What is a unit study? Educational Theories Defined, Part 7

Our primary curricula for this year is Five in a Row, which is a literature based unit study. I’ve often quoted Steve Lambert since meeting him at the Great Homeschool Convention – he being the husband of the author of the instructor’s guide for Five in a Row.

What is a unit study 1

A unit study is a measurement or parameter of a topic to be studied. It is the center of a wheel, and all the subjects are the spokes. The unit is variable by the amount of time one wants to give to the study of one topic. The definition of the topic can be a book, a country, a time period, an animal, a biography, a war – you can choose. The study is either defined by the parent, teacher, student, or author of a packaged unit study. The subjects to be covered within the study are usually the same standard subjects: math, science, history, language arts (including vocabulary, spelling, reading, and writing), geography, and electives (such as art, Bible, etc.)

The point of doing a unit study is to examine whatever the topic is in its entirety. To examine all the angles, the context, the affects and effects, and to see the parts of the whole. The unit study model is meant to give the student a working knowledge of their studies. It helps the student engage, think, and use the information within the subjects.

For example, if a child is studying Australia as their unit then when they examine the land scientifically. This examination enriches their understanding of the behavior of the people and animals in that region. Studying the climate gives clues to the reasons for certain cultural norms. Reading Australian literature and learning specific vocabulary enriches the mind in absorbing the whole of Australia. And walking through Australian history then brings all the pieces of the puzzle together to form a complete picture of the country, the people, the wildlife, and how it all makes sense.

The enrichment gained from studying a topic in its entirety is a benefit of doing unit studies. I believe it’s difficult when studying science or social studies to do what I call “fly bys” of countries or time periods. Just to simply study deserts for example, but not study how that would effect the people living in deserts or the history of a particular desert is to lose handles on using the information. Sure a child can memorize and learn facts about anything. But how useful are those facts if they aren’t put into a context from which a student can store the information?

I believe that a unit study is a great way to learn almost anything. One criticism of unit studies is that it does not attempt to study history from a chronological stand point. There isn’t a sequence of building blocks required in order to do unit studies. You can very literally start with anything as your unit.

Start anywhere, end up everywhere.

Steve Lambert, Five in a Row

This is bothersome for those who believe that one should only study history in chronological order or science in sequence. Their primary concern being the creation of gaps in the facts. What if you get to the end of a child’s secondary education and they haven’t studied a particular time period simply because it never came up in any unit of study? The answer is simple: the student knows how to study for himself. The whole point of unit studies is to engage in the learning process not in the retention of facts.

If you’re a classical education buff (see sources below), then you may be thinking that it is important for a younger child – namely one who falls into the grammar stage – to endeavor to memorize vital facts for later use in the dialectic and rhetoric stages. But a true unit studier combines all the stages at all times for any age and applies the knowledge to the level of the student, gradually increasing the requirements until the child can appropriately take over in the pursuit of knowledge for the love of learning.

What does a unit study look like?

Here’s a glimpse of our most recent unit study based on the book Grass Sandals: The Travels of Basho by Dawnine Spivak from Five in a Row.

What is a unit study 2

Monday we read the book, Grass Sandals, and then we zoom into one subject brought up in the story. Mondays’ subjects are Science and Bible. Since star and moon gazing is mentioned in the text, we study the moon and the stars by gathering resources from the library and online.  This is where the depth of the unit study is variable and customizable to every individual. My son was intrigued by the phases of the moon and wanted to understand how our view of the moon changes from the beginning to the end of the year – taking into account the seasons, tilt of the earth’s axis, and the 24 hour rotation of the earth. We read and discussed – I used props to symbolize the sun, moon, and earth – until he felt satisfied that he could explain what was happening on his own.

What is a unit study 4

Tuesday we read the book again and this day we dig into language arts and applied mathematics. We compile a list of vocabulary words from the text, discuss various writing techniques used by the author, and work out additional story problems based on actual events in the story or additional equations based on timelines or theories. For Grass Sandals we focused on understanding what a haiku is and what a century means and how to calculate the number of years past from a date. My daughter really enjoyed studying the haikus and began writing them about everything. She would even process her daily thoughts in haiku form – stopping before she spoke to count syllables.

Butterfly I see

is flying around my head —

Blue wings on its back.

JoeAnna Thompson, age 8

Wednesday is our non-unit study day. My children attend a local homeschool program on this day.

Thursday we read Grass Sandals for the third time and begin to study the art. The resources included in the instructor’s guide for studying the illustrations of each book within Five in a Row are excellent. One of the main criteria used by the Lamberts in choosing books for their curricula is the quality of illustrations. The study of art and illustrations is such a high priority in the instructor’s guide that it highly recommends not saving the study of the art for the last day in the row. For this we studied the creativity of written Japanese. We copied the words from the story and discussed how the Japanese word for rain, fire, river all look similar to reality. We each picked a favorite word and memorized the symbols.

What is a unit study 5

Friday – can you guess? – we read the story one last time. (Technically we do 4 in a row since we only read the book 4 times and not 5 times.) I think Friday is our family’s favorite day because we study the social, historical, and geographical aspects presented in the book. For Grass Sandals, we studied Japan. Included in our curriculum is mapping tools for the kids. Discs with a representative picture of the story are pressed onto our large world map using poster putty. So far this year we have studied Wisconsin, the Mississippi River, Arizona, Australia, and Japan. Also included in our curriculum is a cookbook which includes multiple choices of dishes to make per unit. We’ve enjoyed Potato Kelly Mash, Muffins, Raft Cookies, Sweet Potato Soup, and sushi (we are trying this later today – I’ll do my best to Instagram the kids trying it).

What is a unit study 6

There are weaknesses to every method of study. For Five in a Row, it is recommended that you supplement a daily math program and phonics to the units. For us, we have chosen to also supplement a history program to our units. Twice a week we study history from a literature based curriculum by Beautiful Feet Books.


  • Most of what I’ve shared in this post was not researched but came from a working knowledge of what we are currently doing. To learn more about Five in a Row, visit their website. I was privileged to meet Jane Lambert and discuss the nature of unit study in person at the last Great Homeschool Convention. For the list of other sessions I attended and the list of resources purchased – click here.
  • For the classical education buff – Susan Wise Bauer of The Well-Trained Mind (and many other wonderful resources) wrote a very helpful article comparing Unit Studies to Classical Education.
  • The fabulous, curricula-queen Cathy Duffy has a comprehensive index of all the possible unit studies out there.
  • Homeschool in the Woods has a great post answering the question “What is a Unit Study?” The detailed example of what a unit study would look like point-by-point for a unit “The War Between the States” is very practical for the detail oriented.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this part of the series: Educational Theories Defined. You can find the rest of the theories listed and linked by clicking here. Also, there are affiliate links in this post. They are set apart by underlining. If you would like to know more about these links, check out my disclosure policy or contact me. Thanks for reading!

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