Five in a Row publishes guides that each contain a number of (mostly) week-long unit studies based on children's storybooks. You will need to purchase or borrow the required storybooks for each. Before Five in a Row (BFIAR) and More Before Five in a Row (MBFIAR) are two guides for preschool through pre-kindergarten that include Christian content. Then there are five Five in a Row guides for use with ages five through twelve that do not have specifically Christian content. MBFIAR is a new addition to the series, and the second editions (published in 2020) of all of the other guides have a fresh new look and expanded content.
There is also the Beyond Five in a Row series for older students. It differs significantly from the rest of the series because it uses chapter books, so I will discuss it separately at the end of this review.
The name Five in a Row reflects a key feature of most of these guides. Each selected children's storybook is to be read in its entirety five days in a row. The guides then present activities (academic, developmental, experiential, and relational) that are related to the story in some way. Parents can choose among the activities to a certain extent, especially with children in preschool and kindergarten. (BFIAR is more casual in its approach, and it doesn't specify reading the storybook every day.)
The overall approach is gentle and relational rather than heavily academic. However, they do become increasingly academic as they progress. The publisher's intent is that families can work through these guides sequentially, with both the selected storybooks and activities gradually becoming more challenging as students mature. The only exception is the Five in a Row: Volumes 1 through 3 which are all written at the same level of difficulty.
The activities in the lessons address the needs of children with different learning styles. They should be especially good for wiggly, hands-on learners and for relational learners who thrive on personal discussion and interaction.
You don't need to use all of the guides, but I think that BFIAR and MBFIAR are best used together, as I will explain in their section below.
None of the Five in a Row guides are open-and-go resources. Parents need to read through the lessons, select activities, and gather resources in advance. Generally, you will use standard arts and crafts supplies and household items you probably have on hand, but you will occasionally need to gather or buy items. Many of the lessons recommend “go-along” titles of books that match up with lesson topics, but these are optional.
In summary, the Five in a Row guides should be great for those who want a more relaxed and relational unit-study approach to learning. Following are details about the different guides.
Note: Rainbow Resource Center sells literature packs for the FIAR guides, and Purple House Press publishes 13 of the books used in FIAR.
Before Five in a Row and More Before Five in a Row
Before Five in a Row (BFIAR) is a guide for ages two through four that uses 24 children's storybooks. More Before Five in a Row (MBFIAR) uses 14 storybooks. It increases the level of difficulty, making it suitable for ages three through five.
The BFIAR and MBFIAR guides can serve as your complete curriculum for preschoolers. You can use both guides at a relaxed pace over a two-year span. However, you could complete both guides in a little more than a year if you use one lesson per week since, between the two guides, there are a total of 38 lessons, each of which should take a week to complete.
Both of these guides include activities for Bible, art, music, science, health, language arts, social studies, and math, along with other activities under headings such as emotions, relationships, and drama. The activities are tailored to each story so they vary from week to week.
Each week's lesson begins with details about the selected storybook and a brief summary. A Bible connection is the first activity for each lesson. In BFIAR, the Bible activities usually refer to passages in the Bible, and they often suggest topics for discussion without specific instructions. MBFIAR expands the Bible activities with comments to the parent and specific activities, sometimes even including lesson material you can read directly to your child.
After that, the activities don't follow a set pattern. For instance, the first three activities for the study of The ABC Bunny in BFIAR are science-related—about plant life, weather, and animal classification. Next are two art observation activities, a counting activity, an introduction to the letters of the alphabet, a rhyming activity, and a music activity. Instructions for some activities are vague, so it's often up to you to determine exactly what to do and how much time to spend.
While the BFIAR guide has about four pages for each storybook, MBFIAR generally has six or more pages for each storybook with more activities and more-detailed instructions. For example, for the study of the storybook Go to Sleep, Little Farm in MBFIAR, there are five science activities about bees, shadows, beavers, fireflies, and baby animals. These are followed by two observational art activities and one hands-on project. Next is a suggestion for pretend play. Finally, there are six topics for language arts that include informal teaching strategies, rhyming activities, a search-and-find pre-reading activity, age-appropriate activities about onomatopoeias and personification, and a few paragraphs about the value of reading bedtime stories. Lessons for other books delve into other subject areas. For instance, Little Bear's Little Boat gets into recycling, transportation, and other social studies and science topics.
In MBFIAR, language arts and math activities are slightly more academic, such as learning to count to 10 and identifying words with the same beginning sounds. However, these types of activities are infrequent and do not present systematic instruction for math or reading.
Both of these guides have pages at the back with cards for animal classification games that you will need to copy and cut out. The cards have detailed, black-line drawings of animals, birds, insects, etc. that are mentioned in the stories. Instructions for the games are in the lessons.
