Unit Study Questions Answered

Wow.  Through my email, there were a lot of questions about unit studies from my original post.  I’m glad because it helps me to know what needs to be clarified or expounded upon.  I tried to combine all the questions into major themes which you’ll see below.  Please feel free to keep asking questions, and I’ll keep trying to answer!

Clarifying what a unit study means to me –

  • What is a unit study? A period of time we spend learning about a certain topic.  It could be a small topic like electricity or a large topic like ancient history.
  • How long does each unit study last? This greatly depends on the topic.  If it’s a small topic, a couple of weeks might be enough.  If it’s a large topic, an entire semester might be dedicated to it.  I rarely limit our time.  After planning, I estimate how long I think it might take, but if it needs to be longer or shorter once we get started that’s no big deal.
  • How do I break the yearly topic into specified units? In the original post, I talked about following a four year cycle for science and history.  This year’s science has been physical science.  Within physical science, I knew I needed to cover the topics of energy, heat, electricity, magnets, light, color, sound and machines.  Based on resource books I already had on my shelves, it was easy for me to break those topics into five doable units – Energy (including heat), Electricity, Magnets, Light/Color/Sound, and Simple Machines.  I try to break the topics into chunks that make sense to go together.

Clarifying “the spine” book of the unit – The spine is the main resource book or piece of literature I use during a unit.  It’s the book that encompasses the most unit topics in a clear (usually hands-on) way.  Some examples of previous spines have been:

  • Westward Expansion unit – Amanda Bennett’s Pioneer Unit
  • Medieval History unit – Hands On History: Middle Ages
  • Magnet Unit – Magnets and Electricity
  • Chemistry – Christian Kids Explore Chemistry
  • Inventors & Inventions – A Journey Through Learning Lapbook
  • Our upcoming Early 1900’s unit will use an American Girl book called Samantha’s World as the spine.  The book gives wonderful information about years from 1900-1920.  I’ll find other books and activities to go along with the major topics of the book like women’s sufferage, the Wright brothers, Henry Ford and more.  (See the 1st sidebar all the way at the bottom.)

As you can see, I’ve used a variety of spines from prepared units to lapbooking units to texts to library books.  What’s most important to me is the overall coverage of topics.  Are most of the topics I’m hoping to cover included in this book in a clear (and hopefully fun) way?  In some cases, the spine will have most everything I need – explanations for my children and activities that help them understand the topics better.  Most of the time though, a spine will either be the explanations without the activities OR the activities without the explanations.  This is where I try to find other things to fill in.  (Also, most spine books won’t include a test or end of the unit project ideas.  I usually come up with both of these things myself.)

The following questions were specific to “the spine”.

  1. How do I decide which book to use? I hope I’ve answered this pretty well already.  It has to be pretty complete in either explanations and/or activity ideas.
  2. Where do you find your spines? I LOVE the library.  My library has lots of activity guides to go along with history and science themes.  Otherwise, prepared lapbook units are a great start, or prepared themes from parent/teacher stores.  Golly, there are so many wonderful prepared unit studies out there, all you really need to do is type your topic in a search engine and see what comes up.  (“______ unit study”)  Don’t forget that wonderful resource for nature/science related unit studies called Shining Dawn Books!  😉
  3. How much of that book do I typically use and how much do I typically pull in from other sources? It just depends.  I’m sorry I can’t be more precise, but it’s truly impossible.  With a really good lapbook unit, for example, I may not need to add anything besides a test and final project ideas.  With a book that leaves holes, I’ll have to find info and activities to fill the holes.  With a book that gives great explanations, but no activities, I’ll have to find or dream up the activities.
  4. Why don’t I just use the spine book and be done with it? Sometimes I do!  With our chemisty unit last year, we only used the spine during the unit.  At the end of the unit, I asked them to “show what they know” in the form of a chemistry show.  Other than giving them a list of topics to cover in their show and some resource books full of ideas for kids about chemistry, all we used was Christian Kids Explore Chemistry.  For me, I just don’t find too many prepared units that “do it the way I wanna do it.”  By all means, if you look at a unit and think it covers all you need, DON’T fool with adding to it!
  5. How do I know what to leave out of the spine and what to add to it? In the beginning of my planning stages, I’ll take just a few minutes to find out what topics should be covered during a unit.  For example, when planning a unit on physical science, I’ll go to the internet search engine and type in something like “physical science topics”.  After browsing a couple of websites, I’ll have a pretty good idea of what I need to cover for physical science.  We’re getting ready to jump into a 1900-present unit study.  So, I took a few minutes before planning to see what major topics I needed to include in the unit.  A simple search for “important events of 1900’s” led me to several lists and timelines that helped me know what to include in the unit.  If I find a spine that includes everything except Civil Right, for instance, I’ll need to be sure to include that in the unit.  If the spine covers way too much on Civil Rights, I’ll have to cut some of it back a bit.

