Planning a Unit Study


 What is a Unit Study?

A unit study takes a topic and delves into it deeply over a period of time. It combines the areas of language arts, social studies, science, and math into the study. Instead of studying eight to twelve separate subjects unrelated to each other, you blend all the subjects around your common theme. If you are studying Indians, you may read some good living books on the subject for reading, choose some vocabulary words to involve into spelling, study the diet of the Indians for science, investigate the culture and history for social studies, play instruments like the Indians for music, determine their system of counting the months for math, and create a 3-D face mask for art.

There are many prepared unit studies for sale, and I personally use some, such as Konos, as a springboard in some of my planning. I have planned units around science topics, but I especially enjoy planning around history topics. Science is so easily incorporated into history, and such topics lend themselves well into planning all the subject ideas around a time frame in history. My girls especially like to "time travel" to another place and another culture. If you are planning your first unit, you may wish to try one on history first.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of such an approach?

The advantages include all your children learning and working on the same topic, interrelated learning is longer remembered, it feels more natural to connect studies, children can see the complete picture rather than fragments, and the hands-on involvement is especially beneficial to children with learning challenges.

There are some disadvantages that with careful planning can be overcome. One such disadvantage is the educational gaps that can occur, however, if you plan your units around a four to six year turntable making sure that all aspects of history is included and supplement your units with a full math curriculum, those gaps become filled in quite nicely. Assessing seems to bring some problems to those who use unit studies, but I use rubrics on certain activities and projects my girls do that best use the knowledge they've acquired and find that this is not a problem for us. The biggest disadvantage that can be sited is the time in planning and the potential burnout it can bring teachers. At the bottom of this site, you will find a unit study board where homeschool moms work together to form units. This always helps to rejuvenate my spirits, but the excitement my children have for learning and all the knowledge that they've acquired is the real cincher for me.

Planning a Unit:

Step 1: Decide on your topic
There are many ways to do this. You can find out what your children want to learn and plan a unit around that, or you can plan a rotational calendar of themes based off history. Your topic might be a seasonal one or Bible based. The freedom of choosing is half the fun.

Step 2: Investigate books

Libraries are such treasures for doing unit studies. A visit to one of those during your planning time will develop priceless gems. Some libraries have gone on line with their card catalogs, which I have found very helpful. I usually go to the library with my list of books that I want to peruse. Look through those books. Which ones would make good reading books for your children's reading levels? Which ones would act as good source information? Are there some good biographies included? Have you found one that could act as your main text for the unit? Is there one that is a higher level reading than your students have obtained but would be really good as a family read aloud? Also look to see if some of the books are poor reading quality or content. Is there some that offer ideas you don't want your child exposed to? Don't forget to ask your librarian for suggestions. They are walking gold mines.

If you have 10-15 books, you are doing really good. You may have some to add from home to your stack, or you may have friends who are willing to lend some of theirs. Ask. When ordering books, don't forget to order some rich living books for upcoming units.

Step 3: Developing Learning Objectives

Now that you have all of those wonderful books to guide you, what do you want your children to learn during this unit? Ask the questions of who, what, where, when, why, and how involving a unit. Those will usually form the backbone of your learning objectives. In assessing your children, projects that prove what they've acquired in knowledge based on these objectives will prove to be your framework there.

Step 4: Write down ideas for activities

These would include all subject areas. Ideas may come from others, books you've collected or ideas from your children. My youngest always pipes in "costumes" as her activity idea. Other project ideas could include cooking foods from the time frame, making a model based off facts learned from the study (dioramas, salt maps, art work and projects), some science experiments, drama, newspaper account of an event, a diary in "character," interviews with famous characters of the times, etc. For now, just write them all down as you think of them or come across ideas. Include discussion topics and reading assignments.

Step 5: Develop a time scope

Look over your activity list, you learning objectives, and the book you will use as your main text. How long do you think it would take to reasonable cover this unit? The age of your children will have some bearing in that decision. Older children will delve more in depth than younger ones.

Now, do you see your activities and objectives falling into a sort of pattern? For instance, do you have ideas that would fall under mini topics. Considering the Indian idea again, we could have mini-topics of geography, clothing, homes, food, religion, artwork, government, communications, etc. Do you have enough items for each that you could break those down into lessons? How long will each lesson take? Mine often take a week at a time because I have older children and we do more complex projects. Yours may take a day or two.

