I’m really excited about this guest post! Eileen Murphy, fellow secular homeschooler, is here to discuss the differences between two popular literature-based secular homeschool curriculum, one an old favorite and one a newcomer to the scene: Build Your LIbrary and Torchlight Curriculum. Please feel free to ask questions or share your thoughts in the comments and I’ll be sure to have Eileen answer them.
Torchlight Curriculum VS Build Your Library
At first glance Torchlight Curriculum and Build Your Library look quite similar. They’re both literature-based, secular curriculums. Both are written by homeschoolers and are available as inexpensive digital purchases. The digital file of each gives you a schedule to follow which includes many books and supplies you’ll need for associated projects, and for both you’re responsible for sourcing all the materials yourself. Both have a history/social studies theme of around the world in kindergarten, then follow the classical four year cycle in grades 1-4 (ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern history). When you dig deeper, however, they are very different, unique programs. Here I’ll try to lay out some of the ways they differ to help you decide which would better fit your family.
As background and to give you my biases: I haven’t used the entirety of either program. I tried to use Build Your Library (BYL) K multiple times and could never get into it; we always gave up in weeks or months. I also have not used the recent update of BYL, so the current version is slightly different than the one I used. I got Torchlight (TL) K to dissect and use pieces of with my preschooler, but I’ve decided to wait and use it whole, so I’ve only used some bits and pieces with my older child. I’ve looked through level 1 in both programs but used neither yet. Torchlight only has levels K & 1 out so far, (though level 2 is scheduled to be released by fall with 1-2 levels per year thereafter), so this review is focused on those years.
From a philosophical standpoint, Build Your Library is Charlotte Mason inspired, while Torchlight is Socratic and eclectic. Both styles are literature based, but they approach the literature they use in a different way. If you look into each philosophy you’ll get a sense of the differences, but very generally speaking Charlotte Mason is more focused on your child experiencing and being exposed to great books, whereas a Socratic approach is more focused on you and your child discovering and exploring new ideas through thoughtful questioning and discussion of great books.
The literature used itself is also very different: Torchlight uses much more modern children’s literature, whereas Build Your Library uses more classic children’s literature.
Torchlight uses books with more pictures at the kindergarten level, even among the chapter books.
Torchlight books have an intentional focus on diversity. For example, at least half of the books center on female characters. It tries to source books from minorities or other cultures written by members of that group. Build Your Library books, being more classics, are more heavily from white male authors and have much more racism, sexism, and bigotry included, as was common in the times the books were from.
Torchlight also just uses a lot more books! There are over 100 main books in Torchlight’s kindergarten year and about 35 in Build Your Library’s, in first grade the numbers are approximately 70 in TL to 35 in BYL. This is nice because your days and weeks are less repetitive since there’s more variety you’re pulling from, but potentially costly if you don’t already own the books and/or your library doesn’t have many (and your library may be less likely to have them yet because the books are newer, though mine has been very open to adding new, quality children’s literature when I’ve asked!). There are so many books you can easily drop some and still have a full curriculum in my opinion; there’s a LOT.
Torchlight lists out a lot of suggested alternative books if you can’t find or don’t like a book in the curriculum. I appreciate this; it feels like it’s giving you structure but really encouraging you to do your own thing and making it easy to modify. There’s a lot of choice given to you but also a default presented if you don’t want to make the choices. Build Your Library is flexible enough that people do substitute regularly, but you’re on your own to find an alternative.
Build Your Library is a more consistent schedule; everyday you read from one or more of several books that will likely take you several weeks to finish. It felt repetitive to us, but many like the routine. I suspect Torchlight will feel less repetitive to us because each day is more different and the chapter books you’re reading change more regularly, but there still is some big picture structure so it doesn’t feel chaotic (for example, in kindergarten you often do cooking on Fridays and add to your t-chart about the experience, in first grade you add to your year-long writing project every other week).
Are Both Options Truly Secular?
Both curriculums note items of potential concern (e.g. BYL told you that the first poem in their previous poetry book mentioned a creator god [they have since replaced this book for a more secular one], TL tells you if a character in a book attends a church) but I feel like Torchlight takes it much further (e.g. for BYL there was a lot in Little House in the Big Woods behavior-wise I wish I’d been warned of before starting, TL warns you that the kids in Greetings from Somewhere often sneak away from their parents, then gives suggestions of how and when you could discuss the characters’ behavior, and then gives you an alternative series if you prefer to avoid the issue altogether). I appreciate all the info! Torchlight seems to err on the side of too much info, and points out the kind of things I want to know about.
