Welcome to our review of Sonlight Curriculum! Links to "Sonlight gravy" and more follow the article.
Note: This review was written around 2006 or so. Sonlight has continued to evolve, but many of the points in the review below are still valid. We will be using Sonlight's Core 300 in the 2014-2015 school year and will write a new review based on that core in the future.
Sonlight is a literature - based unit study program / curriculum centered on a "core" of history (for most of the grades / years). Their curriculum works to tie together multiple subjects so learning is connected and more memorable. I encourage you to explore their website or catalog though...they are NOT just about history.
Sonlight's curriculum is designed to get your child out of boring textbooks and into literature. Why read a dry and dull paragraph about an event when you can read about characters living and breathing it? An exciting book is more likely to stick in a child's mind longer than a history chapter stuffed full of names and dates but no "real" meaning or context.
What is nice about Sonlight Curriculum is that they do all the scheduling and planning hassles for you (if that's how you want to go). I do know that many parents tweak Sonlight and only use them as a framework, but for those of you who want it all spelled out and just want to open the instructor's guide and not have to think and plan, this is a great solution.
The instructor's guides totally "hold your hand". Inside each guide there is a schedule (with a free optional 4-day schedule for those with busy extracurricular lives), notes, map activities, comprehension questions, website addresses, supplies needed (like for a science experiment) and more. The notes are often a big help when a book has a particular slant to it and also give additional information like historical background and more that help to shed more light on what you are reading. You can take a look at free samples on their website to get an idea of just what is included and how the IG's are laid out.
With Sonlight you can have an entire package of books delivered to you that go with the year's schedule. No more running to the library and the embarrassment of late fees, or shopping at multiple stores and websites hunting down the right edition. Sonlight has what they call "core packages" where you can order nearly EVERYTHING you need for the year (or for whichever subject -it's your choice).
This means that you can get your history, language arts, science (and even most supplies for your experiments), math, foreign language and extracurricular subjects like art all together in one box with one easy order.
History is usually based around "good books". Be aware that this curriculum does NOT follow a "classical" four year history cycle. Parents read some books aloud (up to the 7th level core) and others are scheduled in as readers. Traditional textbooks are avoided.
The level 5 Core is one we particularly recommend. It is unusual, different, interesting and FUN. It's like taking a trip around the world to countries that are rarely discussed much less looked at in depth by a homeschool curriculum.
Language arts is tied to the history books in many cases (except in the earliest grades). Dictation exercises and other grammar work revolves around passages taken from what you are reading. Handwriting, spelling (in most of the grades) and some vocabulary work are available in optional support materials and workbooks (such as The Winston Grammar Program, Handwriting Without Tears, Wordly Wise Vocabulary and many other choices).
Science in elementary and middle school grades comes from a variety of books (many Usborne titles) and there is usually one experiment a week. Later grades use Apologia's textbooks. There are science worksheets that children fill out (circle the correct answer, cut and paste, write in the blank and similar type exercises) accompanying the books that are read.
"Extracurricular" materials (art, Bible, languages and more) are materials that can be found in many homeschool catalogs (items like Rosetta Stone, Draw Squad, and tons of other choices for various grades). If you don't want to "think too hard" about what to get, they have come up with complete packages (as I have previously mentioned) to make choosing easier.
Be prepared, if you order a "package" from Sonlight, you are going to get a BIG box of books!
Sonlight, as a company, is really upfront about why or why not their curriculum might work for you and they have a whole section in their catalog and on their website that explains the reasons. They will NOT be a fit for some, and yet for others, this is what you've been looking for all along. They also have a money back guarantee where you can actually USE the materials for up to twelve weeks (and yes, you can write in the workbooks). Where else can you find that?
As you can probably tell by the name, they are a Christian company with Christian materials (as well as Christian comments and notes in certain sections of the instructor's guides). This does not mean that every other page has a Bible verse on it though. Many secular books that are easily found in many local libraries are scheduled throughout the year.
If you are not a Christian it is easy to not purchase the Bible materials (which are now available separate from the Core packages) and just ignore the notes in the instructor's guides that don't align with your beliefs. It's still a solid curriculum that can work for you and there is a community of non-Christian (and Christian) Sonlight users over at The Homeschool Library.
Sonlight has terrific forums where other Sonlight users are very happy to help, be supportive and share ideas, etc. The only problem is that these forums that were once public and free aren't anymore. If you don't buy a certain amount of product per year or pay for access, you will only be allowed to read the posts via a trial membership and may not post except for a single "choosing" bulletin board. Some Sonlight users have felt alienated by this change in policy. Where "all" were welcome, now only "some" are. Long time supporters who have invested a lot of money in Sonlight products (or bought them used) don't get to be a part of their forum "family" unless they "pay" for it. The ability to post in the regular forums was literally taken away "overnight", with no warning .
If you are new to Sonlight, this may not make any difference to you. Companies grow and change. However, to some purchasers, it may matter how the company conducted itself towards this portion of its customer base.
Sonlight seems to always be trying to improve itself...it is NOT stagnant and this is a good thing for the most part (or perhaps bad, when considering the hard feelings some had over the forums). They have always seemed to listen to people who purchase their curriculum and have actively solicited opinions on their products.