Each guide has its own storybook map and "story disks." For each story, a paper disk has an illustration of the key character or another identifying feature. The storybook map is a two-page-wide, fanciful landscape that includes locations that can be identified for each story in that particular Five in a Row guide. At the end of each week's lesson, the child is to put the story disk on the proper place on the storybook map. (Removable mounting putty works great for this.) Black-and-white pages with the story disks and the storybook map are at the back of each guide. However, each guide that is purchased directly from the publisher also comes with a laminated page of full-color story disks. You can also purchase laminated, full-color storybook maps if you wish. Using the disks and map isn't required, but it's a fun, visual reminder of the stories the children have heard, and the map also gives children opportunities to make connections from the stories to identify the likely locations for each disk.
Before Five in a Row includes more than 40 pages near the back of the guide under the heading "Parent's Treasury of Creative Ideas for Learning Readiness." This is a treasure trove of informal learning suggestions that include games, singing, play, experiences, toys, and the arts. There are also sections with activities for motor-skill development, bath time, the kitchen, and the store. This part of the guide is not repeated in More Before Five in a Row, but it seems to me that these ideas should still be used alongside the lessons in both guides. Consequently, starting with BFIAR and continuing with MBFIAR makes the most sense.
Five in a Row: Volumes 1, 2 and 3
Five in a Row (FIAR): Volumes 1, 2, and 3 were written for ages five through nine. They can be used in any order since lessons do not build upon one another and this will not be your complete curriculum. Volume 1 uses 19 children's storybooks. Volume 2 uses 20, and Volume 3 uses 16. You might spread the lessons from one volume out over more than one year, or you might use more than one volume in one year.
If you want to use FIAR with children in kindergarten or first grade, you will need to add programs for phonics and math. Once children can read, you might also add resources that teach handwriting, spelling, and grammar. Up through second grade, the instruction in social studies, science, and art is likely to be much better in FIAR than that in traditional textbooks. With third and fourth graders, you might want to use something more structured for social studies and science.
As with the guides for younger children, the study of each storybook should take one week. More or less time can be spent each day depending upon which lesson elements you choose to use. (These guides all have suggested schedules at the back.)
As children get older, they might be less willing to listen to the story five days in a row. But the lesson activities emphasize different aspects of the story each day, so the repetition is important. The guides offer suggestions that will help you engage students who might be reluctant to sit through repeated readings, suggestions such as watching for a particular visual or story element that will be discussed after the reading.
While there are no biblical references in these volumes, FIAR teaches positive character qualities such as forgiveness, compassion, and honesty. Likewise, the selected stories are not overtly Christian but still reflect biblical principles. For those who want more explicit Christian connections, a separate Five in a Row Bible Supplement for Volumes 1 - 4 contains Bible-based lessons that correlate with all of the storybook studies in Volumes 1 through 4.
Examples of just some of the storybooks used with these three volumes are The Story About Ping, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Katy and the Big Snow, Wee Gillis, Make Way for Ducklings, The Salamander Room, All Those Secrets of the World, and Gramma’s Walk.
Lessons are all based on the storybooks and have activities for language arts, math, science, art, and social studies. The term social studies is used loosely to cover character qualities and relationships in addition to geography, history, and cultures. There are numerous hands-on activities, projects, and reproducible worksheets, but the detailed lesson plans more frequently are presented as “talk about this” activities. Instructional information or general topics to address are included in the lessons. Nevertheless, every lesson has one or more student pages for coloring, drawings, completing a graphic organizer, or writing.
Like the lower-level guides, each FIAR guide has a page of black-and-white story disks at the back, and a laminated page of full-color story disks comes free with books purchased directly from the publisher. You can also purchase the laminated page of story disks for each guide separately. Story disks—one for each story—have an illustration of the key character or another identifying feature for each story. Children can affix the story disks to laminated U.S. and world maps (purchased elsewhere) with removable mounting putty.
The suggested schedule at the back of each guide has you using activities for only one subject area per day, but you could instead select a variety of activities from among the subject areas. Activities range from those appropriate for non-writers and non-readers to those for children who have mastered these skills. So you can use the lessons to meet the academic needs of kindergartners up through about fourth grade, although you will sometimes need to adapt activities to suit each learner.
You are encouraged to use the stories in whatever order you please. The index at the end of each book lists what is covered under each subject area and sometimes breaks it down further under subheadings.
Teaching instructions that apply to most lessons are at the beginning of each guide. Within each lesson, there are detailed instructions for each activity. Parts of the lessons are written such that they can be read directly to your child. (This will save parents time.) Each lesson includes a Teacher's Notes page that you can use for lesson planning and writing your own notes about resources and field trips.
Five In A Row: Volume 4 and Volume 5
Volumes 4 and 5 are formatted in the same way as the first three volumes, but they are both written for slightly older audiences. This allows students to continue to learn using the FIAR approach in a way that is age appropriate.