Combining American and World History is tough, how do I do it? I’ll be honest, this is a tough one for me.  In our first four year history cycle, we used Story of the World as our main history teaching.  It did a super job of combining American and World History!  This second four year cycle, once we came to the time of American exploration, I decided to focus mostly on American history.  We pull in world history as it relates to America (ie. WWI.)  I’m still pondering how to do it, but world history will be a bigger focus during the third four year cycle.

Within the four year history/science cycle, how do I know what subjects to teach? I tried to clarify this above when I talked about the quick internet searches I do before planning a unit.

How do I know each child is getting what they need for their grade level? Please don’t take this wrong, but, um, I don’t really care.  Let’s see if I can say it in a different way.  Every single school system in every single state will have different expectations for the same grade leveled student in America.  I feel like as long as I’m covering the topics within the four year cycles at a level that is appropriate for my children at the particular time we’re learning it, all is well.

Now, as for how I make sure all three kiddos are getting what they need during the unit, it’s pretty easy.  First, the 3rd child is still way too young to be included.  I teach everyone the same thing.  When activities or projects are assigned, I’ll expect more from the older child.  She will have to do more projects, write more in her research, and create a more detailed final product.  I usually assign each child a book that goes along with the unit, too.  The older child will read a more mature book.

How do I go about planning what I’m going to do  so I know what supplies to look for? In the original post, I mentioned noting the main topics to be covered and writing ideas down for each of those topics as I go through my resources.  At the same time, I have a supply/library list going.  If I know I need to check out such and such book, I’ll write it down.  If I know an activity will require toothpicks, I’ll write it down.  After the list is made, I’ll go through the house checking off what I already have so I don’t buy too much of anything.

How I add language arts into the units? Language arts, as a rule, is separate from our unit study time.  However, I never hesitate to replace the normal l. arts activities with a writing project/research project/or something else that goes along with the unit.  Same goes for math.

How are end-of-the-unit projects chosen? I’ve gone into quite a bit of detail about this on another post titled Project-Based Learning.

What it the rhyme and reason behind the four year cycle? It wasn’t my idea!  LOL  But, the rhyme and reason is, in a nutshell, that all of the sciences and history from Creation to present time are covered every four years in a chronological way.  Learning them three times over the course of a child’s schooling is supposed to cement the concepts.  Of course, the child will be older and able to understand more each time the four year cycle is repeated, so you can dive further into the learning each time.

This four year cycle is a method in Classical education.  Veritas Press is a Classical education company, but they choose to repeat the topics only twice in six year cycles.  For me, the reason I chose to go with the cycles is quite simple.  I didn’t come out of the public school system understanding anything in terms of how one things fits with another.  I wanted my children to have a clearer picture in their head of timelines and events.  I wanted them to be able to see how chemistry relates to biology.  Working in the methodical cycles made sense to me and I’m finding that my children see the bigger picture of the world around them because I’m not teaching WWI today and medieval times tomorrow.

Do we stick to the four year cycle units only, or do we include other units in the year as well? Mostly, we stick to the four year cycles.  I add nature study all year (including summer) and occasionally add in other units when we have extra time.  One thing I’ve found to be lacking in my four year cycle is current cultures and geography.  That’s an *extra* unit I’m planning for the future.

Once you start high school, will the four year cycle plan need to change according to what is required in your state? In KY, I am required to teach certain subjects (especially for college bound children.)  There is no regulation about when and how these subjects are taught.  As long as Civics, American History and World History are taught, for example, they don’t care in what year they take place.  So, no, this plan won’t need to change.

How much time do you spend doing school per day? It depends (mostly on the get-up-and-go of my children!)  On average, we are finished with “schoolwork” in three to four hours.  However, the rest of the day is spent doing learning activities like reading, handicrafts, cooking, farming, computer games, etc.