In kindergarten, Build Your Library goes around the world by continent while Torchlight revisits different continents multiple times and changes continents almost every week. They are different approaches: to thoroughly explore each continent or to move around to keep seeing each with fresh eyes.
While going around the world Build Your Library does a lot of country crafts, which many greatly enjoy. Torchlight avoids that kind of activity intentionally to avoid crossing into appropriation or belittling something of significance to another culture. (This is not to say that BYL does that, just that TL wanted to stay away from the possibility of doing it). So they do different kinds of hands on and art activities. Torchlight’s art is more focused on arts than crafts, Build Your Library’s is more focused on crafts than arts.
Torchlight questions are more of “why” type questions, and the questions Build Your Library has are more of “what” type questions (back to Socratic questioning vs Charlotte Mason narration). In the kindergarten level, Torchlight encourages discussion of what you’re reading, not with specific questions for each reading, but by giving you generic lists of Socratic question starters by subject that you can reference to start organic discussions with your child about what you’re reading. Build Your Library has nothing like this at this level (though you could purchase their narration cards intended for higher levels that give you ideas of ways your child could tell you about what they read). Some might be able to have great discussions organically, but I appreciate the cheat sheet!
Starting in first grade Torchlight includes something very unique: literature primers. In these Torchlight basically lays out why they included each literature book, possible objectionable material (e.g. scary, poor role modeling, things to discuss, religion mentioned, etc), vocabulary, and gives a discussion outline for as you read (topics to explore overall and in various chapters). It doesn’t give you specific questions to read aloud, which can feel like quizzing, but instead gives you topics to look for to equip you to start an organic discussion. Build Your Library uses narration cards, which give various ways for the student to relate what happened in the story (e.g. create a puppet show based on the reading, draw a scene from the reading and caption it, tell 5 things you remember), and copywork. The narration cards are used for multiple books and multiple levels, similar to how TL’s list of questions in K are used for multiple books. Build Your Library does not share why she picked a book or what themes you might be looking for as you read it, and on the occasion there are any notes on possibly objectionable content they are noted briefly in the schedule as they come up. This is not due to a lack in BYL, but a difference in philosophy – in a Charlotte Mason education you don’t infuse ideas of why you are introducing a reading to your student, you expose them to it and let them synthesize it themselves.
In Torchlight vocabulary words are listed for each literature book in the literature primer. Several days a week the student picks a vocabulary word and fills out a page in their “vocabulary spell book”, which is included in your purchase. On each page the student interacts with the word in several ways, including breaking it into it’s prefix, root word, and suffix, guessing it’s definition and then recording the correct definition, drawing a picture to help them remember the definition, coming up with synonyms and antonyms, and more. There are also activities like making up a song or hopping the syllables students can choose to do for extra fun. In Build Your Library vocabulary words are listed for each day’s literature reading with their definition. It is recommended you read through the vocabulary words before you start reading the day’s chapters, and then your student can listen for the words to come up as you read if they would like. Build Your Library introduces many more vocabulary words this way, whereas Torchlight covers fewer words in greater depth.
In first-fourth grade Build Your Library currently uses Story of the World as its central history spine and Torchlight is using Curiosity Chronicles.
In first grade, Build Your Library includes a “key idea” for you to focus on for each history reading, while Torchlight does not. Build Your Library also includes mapwork and timeline work, providing maps from the time being studied for you to color and fill in and timeline figures for you to add to an ongoing timeline, whereas Torchlight lists a timeline sticker book and Mizielinska’s Maps book and activity book as optional supplements. Torchlight also provides geography inquiry lessons, which are quick verbal/physical exercises the student does using a globe to cover modern geography.
Torchlight includes some additional fun activities in first grade, such as a decoder ring with challenges using it, a year-long myth writing project, and optional trading cards you can create for each god or goddess you study.
Which Does My Family Prefer?
For us Torchlight is much more appealing. We prefer the super high quality modern literature to classic literature, and everything from the book list we already own has been read many, many times. The focus on diversity and questioning is incredibly appealing, I love the history spine, and the literature primers are everything I’ve wanted but didn’t know I could have – I’m beyond excited about them! It also feels like a good blend of giving a framework while allowing (even encouraging!) you to make it work for you (suggested substitutions, optional extensions, open ended discussion starters, etc). Somehow Torchlight feels both more complete and more flexible to me. However they’re both great curriculums which will work well for different families, and I’m excited that there are multiple high quality secular options!
Eileen Murphy is a homeschool mom to three kids. She is a certificated teacher (though not currently working) with focuses in secondary math and elementary literacy, and has prior educational and professional experience in mathematics and engineering. She loves geeking out over curricula, probably more than she should, but she has fun with it!