Mastery vs Spiral vs Incremental Curriculum Approach

I admit to having never heard these terms before we started homeschooling. I figured all curriculums were pretty much the same at the core. I was wrong. They are very different approaches. I hope that this post gives you some insight as to which approach might be more appropriate for your child(ren). Both of these approaches can be found in all subjects, but are more likely to be brought up in the context of math(although can apply to language arts as well) so that is where I will focus when writing this blog post.

What is the Mastery Approach?

The idea behind the mastery approach is simply, that your child must have a firm grasp on a concept in order to be able to do more advanced concepts. Therefore, specific topic (ie…adding single digit numbers) is taught until that skill is mastered. You might also see this labeled as sequential learning.

What is the Spiral Approach?

The spiral approach is what we most commonly see used in “brick and mortar” schools. This style of curricula is based on the idea that the student will learn through repetition. Topics are taught once and then you move on. The next lesson will review the previous concept(s) while also introducing the new one, thus, building onto each lesson. Generally, a wider variety of concepts can be covered when using this method over a mastery approach.

What about Incremental Curriculums?

These curriculums are basically in the middle. They present new material, but still give plenty of time to master the material before moving on to the next topic.

Which is better?

Like most topics regarding children, the short answer is, whatever works for your child. Some children are able to pick up on topics and are ready to move on quickly. Spiral curriculums allow for a faster pace and will definitely keep your child from getting bored with topics they have already mastered. Some children require more time and do better when they are able to focus on one topic at a time. Some need a bit of both. I suspect most benefit from a mixture of more than one approach. For example in our house we use a mastery approach to math and a spiral approach with language arts. It’s what works for us.

What are Some Mastery Curriculums?

Math U See


What are Some Spiral Curriculums?


Analytical Grammar

Rod and Staff

What are Some Incremental Curriculums?



I have only used a few of these curriculums. We settled on Math U See for our math and Abeka for our language arts. There are reviews to just about every curriculum available on Homeschool Review, so be sure to check it out before you buy!

Guest blogger Anna is a daughter of the King, wife to her amazing husband of 10 years and homeschooling mommy of 3 blessings. She has been on her homeschooling  journey for 3 years. You can visit her blog at Molding Minds Homeschool.

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6 Responses to Mastery vs Spiral vs Incremental Curriculum Approach
  1. Vicki
    May 10, 2011 | 10:10 pm

    Helpful synopsis. Thanks.

    I like A Beka for Language Arts and Math in the early grades.

  2. Rebecca
    May 11, 2011 | 12:01 am

    Thanks for the insight on these different curriculum types. I use an eclectic approach to homeschooling so I’m always interested in what others piece together for their particular family’s needs. I guess we use mostly the spiral approach. My son loves to learn & tends to get bored quickly if I don’t allow him enough challenge constantly.

  3. ariekannairb
    May 11, 2011 | 7:41 am

    Rebecca-I would have thought spiral would work better for us too, but I have a daughter who is very A type. She likes to get it right. The first time. Moving to a mastery program was definitely what we needed. She still is easily discouraged when she doesn’t get it the first time, but now knows that we will work on it until she gets it.

    What is great about homeschooling is that we can all work to the specific needs of our families! Homeschooling Rocks!


  4. Tina
    May 11, 2011 | 9:19 pm

    Hmm…Having used Singapore before switching to MUS, I would not classify Singapore as mastery; actually, it seemed/seems very spiral to me. What I remember – and what stressed out my kids – was the fact that a new “method” (for doing even simple addition) was introduced virtually every day…and, thus, they could never master what to actually do to remember their basic facts. I know it works for many kids so I’m not criticizing it as a curriculum, but it definitely seems spiral (or at least incremental) to me.

  5. Christa
    May 13, 2011 | 10:10 am

    Anna, well done! :)

  6. realistic pencil portrait mastery
    August 5, 2011 | 1:13 am

    Playing to win is the most important and most widely misunderstood concept in all of competitive games. The sad irony is that those who do not already understand the implications I’m about to spell out will probably not believe them to be true at all. In fact, if I were to send this article back in time to my earlier self, even I would not believe it. Apparently, these concepts are something one must come to learn through experience, though I hope at least some of you will take my word for it.

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