Homefires - The Journal of Homeschooling OnlineHomefires - The Journal of Homeschooling Online

Tina Fermin is the mom of one very busy 12-year-old boy and has been homeschooling since 1999. Tina says, "My trip into the unit study realm began in the summer of 2000 when my son and I studied Egypt and decided it would be great to have other kids to explore our topics with, thus the Unit Study Adventures Co-op was born over a break room table, with Shannon Hawkins and I as the initial two families. Currently I am the contact person for the Utah USA group which parallels the California group."

Shannon Hawkins is a 6th year homeschooling mom of two - an 11 year-old-boy who is still a homeschooler and a 14-year-old girl who is a former homeschooler, but has chosen to go to a private school for high school. Shannon says, "Along with Tina Fermin, I was an initial 'brainstormer' of the USA group in August of 2000. I am the contact person for the USA group in the Silicon Valley area."

Delaine Noyer has been homeschooling her two children for 7 years. Her son Mike, 17, had an early history of learning disabilities yet graduated early in February and is successfully taking classes at Foothill College. Her daughter Jessica, is 11 and is the active participant in USA. Delaine has been an active contributor and participant to the USA program since it's initiation and considers it her specialty to adapt curriculum as necessary to suit learning styles and interests to fully enhance a child's learning potential.

How Creative "Unit Study" is Being Implemented in Homeschooling

By Tina Fermin, Shannon Hawkins, Delaine Noyer
A Homefires' Virtual Conference

Q:  Can you give us some basic information about unit studies to get started? ~ Jill

A:  Unit study is a method of learning many subjects in depth that are related to one theme or topic. Students study a particular theme (for example, The American Revolution, Weather, Plants, Baseball) over a period of time integrating subjects like language arts, science, geography, math, history, social studies, art, music, and more. The subjects they learn are all related to the common theme. This immersion method allows students to see how all of the parts or subjects that they study are related to the whole concept or theme.

Students of many age ranges can learn together as the lesson plan they follow each day is related to the same theme - it's just that the materials used to cover the lesson are adapted to suit the various age/grade/ability ranges. However, the discussion, hands-on activities, and field trips surrounding the lesson are usually participated in by all of the students and the teachers/facilitators.

Successful Unit Study users generally choose a topic to study for a period of time (for example, 3-4 weeks). They create an outline determining what will be covered each week of study. Then, resources are selected based on each student's ability level that will be used to cover the information. Discussion topics and activities to reinforce learning are also planned.

While Unit Studies can incorporate textbooks as resources into the lesson plan, most often homeschooling families use a variety of resources (other than traditional textbooks and workbooks) to cover the material. Unit Studies can be purchased from various curriculum suppliers too, but they are also very cost-effective to make. The advantage to creating your own unit studies is that they can be custom tailored to your children's specific interests and needs. By the way, as with all homeschooling resources, you will find both Christian and Secular suppliers.

Unit Study fans say that students retain more information and enjoy the learning more than they would from a textbook or traditional curriculum approach. Because they learn about a topic in-depth, they acquire a profound understanding of the subject matter.

Q:  Can you give a Unit Study primer for the uninitiated? What subjects can be incorporated into a unit study? How do you work in such things as grammar, spelling, or math? ~ Becky W

A:  Here's what I do, other Unit Study families may do it differently.

  • Pick a topic of interest to my son.
  • Go online to my local library to make a list of books and other resources related to the chosen topic.
  • Go to the library and review the books on my list and see if I think they will work for the unit. I then chose my favorites as the basis for my unit.
  • I go on the Internet and find a few good topic related websites.
  • I try to find and set up a local field trip related to the topic.
  • I put together my outline for the unit - for example, our group meets 2 times a month so it looks something like this:

Week 1

  • Literature choice discussion and Language arts activity (usually a word search at the beginning that the kids do as a group while waiting for the group to assemble).
  • Math/Science activities/experiments - topic related
  • Social Studies/History - can be covered in Literature discussion or can be a hands on activity
  • Fine Arts - listen to topic-related music and do a craft
  • PE - I try to include some movement activities if possible.
  • Food - could be math or science - I try to have a food or treat related to the topic if I can work it in.

Week 2

  • Field trip on the topic
  • I know some people have a unit study that goes for just one week or several months or even a full year and covers all topics - I have heard of homeschoolers doing a unit study on Egypt or Horses for a year. I have not done this, but may do one on Aeronautics this year as my son is fascinated with all things relating to airplanes and flight.

Q:  Do you include all subjects in your Unit Study? ~ Anne

A:  Yes, I try to include all subjects. I have 3 key things that I do:

  • Always start with a few literature choices so that the kids and moms have some basic information about the topic.
  • Try to make the unit mostly hands-on activities.
  • Try to inspire the kids and moms to continue learning about the topic on their own, after the meetings, if they are interested.

Here's what I did with some help from the others in the group for our Desert Unit last spring:

Language Arts

  • Literature choices - this is the basis for most of our units. I listed several books I found at my local library with varied reading levels (our kids read on all different levels) that I thought would help the kids learn about the topic. The literature choices can be novels or non-fiction, sometimes we include magazines, movies or video tapes and even picture books. We discuss these at one or both of the 2 monthly group meetings.
  • I also have the kids do word searches as they seem to enjoy doing these as a group activity as we are waiting for the group to assemble.


  • Hands On Experiments - I worked with one of the other moms and we set up 6 different activities on erosion, evaporation, etc., including some math concepts. This took up the major portion of time in the unit.
  • Food Science - one mom bought some foods made from cactus and the kids tasted them.

