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Teaching the Basics with Unit Studies

By Jessica Hulcy
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #24, 1998.

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Jessica Hulcy


Does how we teach our children physically change their brains and the way in which their brains are wired? In her book Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It, Dr. Jane Healy relates experimental findings which compare the brain size of three groups of rats. The three groups of rats had identical food, water, and cages, except the "enriched rats" were given all kinds of stimuli with which to experiment. The second set of rats merely watched the first group of rats interact with the stimuli, while the third group of rats was kept in another room without any stimuli. The results of this experiment found that increased environmental enrichment created "brains that were larger and heavier, with increased dendritic branching," which meant better communication from nerve cell to nerve cell.

Dr. Shirley O' Rourke, an education analyst and a kindergarten teacher, affirmed the importance of experiences when she commented to Healy:

Without experiences, there are no concepts; without concepts, there's no attention span because they [the students] don't know what people are talking about... Children from every neighborhood come with fewer social skills, less language ability, less ability to listen, less motor ability... Years ago, the children had experiences, their parents took them places, they talked to them instead of at them, they read to them... But today... what some adults seem to be calling experiences is to go buy a workbook.

Activities: Springboard for Reading & Writing

What does this research have to do with teaching homeschool children? If we want children to be excellent writers and readers, we start with hands-on experiences that build concepts and hold the child's attention. The unit studies method integrates hands-on experiences with reading and writing, locking the child's mind on the wavelength of the unit. How much easier it is to write about the parts of a castle if you have just built one out of appliance boxes and labeled the parts with index cards! Children using the unit approach are not asked to write about unrelated subjects out of the blue. Rather, they write about the subject in which they are immersed.

To paint the big picture of teaching basics within the unit, examine the sample daily schedule. (Since I am naturally most familiar with the unit-study program I helped write, examples in this article are from the KONOS Character Curriculum. However, any unit study could follow this schedule.) What the schedule shows is mornings filled with heavy discussion and dialogue between the parent and the child as basic skills are built. The added basic skills of listening and dialoguing are key to the morning activities. The afternoons are filled with less parent-child interaction as the child does more hands-on activities, dramatizing, and discovering, on his own, which develops his critical thinking skills. These afternoon unit activities lay the foundation which create the connections and framework for discourse, reading, and writing the next morning when children are the freshest and least wiggly.

Conversation: The Key to Reading & Writing

The most important pre-reading skills to teach children are the abilities to listen and to talk. Parents are so eager to spend money and purchase a phonics program for preschoolers, when parents have all the tools necessary to begin teaching reading right in their own vocal cords! The Suzuki violin and piano teaching method makes use of the "mother tongue" language method of teaching. Before children learn the names of notes or the difference between major and minor keys, they are playing complete songs. Likewise, before children know the difference between a noun and a verb or the definition of preposition, they are speaking complete sentences simply by having heard parents and siblings model sentence patterns in everyday talk.

Author Jane Healy states, "Conversation builds executive brains," and Sarah Rose, co-author of KONOS History of the World, contends, "The conversations you have with your child aloud about the literature you have read or about the steps necessary to write a paper serve as a model for the child. These external conversations between parent-child will someday become an internal conversations within the child's own mind."

Language is the key to thinking. How can a person have thoughts without language? Reading to children, as well as having children read, are great ways to have language flow through minds and broaden vocabularies. Naturally, the reading is on the unit subject as much as possible - The Door In the Wall for older children and Aliki's Medieval Feast for younger children with a Medieval unit.

After the reading, content and analysis questions should be asked over what was read. Content questions test for listening, but analysis questions test for understanding, forcing the child to think critically by asking, "Why?" and "How do you know?" and "What specific details can you give to support your answer?"

