What is a Unit Study Anyhow?

Have you always been intrigued by the idea of unit studies, but are still kind of confused by them? Or maybe you’ve heard talk of the unit study approach to homeschooling, but it all just sounds like gibberish to you. Well, here’s a crash course in “Unit Studies 101.” To enroll in this class, think for a moment about the teachers in your life who have truly inspired and gotten you excited about learning. Did they teach only from the textbook, or did they close the textbook and think outside the box? That’s what unit studies do! They reach beyond the confines of a textbook and get kids excited about learning.

Whether you are a fledgling homeschooler or a veteran like me, each of us tends to steer straight for that which is most familiar…textbooks. But, think about the original objective of a textbook for a moment. Textbooks were invented to be convenient. They were meant to help teachers instruct a large group of students, roughly the same age, the same subject, at the same time. But, that’s not at all what our home schools look like. A homeschool family has children of  different ages, grades, abilities, and learning styles. Because most of us learned primarily from textbooks we think that’s the way we have to homeschool. But, nothing could be further from the truth.

Certain subjects do obviously require a text book to match each child’s ability. Math and language are two such examples. But, subjects such as history, science, geography, art and music appreciation, etc. can be taught to different ages at the same time. That makes unit studies the perfect choice for homeschool families, especially large families. But, they are equally well-suited for small families. We, for example, have only two children, two in fact that are six years apart. Yet, my husband and I are firmly convinced that it is because our children learned together that they became each other’s best friends, despite their age difference.

Because unit studies incorporate an assortment of multi-sensory assignments, they also accommodate multiple learning styles. They can even be helpful in meeting the needs of special needs children and those with learning disabilities, because they offer a more hands-on, experiential way of learning. Experiential learning also helps improve long-term memory recall. Children are not going to forget, for instance, who the Mandan Indians were after they construct a model Mandan dwelling and learn about George Catlin, whose artwork they analyzed and attempted to replicate. But, they will almost certainly forget them if they read only a paragraph about them in a text book.

What’s more, the flexibility of unit studies gave our family the freedom to delve as little or as deeply as we wanted into a particular topic. They allowed us to also tailor our family’s educational needs and interests. For example, when our boys were intrigued with pirates that was our cue to do a pirate unit study. We found the higher the interest level, the easier they were to teach, and the more they retained. That doesn’t mean that all our children are always going to be excited about the same subject initially, but it does mean that we can tailor the topic to suit each child and consequently get everyone excited. For example, one child might be interested in dressing like a pirate and learning about Blackbeard. Another child, on the other hand, may find shipbuilding more to his liking. He can learn about the parts of a pirate ship and diagram it, while also learning to tie nautical knots. A girl could research female pirates and write a composition about what she discovers. The possibilities are endless. We also liked giving our children a say in helping plan the school year. So, they each got to choose a unit study they were interested in, while I filled in the remaining year with others.

By buildingUnit Study SPOKES3 copy multiple subjects around one central theme, unit studies helped us eliminate textbook clutter. That means while we were studying birds (as in the illustration shown here), we were able to cohesively and sensibly connect Bible, reading, classic literature, science, history, language, geography, art, etc. to that target theme. My thinking was, “Why have different textbooks for each child for every one of these subjects? Why not connect them all? That made more sense educationally, and it would certainly make my job less difficult!” Indeed, unit studies helped me consolidate our curriculum and simply our life.

I have scheduled unit studies differently over the years, but no matter how I scheduled them they always formed the spine of our curriculum. Some families purchase unit studies for the purpose of pumping up and enhancing a more traditional curriculum. Others use them as a fun educational option when school is out. But, then there are others, like ours, who choose unit studies as our core curriculum. Our kids were creative and our kids were boys, so unit studies just made sense! Some years we did Bible, math, language, and reading each morning saving the more fun, hands-on science and history (etc.) unit study assignments for the afternoon. Other years, we  have limited unit study assignments to every other day. Ultimately, we found what worked best for our family was to set aside one whole day each week for a “unit study day.” Little did I know when we adopted this plan that it would eventually lead to the birth of Once-a-Week Unit Studies. Funny how God works that way, isn’t it?