“Everytime I start thinking about/doing unit studies, I get scared and fall back on workbooks.” A lot of people I talk to feel the same fears!  Don’t kick yourself over it.  If this season in your life is meant for workbooks, that’s fine!  If you’re really ready to start unit studies, though, I would suggest finding some prepared unit studies and using them “as is” at first.  When you feel more confident, add a couple of things here and there – maybe end of unit projects.  As your confidence continues to grow, you’ll find this unit study thing isn’t nearly as hard as it seems right now!

“Say you want to teach using narration, lapbooks, notebooking, copywork, etc.  How do you decide what to do and when.  Do you include things like narration and copywork everyday?” The spine of my unit pretty well determines the style of the unit.  If the spine happens to be a lapbook, then most activities will take the route of lapbooking.  If a spine is hands-on, most of the activities will be projects and/or experiments.  I purposely plan my units so there is variety throughout the year.  It would make me (and my children) unhappy and bored if everything we did revolved around the same type of learning style.

Things like narration, copywork, notebooking, other writing projects, etc. are included within units as they “fit”.  In other words, I don’t worry about doing copywork every single day.  When I come across a great Bible verse, for instance, that goes with the unit theme, I’ll assign it for copywork one day.  When we complete an experiment, I’ll often ask the kids to keep notes in the form of a notebooking page.  As they read their assigned reading books, I’ll ask them to narrate once or twice.  Writing assignments are easy to fit into final project choices.

In my experience, it all comes out in the wash.  My children don’t need to complete narration everyday, for example, in order to know how to narrate.  Now, if I see their narration skills are lacking, I’ll offer more opportunity – but in the scheme of real life, I simply don’t have time to do everything everyday (or every week for that matter!)  Sometimes, I might even miss copywork altogether during a unit (gasp!)  When I miss something in one unit, I just try to add it into the next unit more purposely.

Okay, I think that answers all the questions so far.  Please forgive any typos – this was a long post!


  1. Thank-You, Thank-You, Thank-You. You have helped me so much!

  2. What a great post – I know it will be helpful to many people. When I started doing unit studies, I read a great book by Kym Wright called “Booster Shot: Energize Your Homeschool with Unit Studies.” Here is a link:


    This book really got into the nitty-gritty of how to put together your own unit studies. I had a lot of the same questions you addressed above and I found the book to be VERY helpful – probably one of the most helpful books I’ve read about homeschooling. Now that I’ve been doing unit studies that I plan myself (usually tweaking a spine that I like – just like you!)for over two years now, the way I plan just makes sense. But, that book was very helpful when I was really trying to find my way using a new method of learning with my kids. I actually read it again over the summer and may read it again in the future! I wrote a review of the book on my blog as well:


    I started using unit studies at the end of the 2007-2008 school year when I planned an Ancient China unit. We had so much fun and learned so much – together – that I never looked back. We’ve been using unit studies ever since.


  3. This is such good stuff! Thank you for spelling it all out! To clarify, it sounds like you do one unit at a time, either a science-based one or a history-based one. Is that right?
    Want to come out to California and have coffee so I can pick your brain?

  4. This makes almost makes me feel like I can do unit unit studies. I always get bogged down in the planning stages and knowing what is enough for each child. Lots for me to think about here.

  5. I wish you’d be my teacher OR that my kids were younger so I could have fun with them. I’m so thankful for all your wealth of information.

  6. Cindy, you never cease to amaze me. I’ll be spending some serious time on your blog doing some research VERY soon!

  7. Cindy, Thank you so much for your step by step break down. I’ve been feeling recently like we need to break away from our Sonlight schedule,which we can never keep to anyway, and do unit studies. It’s difficult for me to break away from that what to when “spine” and all the good info. that’s they include. Won’t we be missing so much? I know we won’t, that we will be gaining, but the jump is difficult. My main problem is that I want to do all that Sonlight reccomends and lots more! We can’t do it which makes me, and my daughter, feel like we’ve failed! You have made diving into unit studies appear much easier. We just may be swithching VERY soon! Again, Thank you for your instructions and encouragement!

  8. I have thought about your post for a long time and have another question. How do you decided what you are going to do each day? How do you break that down?

  9. I’ve never heard of this book before! Thanks for the recommendation!

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