Saturday, April 14, 2012

How to Plan a Unit Study

by Virginia Knowles

What is a Unit Study?
Steps for Planning a Unit Study
Long Range Planning
Unit Study Topic List


Unit study is a natural common sense excellence method of learning in which you choose a theme, and then incorporate various school subjects, such as literature, language arts skills,  history, geography, careers, science, technology, art, music, and math application.  There is a  logical connection between subjects.  They all fit together naturally, just like in the real world. 

Each unit study is different.  Some unit studies concentrate primarily on one subject (history, science, etc.) with the others tucked in.  Some are based on holidays or family trips. Some are more activity-oriented, while others are book-based, depending on the topic and your teaching style.  You can design your own unit study plan, buy a package or guide, or borrow from a friend.  Unit studies can take a few days, week, month, or year. You could do them all year or just once in a while.  You can plan several at a time or do one spontaneously based on a question or interest from your child.  Don't get bogged down in details.  If a unit study bombs, you learn how not to do one the next time. 

A unit study doesn’t have to be elaborate. It can be as simple as going to the library and checking out a few books.  Find what style suits you.  Don't be discouraged if you are not creative or organized.  You don't have to plan a whole year of unit studies ahead of time, or overload on creative activities in each one.

A unit study can include more than one child, but individual attention is still needed.  One goal of unit studies is to build family unity and save mom's planning efforts, but you still need to spend separate time on language arts and math at each child's level.  It may be helpful to plan one time of day for skills curriculum (phonics, grammar, punctuation, math, music theory, etc.) and then another time slot for content curriculum (unit studies covering history, literature, science, art appreciation, etc.) 

Social studies and science themes can be closely integrated.  Human culture and the physical world affect each other.  People discover scientific principles and then act them out in history.   When we studied Ancient Egypt, a history theme, we learned science too: how a mummy is made, how pyramids were built without machines, and how land was irrigated.  In our next unit, we studied the entire desert habitat, including biology (plants and animals), geology (sand dunes), weather (rain patterns), geography (comparing deserts around the world), history (archaeologists), and sociology (Native Americans, African nomads).  Social studies and science emphases can be alternated and intertwined.  

Language arts and math can be incorporated into unit studies.  Research and literature count as reading. Spelling and vocabulary lists, creative writing projects, and dictation selections, and math word problems can complement the unit study.

A Page from a 3rd Grade Notebook

Spelling List about Mexico 
  • Mexico
  • Central America
  • Maya
  • Aztec
  • pyramid
  • temple
  • solar calendar
  • weave                           
  • cotton
  • vanilla
  • chocolate
  • jungle        


TOPIC AND TIME AVAILABLE:  Pick a topic which is interesting to your children, and which incorporates several school subjects.  Whatever you choose, your child should:   hypothesize, integrate related information, analyze, research, read, write, etc.  How much time you can spend determines how specific you can get with your topic. You could cover flowers in a week, but botany could easily take a month.  Children usually start to lose interest after about three or four weeks of concentrated study on a topic; don’t frustrate them with overkill.

SUB-TOPICS AND SCHOOL SUBJECTS: Make a list of sub-topics for your theme.  A study of the Middle Ages could include castles, knights and weaponry, the Crusades, Vikings and their ships, famous kings, peasant life, food and clothing, fairy tales, etc.  As you list the sub-topics, integrate various school subjects such as: Bible, scientific principle, experiments, technology, nature study, history, geography, government, careers, language skills, literature, creative writing, math application, art, music, life skills, etc. 

OBJECTIVES: Write specific goals of what you want your child to understand by the end of this unit.  You won't learn everything, but you should attempt to lay a framework for future learning and whet their appetites to explore more on their own. 

LEARNING MODES: Adapt activities to your children. Cater to their learning styles, whether visual, auditory, kinesthetic/tactile, etc.  Use a variety of approaches to help lock in the material from many angles.  Consider each of your children when you do this planning.   Be sure to ask them for ideas about what they would like to do for this unit study, because children can be chock full of great ideas.  It also gives them a sense of being included and being important!