Anyway, since we generally covered four to five subjects on a typical school day, I made sure we did the same on our unit study day. The only subject usually not covered was math…and that suited my boys (and me) just fine! We enjoyed the mid-week respite from “school as usual” and the creativity our unit studies provided. There was one unit study activity we did continue all week, however, and that was reading. Throughout the week, the kids chose books from those I brought home from the library, and I also read aloud a great classic or award winning book. Each pertained to the unit study.

Another thing I loved about organizing our schedule this way was that we were able to eliminate history and science the rest of the week, thereby lightening our load. Yet, now we had the luxury of fully focusing our attention on those subjects on unit study day. This was especially helpful, since I often found it difficult, if not impossible, to get those subjects done any other way. Now, the hours of science and history (as well as other subjects) I wished I’d been able to get to the rest of the week were finally getting done! Hallelujah!

When our sons entered high school, we continued to use unit studies as the spine of our curriculum, but with a few changes. The first was that we no longer incorporated science into their unit studies. That was covered with lab science textbooks. But, history, classic literature, language, geography, art and music appreciation, etc. continued to be covered using the unit study approach. At this point, our unit studies also became less project oriented and more literature oriented. That means they covered history by reading fact-based books, historical fiction, biographies, and classic literature. Written assignments pertaining to their history were designed to improve their writing skills and prepare them for college. We also watched historical movies and documentaries and took field trips whenever possible. Another variation was initiated by the necessity to provide, for example, a full American history credit. Where I would have been far more interested in sparking the interest of young, inquisitive minds and following our boys’ lead when they were young, I now focused my attention on building their high school transcripts by assembling a chronological review of American history utilizing four or five appropriate unit studies.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, are you still curious about what a unit study day might look like for your family and how you would cover multiple subjects while focusing on one topic? Here’s a peek inside a hypothetical bird study day…

Bible: Look up, discuss, possibly write, and begin memorizing Scripture related to birds. (You could even dole these assignments out to individual children.)

Reading/Classic Literature/Science: Read library books about birds. (These come in the form of fact-based books, classics, historical fiction, and biographies as they relate to the study. Each child reads for about 15 minutes to an hour everyday, depending on their age and ability. Throughout the week, read aloud a classic or award winning book whose plot has to do with birds. Your local librarian can point you in the right direction.)

Science/Language: Begin constructing a backyard bird habitat by building simple feeders. After learning about which seeds attract different birds, make a mixture and fill their feeders. Have kids decorate the cover of their own personal journals, in preparation for identifying and recording birds and other scientific data. By the end of the study, they will have compiled a beautiful, bird science journal, one which will become a treasured family keepsake.

History/Art Appreciation: Research John James Audubon and examine his art work

Art: Have students begin sketching birds in their journals and/or photographing birds and adding those photographs to their journals.

That’s it! It really is that simple. No matter which topics you choose, the idea is basically the same. I personally LOVE the process of pulling together a unit study, but it can be time-consuming and to many parents the preparation can seem daunting. That’s okay. That’s why you have crazy people like me who have already done the preliminary work, making it easy for you and your children to just dive in and start having have fun!

2 thoughts on “What is a Unit Study Anyhow?

    • sharon@homeschoollegacy.com says:

      Hi Melissa!

      Thank you for your question. Because everyone in the family learns about many of the same subjects and topics at the same time, I have always found unit studies to be a huge time saver! Once-a-Week Unit Studies also save you time in that the prep work has already been done for you. When I was homeschooling I had to do all the prep work myself, so I took two weeks to research and plan between the end of one unit study and the beginning of a new one. During that “off-time” I had the kids complete only the three Rs.

      I love planning unit studies so for me it is exhilarating. If that is not something you enjoy or your time is more limited then I would suggest using an already prepared unit study, such as Once-a-Week Unit Studies.

      Either way, the fact that unit studies make homeschooling so much more fun for the whole family and teach children far more than a typical textbook can was reason enough for our family to choose them as our preferred method of teaching.

      I hope this helps!
      Sharon

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