When I first spotted the BookShark™ display at a homeschool conference, it looked very familiar to me—lots of real books for each level, parent guides to coordinate learning, and grid charts showing what pages are to be read in the books each day. I thought it looked very similar to Sonlight's curriculum. It turned out that BookShark was a spin-off from Sonlight, operating as a separate company to offer a secular option that is similar to Sonlight's Christian curriculum. While programs shared many features at first, they have been gradually diverging further apart from one another.
BookShark is available for pre-kindergarten through tenth grade. It is presented as levels based on age ranges rather than grades: level Pre-K and levels A through J. (The program is one level short of providing a separate program for every grade level through tenth grade.) This arrangement makes it easier to select the correct level for each child in each subject and also makes it easier to combine children who are within three years of age into one level for some subjects. The program is designed with lessons for four days per week, leaving time for field trips and other activities.
For each level, the program up through level H has four subject-area packages for history, language arts, science, and math. Subject areas packages include the instructor's guide along with an assortment of resources that sometimes includes a traditional-style textbook. You put together your BookShark curriculum by selecting either a complete, preselected package covering all subjects for one level or your own selection of one or more subject packages from one or more levels.
History for level Pre-K is a study of world cultures and geography (with a number of read-aloud books). For levels A through H, BookShark offers Reading with History packages. Reading with History packages include both read-aloud books and books for independent reading, along with timeline and map resources. Levels I and J have "History and Literature" packages that are designed for independent study.
The History and Literature packages use an assortment of biographies, historical novels, and other books along with at least one spine book—a launching point for their studies—in this case, a book that presents historical information in chronological order (e.g., The Landmark History of the American People and A History of US). BookShark's use of "real" books in this manner reflects the influence of Charlotte Mason's approach to education.
As I said at the beginning of this review, BookShark is essentially a secular version of Sonlight. The subject of history highlights some of the major differences. Sonlight's history is presented within packages titled "History with Bible and Literature" while BookShark's history packages include only history and literature. This is evident in the resources selected for the programs. For instance, the level E history package for both programs uses The Landmark History of the American People: Volume II. Both packages include a biography of William Wilberforce, but Sonlight's choice stresses the importance of Wilberforce's faith. Sonlight includes the book Lights in a Dark Place that tells fourteen missionary stories and the book Bruchko, the biography of a murdered missionary. BookShark includes Moccasin Trail, the story of a pioneer boy raised by Crow Indians. I have to add a heads up for those opposed to same-sex marriage since the DK™ book Children Like Me (in the BookShark level B history package) presents a family with a same-sex marriage.
Language Arts Packages
All areas of language arts are covered in BookShark's language arts packages that are available up through level H. For example, level A (in which some items are labeled for kindergarten) teaches beginning phonics, spelling, pre-writing, and copywork. In all levels, much of the instruction in language arts is presented from the instructor's guide. Additional resources that are used change from level to level. Levels A through C rely heavily on different books from the Explode the Code® series. Wordly Wise 3000® books are introduced in level C for vocabulary. The Grammar Ace is used with levels E through H, and Keys to Good Language is used with levels F and G.
BookShark's 2021 revisions aligned their science programs with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). BookShark has taken a neutral position on both the origins of life and of evolution in the past. Since the NGSS stress evolution as a foundational concept, BookShark science is now likely to promote evolutionary viewpoints. (You can see the central role played by the concept of evolution in the NGSS by reading the standards, particularly those for life science.) Coverage of evolution is already apparent in BookShark's inclusion of books such as Genetics: Breaking the Code of Your DNA and DK findout! Earth. However, the standards do not require teaching anything specific about the origin of life, and BookShark assures me that they will continue to take a neutral position on that topic.
Science packages combine hands-on activities with an assortment of topical books. For levels A through E, a DVD has demonstrations of the science experiments. All levels except Pre-K include a science kit with resources required for the activities.
An optional feature that you can add is BookShark Virtual™. According to their website:
BookShark Virtual is an online platform that enables students to access their reading schedules, view Story Maps, take assessments, and receive instant auto-grading results. Parents and teachers can track and review student work, customize assessments, and message students directly from a computer or mobile app.
This platform should be very helpful, but it doesn't provide complete record keeping.
Despite differences in the content of Sonlight and BookShark, the educational approach and learning methods are the same in both. The essential difference is that BookShark offers an option for those who want to experience a "Sonlight education" from a secular perspective.