When organizing your plan flow, might I suggest that you consider the developmental stages of the child? A child first learns about himself. As he grows, he progresses to his family and home. He then will further develop in knowledge about his extended family and community. Lastly, he will learn about the world and how his area interacts with it. That is always a good way to organize a unit. I usually will study the geographical location and point out the time on our timeline. I will have the children discuss what they know or have heard about the time frame. We then embark on our journey of "time travel." After arriving there, we begin studying the child of that time frame. What is he wearing, thinking, and doing? We then move to his home and family. What are the members' roles? What does their home look like? What foods are they eating? How do they travel? Next, we move to the village. What is the religion? What are the customs and celebrations of the time? How is it governed? Who is making the news? Finally, how are they interacting with their world? Who are their enemies? Who are their neighbors? How do they communicate? Etc. We usually finish up the lessons by traveling back to our own time once again by answering questions as to what happened to the culture eventually and/or where are their descendants now. This is the week where they do their cumulating activities that demonstrates all they learned during their "time travel" experience.

A good rule of thumb for a week's work would include daily reading from your text, you weekly vocabulary words, 1-2 writing assignments, student's reading 3-5 short books or one chapter book, and one larger project or 2-3 smaller projects. Don't plan so much that you get burned out. I have fallen victim to that a couple of times, so I know it is easy to do.

Step 6: Enrichment activities

Now that you have a feel and flow of how your unit will go, are their some field trips that could enhance your learning experience? Do you know of another family who would like to study the same topic and join forces in providing co-operative hands-on days? Plan those in your schedule now.

Step 7: Vocabulary

Gayle Graham stated that if children know the vocabulary of a unit, they know the unit. I tend to agree with her. That isn't meant to say that you teach the vocabulary for the vocabulary's sake, but during your activities and reading, their knowledge should encompass the vocabulary. A good place to get ideas for what vocabulary will be important to your study is to look in the glossary at the end of the book that will act as your text. Which of those words do you feel will be important to your child's understanding of this unit? A good rule of thumb is 3-5 words per week of the unit. I sometimes go more than that if I think some of the terms will be easily picked up in their studies, but if you include them in your spelling, you want to be careful of the number.

Step 8: Decide on Writing Assignments

For some, this is the hardest part of doing a unit study. Children who are kinesthetic learners often bulk at doing writing assignments. My first bit of advice is to never plan the same writing assignments for each unit study. Also make them as exciting as you can. In one unit, your children can produce a newspaper. In another unit, they could produce a lap book, a journal, a letter, a biography, an interview, etc. Variety does add the spice into writing for children. Never let them be able to guess their next writing assignment. Make it new and refreshing each time. Play on their interests. A young girl entering puberty will love writing about Egyptian makeup during a study of Ancient Egypt. A young boy may enjoy interviewing Daniel Boone.

Step 9: Assessing a unit

At the end of a unit, how will you assess what they know? This is generally done by a cumulative activity. It might be a reenactment or a drama. It could be a long project that they are finishing up that incorporates all that they've learned, such as a diorama. A lap book or student created book acts as a creative means to demonstrate knowledge. I usually take my learning objectives and ask that they demonstrate those in their books. I give them my folder of mini book ideas and ask them to come up with ones of their own. They will keep totally occupied working on their "creation" for a couple of days, generally. They love showing them off and discussing what they have learned with others. Each time they do, I have to grin, because without realizing it, they keep reinforcing their educational experience. I give "grades" based off rubrics that I have developed. You can look in the form section of this site to get more ideas on what these look like and how they are assessed.

Step 10: Bookwork

At the end of the unit, I collect my planning forms and type them up. That is my personal choice. Written forms are just as good for documenting what was covered and how. I then take that form, my assessment sheets, the pictures we took during the unit of activities and large projects, and all their paper activities that they did and put them into their ongoing portfolio to demonstrate our "curriculum." This is easy enough to do and helps to answer any questions an evaluator may have. Besides that, my children love pulling their past year portfolios off of the bookcase and looking at all their fun times. They become in effect a good accounting as well as a neat scrapbook. Besides that, when you decide to revisit this unit, you can easily retrace your steps of your first adventure with the topic.

A good group to join for more information on unit studies is Unit Safari. We work together to create units. If you would like to learn more and to participate with other willing moms, why don't you come over and join us?

Click to subscribe to Unit-safari


Background from Graphic Garden