note, my kids’ brains are like a strainer. Things leak out of it all the time.

They *need* continual review to help them remember and retain concepts. 

I was shocked to see almost no review in most mastery curriculums. I can see that with higher levels of math, but kids need review to remember things. 

David Didau is a former teacher with 15 years of experience and an award-winning education blogger. He has a fascinating quote on this topic:

“The biggest problem with some incarnations of mastery curricula is that once students are judged to have ‘mastered’ a body of knowledge, teachers then move on to more challenging content. But as we learn so too do we forget. Although the rate at which we forget is highly variable, the fact that, over time, we will be unable to retrieve the majority of what we once knew is one of the most robust findings from decades of research.”

You can read the rest of his thoughts on “Why Mastery Curriculum Might Prove To Be A Bad Idea.

So You’ve Never Had Problems With A Spiral Curriculum?

spiral math book with crumpled balls of paper around it

I wouldn’t say that at all.

I have had problems, but I have been able to adapt and work through them. 

Yes, my kids have complained about so much review. If I feel they don’t need the review on certain topics, I will go ahead and assign only the problems that I think they need. 

If they start to slip in an area, I will just assign more problems.

My kids have also been overwhelmed at times. That is usually a sign to me to pump the breaks.

I slow things down and spend an extra day (or as many days are needed) pinpointing what is causing the frustration. I reteach those concepts and that usually helps a lot.  

To me, these problems are manageable.

The mastery approach problems are much deeper and more complicated to adjust for, in my opinion.

How You Should Choose Between Spiral and Mastery Math Approaches

apple with math facts on it

Obviously, I am biased, but I know many people who are obsessed with their mastery math curriculum. So I understand that all kids are different and there are a large variety of learning styles.

Your kid may love a mastery program!

So how do you choose?

To be completely, bluntly, and painfully honest…you have to make an educated guess. 

I know that hurts. Especially when looking at the price of a lot of these math curriculums. 

But you need to take into account your child’s learning style, your child’s personality, your own teaching style, and the goals of your homeschool.

Look at the pros and cons above, and go with your gut about what sounds best for your child. 

If you have a child who hates doing review and would prefer to focus on one specific topic at a time, then mastery is probably for you.

If you have a child who desperately needs regular review to retain information and they enjoy lots of variety, then spiral math is definitely for you. 

Keep In Mind, There Will Likely Be Changes As You Go Along

Homeschool student doing spiral math curriculum

Unfortunately, you just won’t know until your child “tries on” different math programs. Your child might thrive with one style during her elementary years, but then need something different in middle school or high school. 

And that is okay!

My hope is that first time homeschool moms reading this will ultimately save a ton of time, money, and frustration shopping for a homeschool math program – because they understand how the curriculum is structured.

On another note, I have never met a homeschool mom who used the same math the whole way through. There are always changes for one reason or another.

Embrace that truth and let it take the pressure off of you. 

Look at the styles and go with your gut. You are the perfect teacher for your child and you will find a way to teach them effectively. 

Recap: Mastery VS Spiral Math

math problems on a chalkboard in classroom

Math mastery curriculum and the spiral learning approach have two main differences: 

  • How they approach new topics
  • And how much regular review is offered

Math mastery sits on a new concept and does not move to the next concept until the student has displayed a mastery level of understanding.

Very little time, if any, is spent on reviewing that concept.

Spiral math introduces new material almost every day. Each lesson is like taking small steps at a time towards understanding a larger math concept.

Daily time is spent on reviewing older material to keep it fresh in the child’s mind.

Remember, these different approaches are focused on the important things of long-term retention and teaching solid math.

They both want to produce kids proficient in long division, multiplication facts, and other math problems. They just choose different paths to get there.

Do you have your own thoughts on mastery vs spiral math?

I know it’s a controversial topic, so I would love to hear all your thoughts!

Drop a comment below and share your experience, thoughts, and tips!

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  1. I haven’t used the spiral curriculum in home schooling because I am a professional teacher with a focus on curriculum and a masters in instructional design. During my first few years of teaching elementary school, we used Saxon Math which was based on a spiral curriculum. The bottom line is that any non-integrated, non student-centered approach can lead to boredom. All commonly used curriculum suffers from these issues, including the spiral method. The HUGE problem we had in public school with a spiral curriculum is that students in general entirely MISS the connections between topics and the big picture (“where are we going with this?”). This issue wasn’t even addressed on this page even though it was a popular theme among forums regarding Saxon which I researched in frustration when my students were mostly performing an average of 2 grades below their level after 4 years of Saxon.

    This might not be a problem in homeschooling since the parent can make the connections as appropriate for the child. In public school, however, without the connections being made, students lose site of the lessons relevance to their lives and other related topics. The bouncing back and forth between unconnected topics doesn’t make any sense to students in a public/non-home school setting. In addition, Saxon, at least, did not align with state standards.

    In the end, I understand the need for continual practice and switching gears that pervades with elementary school students but these issues can be addressed in mastery teaching as well (mostly by combining the two approaches or using an “entirely different” integrated approach). In the end, without a parent or guardian supporting their education at home, pointing out the relevance of what they are learning to their lives, education is likely to fall short (which is why things might be different with home schooling)

  2. Check out “Connecting Math Concepts” published by SRA. It’s a Direct Instruction Math Curriculum. It’s not a spiral curriculum. It’s a mastery curriculum with lots of review. Researchers say it’s a very effective curriculum.

  3. We have used Math Mammoth Light Blue series for 3 years now. It is a spiral approach. I have 2 girls. We have used levels 1-5 and it has been an awesome choice for our family. It continues to blow my mind how well my youngest especially does and makes me wish I had been homeschooling from the start for my oldest. She was in advanced/ gifted classes in public school through 4th grade when I pulled her out to homeschool. I realized just how much anxiety she had around math through discovering more about her as a student while homeschooling. We brought her down a couple levels to go back and work on a strong foundation for her and now when we come across areas she struggled before it just clicks for her. It really has been one of the easiest areas to homeschool since finding Math Mammoth and I am sad it only goes through 8th grade. I know they are always working on new products and have my fingers crossed for high school curriculum.

  4. I converted Math U See to spiral without realizing thats what I was doing. My son hated doing the same thing every day so we watched 4-5 lessons (Primer) and then I stacked the worksheets for those lessons so he’d rotate. 25A, 26A, 27A, then 25B, 26B, 27B, etc.

    1. Lauren Schmitz says:

      Kaelyn, I love a customized education!! Well done, homeschool mama!

  5. This was a great post. I hated math in high school. It was like a foreign language to me. It didn’t come easy to me and I failed every single year that I had to take it. I felt so ashamed and wondered what was wrong with me.
    I realize now after learning about the different methods of teaching math that I could have benefited from a spiral based curriculum. I am currently using The Good And The Beautiful Math curriculum and I absolutely love it. I think it’s great for children and adults with short attention spans. There are days when my child will open up her math book without any instruction from me and complete the review section all on her own.

  6. I really enjoyed this post. I definitely agree that spiral math is best! At least for my kids. We started our first grade year using Horizons Math. We didn’t hate it, but it wasn’t super engaging for my daughter and we struggled to get through it every day. We’ve recently switched to Math with Confidence by Kate Snow (she’s written other math books–I’m a big fan of hers!) and it has been a game-changer. It’s a brand new curriculum and it is awesome. It focuses on games and activities rather than worksheets (though there are worksheets in every lesson). Another thing I love about it: there are only four required lessons each week, with one additional optional activity for Fridays. Just thought I’d share in case your interested in checking the curriculum out. Thanks again for all your blogs. I really appreciate them!

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