Charlotte Mason-style Unit Studies

Somewhere out there a Charlotte Mason purist’s head is spinning simply from reading that post title.

Yes, yes I know that Charlotte Mason herself decried the value of unit studies. And I know that according to Miss Mason we are not supposed to make connections for the children.  I do think she has a point on that one. Children should be allowed to make their own connections with the topic at hand as much as possible. Without taking ownership of their learning, they will not retain what they encounter. I think it is debatable if a child can own a unit that is mostly planned by mom — likely it depends on the interest of the child in the topic. And a good story (a la Five in a Row) can make many a topic interesting to a child that might not be otherwise.

What I do love most about CM are the methods of instruction: narration, living books, copy work, dictation and so on. What I love about unit studies is the ability to focus on a favorite topic for a short period and then move on to another favorite topic when done. Those things do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Which leads to the big question: how to stay true to the CM methods I value, yet design units of study we enjoy? How do I give the kids space to make their own connections to a subject without having to plan myself ragged every single time?

What follows is an outline — a guide for me, if you will. I do not profess to be an expert at this, and it is still a work-in-progress. But since I often run off distracted by the next shinny object to catch my eye and forget the objective I desired to meet in the first place, this is a list to keep me on track. If someone else finds it helpful, then all the better.

How to Create a Charlotte Mason-style Unit Study

Formulate Broad Objectives – Decide on a broad list of objectives for your unit study. It’s needed to help you choose which resources to include, but should not be so narrow that you have to make the connections for your child so your child can meet the objective. So in this case an objective like, “The student will be able to relate at least five facts about a squirrel” is superior to “The student will draw and label the parts of a squirrel.” In an ideal situation the student will meet your objectives and exceed them with her own connections. It might be helpful in the end to go back and list a new set of objectives that your child actually met once the unit is done. You may be surprised at the volume of learning taking place, far different from what you may have designed in the first place, but valid all the same.


Choose Living Books – This should go without saying for any CM-style study. In our home we will use picture books and longer read-alouds. There is nothing wrong with pulling out chapters of a living book that relate to our topic as well. Biography is a fantastic genre to include in a unit study where appropriate. Children are fascinated with people, so a well-written biography is sure to raise interest.

Provide Opportunities for Narration – For my kids’ ages this may include oral narration, notebooking pages, lapbook elements, picture narration, dramatic narration and sometimes even pretend play. Avoid anything that smells of busywork and choose narration instead.

Make Activities Meaningful – Avoid pea and stick paper crafts and instead focus on handicraft-type projects where appropriate, but do not force them to fit into the topic. Choose art projects over craft projects. Another example from our upcoming unit about squirrels: instead of this, we will be making this.

Include Language Arts – It would be a real shame to waste all of this fantastic living literature. Copy work and dictation can be pulled from your topical readings. Choose passages rich in opportunities for discussion. Provide brief object lessons on figurative language and writing techniques. As the student learns about these they will begin to make the connections themselves. (This is one area where I think FIAR excels.)

Add Artist and Composer Studies – Again, don’t force this, but so often it is easily related. Studying birds? Audubon can be the current artist. Outer Space? Have a listen to Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.”

Now for the list of non-CM-style things we will be using in our unit studies. These are things that I consider useful even if they don’t have the CM stamp of approval.

Media – We love nothing more than a good Reading Rainbow or Bill Nye the Science Guy episode related to our study.

Beef up the Hands-On – My kids like it, so there will be more science experiments and activities than Charlotte might include. In addition, don’t be afraid to integrate a subject if the activity does fit well for your family. In our upcoming squirrel unit, Homeschool Share suggested a nut taste test and making a graph of the results. My kids recently LOVED making a graph of their Halloween candy so much they wanted to do it again the next day. John picked up a graph we received in the mail today and was asking me questions about it. Is making a graph of nuts a stretch for a squirrel unit? You bet it is. Necessary? Not at all. An extension of a topic that is currently an interest to my kids? Oh yeah and you better believe we will be doing it.

Graphic Organizers – Sure they can make their own connections, but if providing a framework helps a visual learner to organize their thoughts, it can only be a good thing. I am not above putting down an Venn Diagram and asking for a little comparison. It’s like narration, right?

Coloring Pages – Good to do while listening to Mom read. Builds the same muscles needed for writing. A plus in my book.

Fun – I also have a toddler and a preschooler. Some things in our units may just be for fun. A search for paper acorns around the house? We’ll be doing that one. Why? Because the boys will love it — especially if we pretend we are squirrels while we do it.

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  • Oh, I’m glad I’m not the only one who uses thematic units with CM approach. I think CM must have been against unit studies because they were very teacher-directed, whereas most thematic units are inquiry-based these days. That, combined with authentic living books, makes a wonderful education.

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