What is a Unit Study
We frequently get asked about various methodologies of home education. Unit Studies is one way that home educators incorporate many academic goals into one area of interest.
Unit studies entice children to learn about history, write essays, and perform scientific and mathematical equations using topics they are already interested in, and can be built around nearly any focus. If your child prefers to spend hours playing with a favorite toy, drawing pictures, playing a musical instrument, playing outdoors, watching sports, or playing video games, you can build a unit study and cover nearly all of their academic subjects from one area of interest. Units can be as short as two weeks to more lengthy durations, such as spending a few months or a year studying the Renaissance, Ancient Egypt, or the Exploration of America. Create a unit study to prepare your children for an upcoming family vacation, for example studying the rainforests (trip to Hawaii); marine ecosystems (tidepools, or a trip to Sea World); forestry and North American wildlife (trip to a national park); American Government (trip to Washington D.C.); the possibilities are endless. You can even do a unit study on an area of compassion or service, such as caring for a relative.
What is needed to create a Unit Study? How do you cover all the subjects with just one topic?
All unit studies begin with questions. Everything around you will provoke some level of curiosity. Who created the toy your child is playing with? What country is the creator from? What is their history? Once a child is talking about the history of the toy, what questions could be presented about the culture and geography of the inventor’s homeland? What is the monetary system of the country they lived in? What is their government like? What do they eat? Assign research to answer these questions, immediately immersing a child into reading. Be sure to read aloud with the child for part of the time, even if they are a teenager, as this will help assess their vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation. Younger children can identify pictures, read fictional stories that bring the topic to life, and even write their own versions of stories. This is how the veteran home educators do it – but you may wish to purchase unit studies that have these things already lined out for you. There are many available on the internet – some are even free!
Some English teachers would say that writing is broken down into four main structures: Narrative Essays – describing a sequence of fictional or non-fictional events – essentially a story; Expository Essay – informing, explaining, describing, or defining the subject to the reader. An expository can also be a journalistic news story; Persuasive Essay – guiding the reader toward an idea, attitude, or action by rational means, relying on “appeals” rather than coercion; and finally Technical Writing – translating complex concepts into simple language to enable the reader to perform a specific task in a specific way.
Whenever teaching a unit study topic, incorporate at least one assignment from each of the four writing structures throughout the study, whether it be over several weeks, or a year. This will ensure a child has knowledge of these structures as they get older and prepare for college.
Math and Science are easily adapted into unit studies, and the examples we introduce from time to time on HECOA reveal that nearly anything has some mathematical or scientific aspect to it. From the mechanical to the chemical composition, there is always an inference to how something works, how people do things, and what can be done to make it better and improve the world around us. Measuring, counting, deducting, graphing – from simple addition to calculus and trigonometry – math is truly in all things. If it is uncomfortable branching outside of a textbook with math, simply substitute your topic for the examples used in your current curriculum. For example, your textbook says “When Jane purchased two shirts with a $20 bill…..” You could instead say “When Jane purchased two sets of Legos with a $20 bill…” and pique the interest of the child who loves Legos. While perusing such topics as Legos, or maybe even Chocolate, one can see how easy it is to incorporate individual interests and ideas into a unit study, and become more excited about learning.
This is just a brief explanation of what a unit study is, and certainly all unit study designers are not alike. At HECOA, we like to see parents designing their own units of study – or at least altering a unit study that they have purchased or obtained to their child's interests, because that truly is the definition of a unit study.
For our HECOA members, we offer free unit studies from time to time – we are currently running a series of free unit study downloads (you will need to join HECOA and then log in to download them):