AGE LEVELS: Preschool and kindergarten children especially like picture books, fun songs, coloring, and make-believe.  Primary grade children can read books, write a little, draw pictures, make crafts, and do simple experiments. Older students can research, write papers, create independent projects, and wrestle with issues and current events. Choose some books to read to all of your children and then give age-appropriate activities to each child, with older doing more than younger. Older children can occasionally help younger children by reading to them, assisting with projects, and answering questions.

RESOURCES: List what you already have: books, encyclopedia articles, videos, music, magazines, recipes, instructions, pictures, craft and experiment supplies, web sites and phone numbers to call for more information.  Include titles, authors and page numbers so you can easily make assignments.  Check the indexes of any poetry or story anthologies you may own.  Write down what you will need, and where you might find it. Make games, worksheets, and pictures.  Plan purchases and order in time.

SCHEDULE: Map out a tentative schedule.  What will you do each day?  How much will you cover in a week?  For a three-week unit, you could tackle one major sub-topic each week.  You might need to raid the library first and refine your day-by-day plan based on your selections.  Vary activities from day to day to prevent boredom.  Start with the simple and work towards the complex.  Plan buffer time and decide which activities are optional so you'll know what to skip in a crunch.  Check newspaper and magazine calendars for field trip ideas.


Several years ago, as I was looking to the future of our home education program, I decided that we needed a plan so that we could learn about various topics and school subjects in a reasonable manner.  From those early brainstorms hatched the idea for a quasi-comprehensive list of 60 three-week unit studies to be covered in five years.  We successfully finished the units in our list a couple of years ago, and we’ve gone on to other schemes since then.  An adapted version of our unit study list is included here, and is organized by school subject, rather than the sequence our own family did them.  This purpose of this list is just to give you an idea of how things can fit together in a long range plan, even if you don’t decide to do a sequenced series of units.  For example, you could study history chronologically and continually (without breaking it up into separate units), cover one continent all throughout the year, and layer various science, technology, and health topics on top of whatever history and geography you are studying at the moment.  (This is what we’ve been doing for the past two years.  It works.) Please note that the “Spiritual Emphasis” listed for each year is not a separate unit, but an overall theme for the year.

  • History: Old Testament, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece
  • Geography: Africa
  • Science: Creation Week, Weather, Life in the Desert
  • Health: Babies and Family Life
  • Technology & Trade: Books and Publishing
  • Spiritual Emphasis: Old Testament

  • History: Ancient Rome, Life and Times of Christ, Early Church, Viking Times
  • Geography: Ancient and Modern Asia
  • Science: Farm Life, Chemistry, Animal Classification
  • Health: Human Body
  • Technology & Trade: Buildings (Homes, Construction, Architecture)
  • Spiritual Emphasis: New Testament Church and World Missions

  • History: Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, Explorers, Art & Music History
  • Geography: Europe, Land Forms, Maps & Globes
  • Science: Physical Science, Life in the Water, Plant Life
  • Health: Nutrition & Exercise
  • Technology & Trade: Ships, Musical Instruments
  • Spiritual Emphasis: Reformation of the Church

  • History: 17th-19th Century History (U.S.A.: Pilgrims, Colonial, Patriot, Pioneer, Civil War)
  • Geography: North and South America
  • Science: Life in the Forest, Birds
  • Health: Medicine & Health Care
  • Technology & Trade: Inventions & Modern Manufacturing, Communications
  • Spiritual Emphasis : Liberty and Justice

  • History: Regional History (State/Province), 20th Century, World Wars, Life in the Future
  • Geography: Regional Geography, Middle East, Australia
  • Science: Insects, Flowers, Astronomy
  • Health: General Health
  • Technology & Trade: Aviation, Space Travel, Energy, Economics
  • Spiritual Emphasis : Spiritual Growth

“The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the work of the Creator. 
Into his tiniest creatures, God has placed extraordinary properties.”
Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), the French scientist who developed process of pasteurization for milk, as well as vaccines for anthrax and rabies

1-2-3 Ideas to Remember about
Teaching with Unit Studies

  1 Keep unit studies simple!  Don’t feel overwhelmed!

  2    Integrate many school subjects in a natural way.

  3    Plan spontaneously or long-term.

Other unit study posts on this blog:

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