Social Studies/History

  • We learned about desert dwellers and cultures through the literature choices we read and the discussion during our group's meetings.

Fine Arts/Music

  • The kids made crafts with multicolored sand and brought in drawings or models of something related to the topic that they had made prior to the meeting.
  • We listened to a CD of desert music during the meeting brought in by another mom in the group.

So you can see that most subject areas were covered under the topic including:

Language Arts, Math, Science, Fine Arts, and History. I only left out PE, but it has been included in other units the group has done. We often do field trips too as part of the unit study.

One benefit I see for meeting in a group is that it gives the kids some 'socialization' and positive group experiences with kids their age as well as older and younger kids.

By the way, you can see the Desert unit in more detail, with the literature lists and instructions on experiments on our website. Each family does theirs a bit differently, so take a peak at several other units if you have the time.

Q:  How long do you spend on a Unit Study? Does it depend on the topic, the student or what? ~ Karen

A:  The time length you spend on any one topic will depend on how in depth you would like to go. The average length mentioned for many unit studies is 4-6 weeks, however, one family I know of has been studying their family's heritage for about a year as a unit study. Our group spends one month on a topic. Each family hosts one or more units per year. Our 'year' is Sept through May - skipping December as it is such a busy month for everyone and we all wanted summers off. We meet twice each month, usually for about 2 hours Monday mornings. Prior to the first meeting day each family is supposed to have read or at least have begun some reading or research on the topic. That way they are prepared to discuss it and participate in the group. Topics are picked by the moms and kids and we are open to pretty much any topic - so we have a very eclectic schedule of topics. Our focus is hands-on activities based on literature for the topic.

Q:  How much time do you generally spend researching, setting goals and planning, say, a 4 week study? ~ Deb in Texas

A:  Planning it only takes me a short while (maybe 2 hours), the gathering of the materials, going to the library, setting up a field trip, etc......take up more time, but I do those things when homeschooling without using a unit study -- so I see it as homeschool planning not specifically unit study planning time. ~Shannon

Q:  Do we have to have a specific plan of where we want to go before starting a Unit Study? For instance, my children are only 5 and 6. If I decide to study Space Exploration, might I start at the beginning and branch off wherever it takes me? ~ Michelle

A:  This is the way I do it. I just pick out a topic that my son is interested in, do a quick Internet search, find a few books, maybe a movie or video tape, a field trip and some hands on activities. This takes me a couple of hours. Other than that I almost never have a 'plan'. Interesting enough, since I have done several unit studies for our group, things just seem to fall into place nicely for me now and I can cover most 'required' subjects within a topic and it gets easier each time. I think each mom in our group does it a different way and that keeps the USA a really interesting group.

Q:  Do you know of any lists devoted to discussing unit study resources? Or co-ops where we can exchange units that we've prepared for other prepared studies? ~ Kim

A:  Check our USA website for some great units! We do this type of sharing between the group in UT and the group in CA. We have included links to some unit study groups/webpages with some of our USA units. We also are open to having another group join our USA and sharing units. If you would like to do this, E-mail me and I can get you the specifics. There are some lists for unit study discussion at Yahoo Groups including one called Unit-Safari, so try there as well. Also, if you just read through this Q & A Log, you will discover many links to sites about Unit Studies.

Q:  Do you have a suggestion for a unit study that I could use with kids who have different needs and learning styles? I was thinking I might like to try a Unity Study with my daughter (9 ½ yrs). But it seems like I might not have enough time if I'm trying to work with my son who will be doing more academic/workbook work through an ISP. I only have the mornings to do the schooling. ~ Patricia Tanner

A:  Find a topic that both kids enjoy. Have them take a look at the topics our group, Unit Study Adventures, has completed and the ones planned for this year. If they are interested in one, just jump in! Here they are:

USA units Sept - May

  • Ancient Greece - Sept
  • Ancient Rome - Oct
  • King, Queens & Knights - Nov
  • Victorian Christmas - Dec
  • Flight, Flotation & Transportation - Jan
  • Mysteries - Feb
  • Deserts - Mar
  • Salem Witch Trials - April
  • Weather - May

Upcoming USA units for Sept - May

  • Rain Forests - Sept
  • Animals of Africa - Oct
  • Lewis & Clark - Nov
  • The Olympics - Jan
  • World Religions - Feb
  • Muscles - Heart & Lungs - Mar
  • The Revolutionary War - April
  • Paleontology - May

Q:  Is it possible for kids to work independently on Unit Studies? My understanding of unit study is that it is a major, time-consuming project for parents. Can my kids do it on their own? ~ Anna

A:  I would guess that doing a Unit Study as the basis for homeschooling within one family could be a huge task. I have never done this. But getting together in a group to do it is wonderful fun and really not that much work for mom or dad. Our unit studies group is only a very minor part of my homeschooling. Our group only meets 2 days a month for 2 hours. Each family takes a turn hosting one - or on occasion 2 months - a year. For me, it is one of the easiest things I have done homeschooling my son as most of the time we just have to read a book or two and show up to the USA meetings. It is also one of the ways that he gets to be with other homeschoolers and have a great time.

My daughter, 14, who was homeschooled for 4 years and went back to school for high school (private and mostly her choice) always worked on her own and was easy to homeschool. I think it is part of her personality to do things on her own. I think she was born self-directed. My son, 11, still homeschooled and going into his 6th year, is a time-consuming project all on his own. He is definitely a different type of kid and needs lots of direction, although he is taking off more on his own as he gets older. So, I think it may depend on the temperament, learning style, and interests of your children.

I will say that when another family sets up the unit study and we get to participate, it is a great time saver for me and fun for the kids to hang out and learn with their friends.