No curriculum is perfect and Sonlight does have its potential flaws...(keep in mind though that what is a flaw for one family is a fit for another).
you are a parent who likes hands-on activities and materials, you're on your own.
Sonlight does not provide these for you except for science experiments and a few
other exceptions. In my opinion, this low level of hands-on activities is a real
downfall, especially for the younger grades. There are lots of moms who've made
websites for what is called "Sonlight gravy" (see the bottom of this page for
some links) which basically means extras like activities, worksheets and more
to accompany the different Sonlight levels. Still, I'd like a curriculum to supply
these ideas in their schedules and / or materials in their packages.
You may not agree with Sonlight's choice of certain "controversial" books. They don't shy away from some books that have potentially questionable elements that some parents are not comfortable with. Others will find these topics to be perfect opportunities for teaching. You can read more about this in their section explaining whether their curriculum is right for you or not.
Also, many times you will be scheduled to read more than one book at a time. For many people this isn't a problem, for some it can be annoying (I personally don't have a problem with this).
Some of the books Sonlight schedules may also be too "difficult" for a child's age. Cores in Sonlight run "hard" which means you may have better luck choosing a core that is LOWER than your child's grade level.
I am not completely sold on Sonlight's language arts materials. I do not like their writing instruction (boring -this being quoted from my children - and not tailored to the specific age groups well enough). Many times an example for a writing assignment comes from a separate core's book(s) which can be confusing. Younger grades have instructions a parent is to read out loud that don't speak specifically to the child's level as well as other programs I have seen. There also isn't enough explanation or hand-holding for those trying to teach the program. "How" do I get each concept across to my child? Many parents have to "waste" time looking up items in an appendix or even a separate book to "know" what it is they are even trying to teach.
Sonlight does offer something called "My Access". This is a "computer" program that has writing assignments and "grades" them. I have not had the opportunity to review this though.
I also don't like how the language arts sheets do not have explanations to the students and can seem kind of "random" in their introduction of grammar skills (although I could be missing the "master plan" or not understanding Sonlight's strategy in this area). The sheets are yellow (for some reason that is irritating to me) and there are NO pictures, etc. For some that is a bonus (if you have a highly distractible kid), but my children have always preferred a little something to dress up a page.
To be fair, if you stick with their language arts, the dictation exercises will most likely pay off (but you can do dictation for free out of the books you read on a day to day basis). Also, a child using Sonlight's language arts is going to tackle some tougher elements and terminology of grammar earlier than most and will, after much repetition, probably "get it" in the end. I think the main problem would be "staying with it".
Their science program seems to skip around a lot. There is no going into depth for the most part in the early grades (as contrasted to Apologia's elementary science texts). The concept is that your child will be introduced and reintroduced to subjects over a period of time. I think this is a good idea for some, but for others - a child may not really "own" the material without spending more time with it.
Experiments are in seemingly random order (again maybe I'm just not "getting" it) and are not necessarily tied in with what you are reading out of the books (annoying). You might be reading about birds and doing an experiment on electricity.
Some parents don't feel comfortable with some of the Usborne books used in Sonlight's science programs because of mentions of evolution or cartoon depiction's of nudity (this is also present in some of the Usborne history books scheduled). The books themselves may be way too distracting for some children. For those of you familiar with Usborne books, you know there is usually tons of information in the form of multiple drawings to each page or page spread. Our family loves Usborne books, but some parents and children don't.
The worksheets that come with the science program appear to be "homemade". The illustrations are not "professional" looking and there is a lot of "busy" work (circle the correct answer, fill in the blank, draw a line to the matching answer and so on) that may be a drudge for some children (or an excellent reinforcement for others). They are also on those irritating yellow pages.
At the risk of sounding oxymoronic, despite the fact that the science wasn't always connected and you do a lot of jumping around in the experiment texts, it's my opinion that you can still get a solid science education from using these materials. Your child might have a better opportunity to get his interest sparked in a particular science area because so much ground is covered.
Sonlight isn't perfect, but for many it may be a good, if not great match. Others may find them just not a fit for their family. They have one of the most solid high school programs I've seen, but they also could be considered by some to be too advanced and dry for the younger grades. They are fairly well rounded and their materials are often thought provoking, interesting, and even exciting.
Whatever is potentially wrong with Sonlight, they will most likely tell you much of it themselves. The things that I found negative will be, for many, balanced out by the good.
I hope you have an idea of what Sonlight is all about after reading this review. I encourage you to visit their site and see for yourself!
The following links go to sites that offer supplemental ideas, lessons, links and more for those using Sonlight curriculum:
This site has printables (yay!) as well as , ideas, activity suggestions,links to lessons and more for supplementing Sonlight curriculum cores 1 and 2.
Pot Hollow Sonlight Supplements
Books (linked to Amazon) and some websites are listed for supplementing Sonlight. Cores 1-7 are listed.
Nikki lists Sonlight books arranged by the Well-Trained Mind 4 year history cycles.
Paula has some great text files that list all sorts of hands-on activities, crafts, recipes, games and other ideas for SOME of the cores listed on her site (hence the heart). Cores 1-6 are listed, but not all have activity ideas.
to Everywhere - Supplementing Sonlight
This site has lists of the different Sonlight levels. Each list then has the materials and books used during the year listed and links to offsite lessons, activities and more.