Homeschool Tips

See also our frequently asked questions page.

Click on any of the questions below to view the answer to that question.

Q: Which programs should I start with?

A: We hope you’ll let your kids help select what programs they want to study. But our first choice to introduce kids (and parents!) to hands-on learning is Electricity #32. Materials are easy to find (even easier if you order our kit); student instructions and teaching notes are simple; kids get the thrill of instant success (“Look, Ma, I can light the bulb!”). Younger siblings will want to work along with older siblings, and will happily repeat these activities in greater depth a few years later.
Cross-age learning is built into many other titles as well, like Get a Grip #73 and Perfect Balance #31.

These are engaging and flexible math programs that even preschoolers will “grasp” independently, at their own ability level.
Once your kids get the hang of working independently, they’ll be eager to try more challenging units. By then, you’ll get the hang of being a resource person and trouble-shooter, while your kids learn to become their own best teachers. Homeschooling is especially well suited to achieve this noble educational goal. And TOPS is especially well suited for home schooling!

Q: I’m nervous about trying to teach science or math, since I’m weakest in those areas. Can you offer any general suggestions?
A: This is a common situation for homeschoolers, and TOPS meets this worry with aplomb. Our labs are well-known for providing solid teaching notes and background material, and for working according to plan.
Our number one recommendation: You are not required to use TOPS instructions like a cookbook. Unlike public school teachers, you have more flexibility and time for your children to explore the “hows and whys” of what they observe happening. If an experiment doesn’t go as projected, we suggest you relax, observe, hypothesize, and experiment further as time allows.
Keep a journal of your explorations, because you are doing science as a process, whether or not you arrive at “the right answer.” This is the very heart of science education, and your children will be learning far more along the way than you might guess. And they are likely to be learning joyfully, unless you project a mood of tension, despair or failure.
You can do TOPS at home! Once your family is hooked on discovery, your kids may well take delight in exploring a subject that hooks them in greater depth on the web, in the library, on field trips, in museum classes, or in textbooks.
Q: What if we have problems with one of your experiments?
A: Try what we always suggest first: Read the instructions again. Not reading carefully or completely is the single most frequent cause of confusion. Be sure your young scientist understands what’s being asked, and that you haven’t skipped over something in the teaching notes. This clears up the vast majority of problems.
Next, check the book description page on this website related to the experiment in question to see whether we’ve already addressed your question under 'teaching tips.'
Then, if you’re feeling the need for more background than is provided in our teaching notes, or more explanation about some scientific phenomenon, (or simply have curiosity about any topic!), Google is an amazing resource. Type in a few key words, and discover that experts in many fields have made their knowledge available, often for free, right on your desktop. This process gives your offspring a fine introduction to research, which you may want to continue at your local library.
Finally, if you’re really stuck, you can email us. Be sure to mention which book and lesson you are using, and describe your problem clearly. Ron or Peg will get back to you as quickly as possible, sometimes even evenings or weekends.
Except in dire emergency, please don’t phone us. We want to give all our TOPSciencers the best support possible, but we’re a home-based business with a staff of two, and we can get spread mighty thin. The phone doesn’t give us much time to collect our thoughts or look up and review specific labs, so it's not usually the best way to get the clearest answer.
Q: How much time should I schedule for each TOPS lesson?

A: Budget about an hour per lesson in terms of overall planning, but expect wide variation among specific lessons. One of the best things about homeschooling is that you don't have to stick to a regimented schedule. Your children may get so excited about hands-on science they'll want to do several activities in a row, perhaps even designing their own experiments and extensions along the way. This is the essence of great education; encourage this if you can! Some families have a Science Day every week (A few parents have told us their kids enjoy TOPS so much, they used this as a reward for completed work on other subjects!)
Be aware that Radishes #38 and Corn & Beans #39 are scheduled around the growth of real, live plants, and should be given at least an hour every weekday.