Parents are generally more concerned about how FIAR fits with the rest of their curriculum as students hit fourth and fifth grade. For the fourth and fifth volumes, FIAR should provide complete coverage for literature, vocabulary, and reading skills as long as students are doing plenty of both independent reading and reading aloud. Composition skills are taught frequently, but not in a sequential fashion. You might want separate resources for grammar, spelling, or handwriting. Science and social studies are covered fairly extensively if you use most of the activities for those areas, but the coverage might be greater some weeks than others depending upon the content of the story. You might want to use more comprehensive resources for both areas, but you could just expand the study of topics that arise within the FIAR lessons with books from the library and internet resources. Note that a study of United States History would fit well alongside either volume. There should be plenty of art activities for both appreciation and hands-on work.
Volume 4 continues the FIAR series with lessons for children ages nine and ten. The selected children's picture book are all 32 pages long, except Grass Sandals, which has 40 pages. Even so, the content of the stories gets into events and concepts that provide more advanced opportunities for discussion and learning in the areas of language arts, social studies, science, and applied math. For instance, the study of Roxaboxen suggests having a discussion about the purpose of local government, the role of a mayor, local laws, and jail as a deterrent. Clearly, these are concepts that start to become interesting to children who are a little older than the audience for the first three FIAR volumes. Activities across the board for other subject areas are at a higher level. For instance, a vocabulary activity on page 52 has students complete a chart by filling in the meanings of Greek and Latin word roots and then finding words that are built on those roots.
Each book is used for a two-week study rather than one week. The FIAR guide has questions, discussion guides, and hands-on activities as well as activity sheets and suggestions for additional study. Fewer storybooks are covered in this volume, but there are more suggested activities, and those activities will often take longer to complete.
The books used in the study are Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran, The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins, The Pumpkin Runner by Marsha Diane Arnold, Hanna’s Cold Winter by Trish Marx, Albert by Donna Jo Napoli. Mailing May by Michael O. Tunnell, Cowboy Charlie by Jeanette Winter, and Grass Sandals by Dawnine Spivak. Volume 4 also has bonus studies for three more books, but those books are out of print and might be difficult to find.
Volume 5 was written for ages ten through twelve, with books and content more challenging than in Volume 4. Most significantly, there are studies for four children's picture books that should each take about two weeks, plus two studies of chapter books that might each take from four to nine weeks to complete. The picture books used are The Raft by Jim LaMarche, Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, The Gullywasher by Joyce Rossi, and Minette's Feast by Susanna Reich.
The two chapter books are The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner and Betsy Ross: Designer of Our Flag by Ann Weil. The studies for these two books include much more information in the guides, such as explanations about Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia, Quaker beliefs, and the Quaker lifestyle that are all part of the story in Betsy Ross: Designer of Our Flag. Some assignments for these books require students to do research. The lessons for chapter books also include activities on life skills and potential career paths. Fine arts expands into both visual and performing arts, architecture, and other areas. A “Writing and Discussion Question” for each chapter can be used either way depending upon each student’s needs.
A section titled Bonus Unit Studies has complete studies for four more picture books. Some of these are out of print, but they should be easier to find than the books for the bonus studies in Volume 4. They are well worth doing.
Beyond Five in a Row
The Beyond Five in A Row series was originally written to follow after the first three FIAR volumes. They are gradually being rewritten under the Five in a Row title, so that students can continue the series smoothly after Volume 5. Two of the books studied in the first volume of Beyond Five in a Row have already been incorporated into Volume 5. Meanwhile, the Beyond Five in a Row series for grades three through eight remains available.
These three volumes were authored by Becky Jane Lambert, daughter of the original series author, Jane Claire Lambert. These are excellent, one-semester courses. The four chapter books used for each volume are the foundation for this unit study approach. For example, Beyond Five in a Row: Volume 1 uses The Boxcar Children, Thomas Edison: Young Inventor, Homer Price, and Betsy Ross: Designer of Our Flag. The subject areas covered include literature, some language arts, history, composition, science, and fine arts.
Lessons are set up so that you read a chapter from the book, then work through your choice of the suggested activities. These activities vary greatly from day to day.
About half of the lessons include an essay question; you will need to tailor the requirements for these to suit the age of each student. Creating timelines is recommended as a means of helping students understand chronological relationships between people and events. Numerous hands-on activities are included: art projects, cooking, science experiments, learning sign language, etc. Occasional "Career Paths" sections help students consider career possibilities and offer suggestions for further research or experience in the field.
Quite a bit of historical and scientific information is included within each Beyond Five in a Row guide, but you need to use outside resources for additional research. Many such resources are suggested in the lessons. Lessons often include internet activities where students conduct research on topics related to the studies.
A list of all topics covered is located at the back of each book. This will help you both plan and track student accomplishments.