While parents may find it easy to concoct content questions, they may struggle to create analysis questions. So strong is my belief that dialogue based on analysis questions truly builds thinking brains, that certain KONOS units have been rewritten to include content and analysis questions and answers for the unit literature. This question answer format actually serves as a model for the parent, demonstrating how to dialogue meaningfully with their child and how to ask thinking type questions. Not only are the kinds of questions important, but the interactive dialogue is crucial. That is why children do not improve their speaking skills by watching TV. The TV "talks" to them, but they can't "talk" to it - at least not in a give-and-take manner. Healy seconds the need for dialogue when she contends, "Good language... is gained only from interactive engagement: children need to talk as well as to hear."

Phonics: Taught to Every Sense

I recommend any phonics program that appeals to a multitude of the senses - seeing, hearing, saying, and writing. For example, the company Small Ventures sells a set of complete phonogram cards based on Romalda Spaulding's The Writing Road to Reading that is great for teaching all the phonograms. These can be used as playing cards and as a check list for parents, to make sure you do not forget to teach the aw and au sounds.

As much as possible, I make phonics a hands-on activity. When children are just learning their alphabet and sounds, we declare a particular letter the letter of the day (as suggested in Alphabet Activities by Jill Condron). If M is the letter of the day, we might read the story of Madeline, practice marching, cook macaroni and cheese for dinner, make a mobile, cut m's out of the magazine, read about monkeys, count money, and play the Memory Game. The letter becomes a unit in itself, touching on art, math, science, cooking, physical exercise, and games.

Phonograms are taught to older children. After introducing the phonogram b, I ask my child to go and get me five things in a grocery sack that begin with a b. I continue the activity by writing specific numbers of other phonograms on the sack for the child to collect. Each time the child come back with correct items, I give him stickers as a reward. On other occasions I write ten phonograms on index cards and have the child lay the cards out on the floor. As I say words beginning with a particular phonogram, the child jumps to the phonogram.

Not only are phonograms important, but word families - such as fat, cat, hat, mat, rat, etc. - help children to enter the reading process immediately by making their own sentences. Add to this a good Modern Curriculum Press Plaid Phonics or Explode the Code workbook, and you have a very well balanced approach to beginning reading.

Writing: The Results of Talking and Doing

Too many parents want to start preschoolers writing. Children of this age should be developing their gross motor skills, laying the groundwork for developing their fine motor skills later. Throwing a ball is a gross motor skill while holding a pencil is a fine motor skill. Beyond forcing the pencil holding too early in a child's development looms the question of what does it take to create excellent writers. The answer, again, is conversation and hands-on activities.

Healy quotes a well-known psychology teacher at a major university in Florida as saying "It's a source of amazement to me how many students can't link ideas together... They have such poor verbal skills... [that they] haven't formed the appropriate categories verbally to combine ideas." Back to the hands-on approach. If we want to teach our children how to sort ideas in categories, we send them to their rooms to group items in their rooms into categories of toys, grooming items, school supplies, sports equipment, etc. We are helping them to physically group like items under one topic. Now we transfer the idea of a topic to the writing of a paragraph.

Take out a file folder and label it paragraph. Explain that this file folder is like one of the piles in their room. The topic sentence will be written on the tab of the folder. The individual items in the pile are like the individual sentences in the paragraph. Place one piece of paper in the folder to represent each sentence in the paragraph. The last sentence in the file folder should be a colored sheet of paper representing a concluding sentence. Now we are ready to write one paragraph.

The practice of starting with an experience such as cleaning a room and making a file folder to construct a concept gives complete direction to the writing assignment. This is how KONOS Language Arts program is written... in conceptual bite-size pieces that still fit into the unit format by holding to the unit subject.

Clearly, researchers believe that experience and conversation shape the physical, neurological pathways of the brain. The unit-studies method has the unique ability to make use of both ends of the developmental spectrum by doing on the one end and dialoguing on the other end. The doing of activities helps to hard wire the brain's neuron pathways as the child interacts with various stimuli. The dialoguing about the activities, the literature, and the language arts provides a model for the child's language development. This language development must precede reading, thinking, and writing skills development. Research points to the critical nature that teaching methods play in shaping children's brain development. Homeschoolers, wanting to impact the development of their children, should make use of both these developmental tools to teach the 3R's.


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