Q: I want to be sure my children are prepared for college. Will TOPS provide the kind of science background they need to get into the college of their choice?
A: TOPS doesn’t cover every subject area, and few of our titles are intended as college-prep, but we do teach young people how to learn. We provide the hands-on experience each child needs to understand science as a process of exploration, manipulation, wondering, and problem-solving. Our use of everyday materials is simply empowering. Scientific exploration is within your children's grasp. The “subject” of this experience, whether physics, biology or chemistry, is of secondary importance. There are wonderful resources everywhere, and your kids will engage them with curiosity and thrive academically when their natural sense of inquiry is supported.
Once kids learn to be their own best teachers, they can become the rocket scientist, the plumber, the homemaker, the farmer, the writer, the grocer, or the poet they were meant to be. The TOPS books you use, and that college you have in mind, are merely developmental stepping stones to help your children along their way.
Q: Can I use TOPS to meet my state / district educational requirements?
A: Contact a local homeschool support group to find this kind of information. But please do review this letter a homeschool mom shared with another parent regarding TOPS, which address this and the previous two questions:
“So you’ve entered the high school years and are looking for guidance on how to integrate TOPS into your daughter’s curriculum. I’m glad to share our experience with you. You need to find out what (your state’s) requirements are for science. Also be aware that most colleges require a minimum of three science courses, two of which must be lab sciences. (Hello, TOPS!) If you choose to give them more, it will make their application review that much easier!
We were late 'discoverers' of TOPS and started using their materials in the 10th grade when we needed to meet the lab requirements for chemistry. We used TOPS again in 11th grade for our physics course. Each of these years, at the beginning of the summer, I reviewed the TOPS offerings using both their grade level and subject (chemistry, biology, physics, etc.) index. I selected enough Task Card Series books in the subject area we planned to cover to provide us a number of lessons close to our 180-day instructional requirement. I must note here that we started with WEIGHING #05 as I knew we would need a scale, and the equal arm balance we made served our needs very well!
In PA the homeschool law requires public schools to loan their textbooks to homeschool families. We always took these texts and used them as a study guideline -- a loose guideline! If we happened to be working with TOPS PRESSURE #16, we might see what the text had to say about the subject. In some cases, the texts were so boring and tedious that we closed the book (I know that you know what I mean!); in other cases the texts offered some enhancement. We also selected portions of the texts, that is to say, the topics that didn’t make us cringe, to study in addition to our TOPS task cards. (A unit on mirrors & focal points comes to mind.)
The PA homeschool law also requires that a portfolio of representative work be submitted to the school at the end of every school year, and that requirement has been an asset to us. We took many photographs of experiments in the works; after the photos were processed (weeks or months later!) our daughter organized them in her portfolio with a description of the activities taking place along with the scientific explanation of the activities. An excellent review process!
Our daughter... is not planning a career that requires a strong chemistry or physics background. As a matter of fact, she has no idea what she wants to do, fortunately, this isn’t uncommon, and I’m not really worried. She’s been accepted to all three of the colleges to which she applied, and I feel that the TOPS materials we used in her high school science studies have given her enough comprehension, with a high measure of enjoyment!, of the subjects to adequately prepare her for any subsequent college requirements.
I hope this information is helpful to you and that you thoroughly enjoy your high school years.”
Susan W., Pennsylvania
Q: I’m not comfortable subjecting my children to a “one size fits all” curriculum. How can you say that one subject can teach such a wide age range? Will TOPS really meet my needs?
A: There are nearly as many strategies for home education as there are homeschoolers. And TOPS adapts well to just about any teaching/learning style that is not straight-ahead “read chapter, answer questions.” TOPS labs, when used for open-ended exploration, allow children to learn at whatever level they are capable of. And a child of eight can discover what is available to her now, then revisit the same topic a few years later and experience a whole new level of comprehension. An outstanding advantage of hands-on discovery is that each student makes it her own.
So our “target” grade ranges may actually be deceptively narrow for homeschoolers. Sometimes the limiting factor is the amount of math required. Sometimes it’s the manual dexterity required to build a model or a measuring instrument.
We hear from quite a few families who sidestep these obstacles by having children of different ages work together. This can save you time, planning and preparation. For example, manipulating small parts might be the only thing standing between a pre-schooler and an exciting exploration of electricity, or balancing, or radishes. An older sibling might help the younger follow directions and assemble a gadget, thus making hours of self-directed learning possible. And we should never underestimate the value of teaching others as a way for the older child to learn at higher levels of comprehension.
