As part of our Homeschooling Styles series, we’re talking today about unit studies. First, we’ll talk about what unit studies aren’t! Sometimes it’s easier to understand a topic when you know what it isn’t before you dive into what it is. Then we’ll talk about what unit studies are. Along the way, you’ll pick up some tips for creating your own unit studies (if you want to), or you can always use some of the awesome unit studies that are already available!
What are unit studies?
First, let’s talk about what unit studies are not.
Unit studies are not textbook studies. Textbook studies entail the study of as many as eight separate subjects, having little or no correlation to each other. For example, you may study literature, focusing on British poets, while your geography studies center on the Middle East. At the same time, your history studies may be concentrated on the Civil War era. You may be studying biology in science and geometry in mathematics while learning about the accomplishments of the Greek mathematicians. Your music studies may take you to the baroque period, while your art studies are focused on the paintings of American Indians. And last but not least, your Bible studies are centered on Noah and the flood. You can put all of this into a pot and serve a very unappetizing helping of mush.
Each of these studies has merit, but is it best to study them all at the same time? Is this the best way to learn? Is it not far better to be able to relate one subject to another and see how they work together?
Now, let’s talk about what unit studies are.
As I just mentioned, unit studies allow us to related one subject to another and study all subjects together in a meaningful way.
For example, a few years ago, a fellow homeschooling family decided to study sign language. This topic was one that the family was very interested in, so the homeschooling mom decided the best way to learn about it was to study it with her children. She began by selecting some biographies to read with her children. (You may choose to read them aloud or to have older children read them to themselves. I read with my children well into their teen years, and I suggest doing the same if you possibly can!)
Why biographies? When conducting a unit study, many families try to find at least one biography to read aloud about a person that relates to the topic of study. It is as we study real people in real space and time that history comes alive. History is not a series of dates and wars to be memorized, but rather the interacting of individual with individual.
How Unit Studies Weave Learning Together
Biographies and History
Biographies allow us to become intimately acquainted with an individual and walk in that person’s path. While studying sign language, this mom chose a biography of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet entitled Gallaudet, Friend of the Deaf, to read aloud to her children. (This book is out of print and is extremely expensive! You may want to check with your local library to see if they have a copy.) Or you may want to read A World of Knowing: A Story About Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (which can be found on Amazon). It’s a much less detailed and much shorter book for children of elementary school ages, but it is also much more readily available. Gallaudet was the founder of deaf education in America. History came into play as the Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C., was used as an army hospital during the strife-torn Civil War years.
Next they read The Story of My Life by Helen Keller. Helen’s father was a captain during the Civil War, so it is easy to draw a parallel to Gallaudet’s biography. Both biographies gave the family a historical perspective of sign language. They used a sign language instruction video and book and learned hundreds of signs, thus developing communication skills and manual dexterity. As they read the autobiography of Helen Keller, they were introduced to Alexander Graham Bell.
Helen Keller and Dr. Bell were intimately acquainted, and Dr. Bell was responsible for Helen beginning her education. They did not dive into an in-depth study of Dr. Bell and his accomplishments at this time, such as the invention of the telephone, but rather they focused on his work with sound, hearing, and the ear. This added a scientific dimension to the study. They also studied the anatomy of the hand, the instrument of communication of the deaf.
Art and Anatomy
The children drew their hands as they formed the letters of their names as designated in the manual sign alphabet, thus stimulating artistic abilities and appreciation for the complexities of the anatomy of the human hand.
Language Arts and Social Studies
The children copied and wrote (from dictation) select passages from the biographies they read. Their spelling, vocabulary, punctuation, grammar lessons, and reading comprehension exercises centered on these passages, thus enhancing their language arts studies.
They wrote and talked about what it would be like to be a deaf person in a noisy world, therefore adding social studies to their curriculum. The older children in the family made books with a sign language theme, thereby encouraging creative writing and art.
They researched Bible verses pertaining to hearing and the ear. They noted the importance of each part of the human body and how it parallels the relationship of the members of the body of Christ. Bible stories were read and then pantomimed.
Observation and Thinking Skills
They went to the park, and the mom pretended to be a deaf person. Her children had to communicate with her without speaking for an hour. This was very frustrating for them as she sat in the swing, not paying them any attention. Soon they forgot the rules of the game and called to her from the top of the slide. After getting no response, the children learned that they had to come and tap their mom on the shoulder or stand in front of her in order to be noticed. They discussed this afterward, thus strengthening their observation and thinking skills.
The family visited Helen Keller’s home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, and saw the outdoor play about her life entitled The Miracle Worker, therefore adding a dramatic element to their study.
Geography studies were strengthened as the children followed the road map from state to state as they journeyed to her home. Keep in mind that, if you’re not able to travel like the family in this example did, you can often do virtual field trips! The family could have used maps (physical maps or Google Maps) to plan their route, and they could have done a virtual field trip of Helen Keller’s birthplace instead of actually visiting it.
As you can see, they touched on many subject areas during their unit study on sign language. Their attention was geared to their primary study of sign language; however, skills in other subject areas were strengthened along the way. Basic skills can be taught and enhanced in a meaningful way through unit studies. Children see the necessity for learning skills as they need them to study a topic.
It is obvious that this is a natural way to learn — focusing on one topic at a time. Energies are not consumed by dividing efforts in five or six subject areas that have no correlation. Multiply this confusion times two, three, four, or more children working at different levels on different subjects, in different textbooks, and calamity results! With unit studies, the entire family can study a topic together. Naturally, the older children will pick up more than the younger children, and their studies will be more in depth.
Hopefully this illustration helped you better understand what a unit study encompasses. It is simply a study that focuses on one topic at a time. As this topic is explored, a variety of subject areas are explored. A unit study is what each person makes it. It can be a brief topical study or a life-long quest. It can be tailored to meet the needs of individual families.