Homeschooling Styles: Unit Studies
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.
This article was written by a Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers guest author. See the author's full bio in the body of the post.
Thank you for this post. I’m new to homeschooling and am debating between all the styles and what will work for me and my family.
This helped me realize this may be right up my alley.
thanks so much
We enjoy unit studies! Thanks for sharing this.
I’m glad to hear that! That was my goal with this series. Be sure to read about the other styles too!
I love doing unit studies…for exactly those reasons… because we can focus on one topic and incorporate so much into what we are doing. Thank you sharing this info with us!! Great post!! =)
I would love to try unit studies.. This really looked like a lot of fun.
We don’t usually do unit studies, but are going to try some this summer.
My husband and I are considering unit studies for homeschooling our children. We’re early birds in thinking about this because we only have one child at present who isn’t even a year old yet, but we’re looking into the various approaches. We are curious how you teach units to various age groups– how do you become detailed enough in your teaching that the older kids aren’t rolling their eyes in boredom, yet simple enough that everything isn’t way above what your 6 yr old can grasp? You wrote that for your family the older kids studies are “more in depth”– what does that mean? Do you work separately with each child, but focus on the same unit?
You would be surprised at how much younger children pick up listening to their older siblings’ lessons. Different people have different outlooks. Some start with the more basic information, teaching to the younger first before they lose interest. Others teach to the older, letting the younger get what they can out of the lessons, offering more explanation as needed on concepts that the younger children can understand. By more in depth, I mean that the younger children may write (or copy) a couple of sentences about a topic, while an older student writes a paragraph or researches for an essay. A younger child may complete a lapbook about a topic, while an older does a lab project. A younger student may complete coloring pages, while an older does a drawing or other higher level activity.
It may be that you sometimes work separately with each child, but more often you’re working together, but with different expectations or allowing an older child to work with more independence.
We’re just starting our experimental year (or less than that) with K12 for three of our kids: grades 1, 4 & 6. We also have a very active 2-year-old (almost 3) who gets into everything when my back is turned (so, every time I’m trying to help one of the older kids with schoolwork on- or off-line). Getting the three kids through all their daily subjects (which are, for the most part, totally unrelated to each other) and keeping the youngest busy–and getting any housework done–is wearing me out, and it’s only the second week!
I enjoyed reading your post on unit studies. I was homeschooling without any help from K12 before, but my husband and I both noticed my weaknesses in sticking to a schedule and keeping careful and complete records of each child’s progress in his subjects. He wants homeschooling to look more like “school at home,” but he works two jobs and can’t really help with the homeschooling. In his defense, his mother works for the Dept of Education and is very vocal about her idea of what schooling ought to look like; he grew up with that. My idea of homeschooling is one that brings the kids together–not one that separates them from each other for hours and that treats the different subjects as though they were unrelated. It’s overwhelming, uninspiring and, ultimately, exhausting. I don’t know that I’ll last until December 23rd–at least if I do things the way the K12 teachers think they ought to be done. At this point, I no longer care what the K12 program leaders think about how kids ought to be “schooled.” Even though our last homeschool year was the messiest yet, the kids all did better than ever on their year-end obligatory assessment tests (national–required for Minnesota homeschoolers).
Anyway, thanks for letting me ramble. I’m trying to infuse some reality, fun and flexibility into the program,
but there isn’t much room for any of those things without bending their rules. My husband wants me to
stick it out at least to the end of the year, and I’m picking up ideas on how to be more organized for the next
time we homeschool on our own, but some of the ideas came from realizing how K12 ISN’T how we want our homeschool to look. I like the online record-keeping (when our computers and our internet access work, that is) and the daily and weekly plans for each kid, but I want to use our own content, focus on core skills in a way that incorporates as much of life as possible, showing and exploring connections, and involving all the kids, encouraging each to contribute what he can, to ask questions and suggest ideas. I’d rather let my girls draw and read what books appeal to them (or read books aloud to them and their brothers) than have them spend so much time on their on-line “school at home” or working in their workbooks.
I’m done, now. Sorry for the long-winded comment. Thanks again for the article! 🙂
This sounds fabulous! I just have a few questions: About how long would you typically spend on one unit? And how do you make the transition from one unit to the next?
We would typically spend 4-6 weeks on a unit. Hope that helps!