You probably homeschool because you want your children to be treated as the individuals they are. You know whether your children are ready, or not, to handle any given subject area. You hope to nurture each of your children’s unique aptitudes. TOPS helps kids and their parents discover how exhilarating learning can be when they have the opportunity to indulge their own curiosity.
Q: Can you help me find textbooks related to your activities?
A: We aren’t able keep up on all textbooks, but we are partial to author/educator/illustrator Paul G. Hewitt. Please Google information about his clear and highly readable physical science text called CONCEPTUAL PHYSICS. Geeks that we are, we have enjoyed browsing through his friendly and highly accessible chapters just for entertainment! We have no particular recommendations in other areas, except to say that unless your child is studying cutting-edge quantum physics or microbiology, older editions of textbooks are generally just as useful as newer editions, only cheaper. For the best word-of-mouth recommendations, we hope you will join a local homeschool support group. This will keep you current on what resouces are available to you, too, such as use of public school texts and tutoring or special needs services.
Q: How are your Task Cards differ from your Activity Sheets?
A: Go to About TOPS > lesson formats of a detailed look at our various program styles.
Q: How similar are your Job Box programs? Do they all use the same materials? If I purchase more than one of them, will the activities repeat or overlap?
A: We currently have 3 Job Box programs: Primary Lentil Science #71, Intermediate Lentil Science #72, and Get a Grip #73. Please select any link and click on the ‘teaching tips’ tab near the bottom.
A general note: Some folks are dedicated scroungers and want to collect their own materials. If this is you, consider introducing lentils with a complete, ready-to-use Get A Grip Workstation. You can then purchase one or both Lentil Science books separately, and gather additional materials gradually as your kids work through the chapters. You don’t have to have all materials ready in order to start using the activities, and can probably find reasonable substitutes for some items. (We always encourage creative improvisation!)
Q: Where can I find the “simple materials” needed to do TOPS activities?
A: Much of this stuff is available in your desk, kitchen, sewing kit, garage or toolshed. Of course, that “one item” that you don’t have can be a nuisance. So, since teachers and parents are getting ever busier, we have vastly expanded our offering of COMMON supplies. You can also find SPECIALITY supplies (if any), specifically related to each particular TOPS titles by clicking the ‘get materials’ tab below any book description and scrolling down.
We offer these supplies as a convenience, and strive to offer quantities sufficient for single lab groups, which educators can then multiply to meet class needs. You may find cheaper sources for many of the materials at local stores or online. So please shop around if saving money is more important to you than saving time.
Another tip: If you just need a small amount of something that comes in a big package, team up with other homeschoolers, or ask a neighbor or local businesses to give or sell you some. When testing our labs, we’ve asked the local high school for a few chemicals. Folks are often happy to help out when they know it’s for science education!
Q: Why don’t you make support kits for more of your titles?
A: So many of our books require such easily accessible support materials, kits are unneccesary. TOPS is a small company on a tight budget, and the initial cost of purchasing materials in large enough quantities to be economical is formidable. If it then turns out there’s not much of a market for a kit, we’re stuck with a large outlay and little return. So we offer only what folks have asked for with some frequency. Inquiries suggest that most folks would rather buy just a few items than a whole kit (see the next question). If you were frustrated that we didn't offer specific kits or individual items, please tell us! This will help us with future decisions.
Q: Can I buy partial kits -- just an item, or a few, that I need?
A: Check most any book description under “get materials” and you will find a list of specific items we offer to support that title. When we do offer kits, they may be a reasonable value for the amount of shopping around and preparation they save you. So you may actually do yourself a favor by buying the whole kit.
Q: A group of local parents have formed a purchasing club. Do you offer quantity discounts on your books? How about kits?
A: Check out our Combo Discounts on books. We do our best to make great learning a great deal for everyone. Since our kits and support materials are expensive for us to produce and stock, we can’t reduce prices on those.
Q: Can my homeschool support group buy just one of every title and trade them around?
A: This is a dilemma for us. Our basic copyright requires that each educator purchase his or her own copy of any book, and photocopy it for as long as he or she teaches. This is a great economy for school teachers (and taxpayers), and has allowed TOPS to survive for three decades.
The homeschool situation is rather different, since you generally use a book for only a few children. But homeschoolers often reduce their outlay by puchasing and reselling used books — eliminating sales to publishers like TOPS. So how do we balance our needs with yours?
If you are sharing TOPS materials with other home schoolers, we ask that you support our continued work by sending TOPS a voluntary Honor System ROYALTY: we suggest 25 cents per lesson per recipient. Or if you prefer, you may simply make a contribution on any book description page for value received. Our copyright rule, for homeschooling, is somewhat open to your interpretation and needs. We trust that you will want TOPS to remain available to students everywhere, so please let your conscience be your guide.