Comprehensive Topical Studies – Easy as A-B-C (One of My Favorite Resources)

     I’m not much of a fan of textbooks.  I prefer, instead, to give my children living books for as long as I can, and for as many subjects as I can.  They learn more, understand more and retain more.  I said quite a bit more about this just about a year ago.  Over the years many gals have come to me asking about the nuts and bolts of pulling together a comprehensive topical study using living books, and I’d really love to help each of them.

     The truth is, I really do not have the time to give individual help to most of you on developing topical studies using living books.  On the other hand, I can share one of my favorite resources for the foundation of a topical study, and share some ideas on how to build your own topical studies using living books.   
     Just a note about topical studies vs. unit studies – A topical study involves a comprehensive look at one particular topic or period in history.  The topic can be explored as deeply as you, or your children, would like; but there is no attempt to expand the study to include other branches of study.   A unit study, on the other hand, will expand to cover as many branches of study as possible, typically including language arts, spelling, arts and crafts, science, social studies, and even math in some instances.  We’re not big on unit studies here, but we love our topical studies.  Many of the principles are the same, and you can certainly continue to build a unit study from the foundation I’m going to lay for you for a topical study.  Being able to do what works best for each family is one of homeschooling’s greatest strengths!

     Whenever I’m ready to begin working up a new topical study, I always hope I can find an alphabet book from Sleeping Bear Press on the subject.  An Alphabet book?  Don’t stop reading yet, hear me out.  Sleeping Bear Press has published dozens of extraordinary A-B-C books on a wide variety of topics:  Geography, History, Fine Arts, Social Studies, Science and Nature, along with many other topics.  These have become my favorite resource to use as a framework, or spine, for our topical studies.  In most instances, these books can even be used with your older students.  We own oodles of these titles, and I’m sure we’ll buy more in the future.

     The books are beautifully illustrated in full color.  Most titles are available in hard cover or paperback.  The real beauty of these books, though, is found in the text.  Each book contains twenty-six different facts about its subject matter – one for each letter of the alphabet, which is the very reason they are so well suited to be used as a framework for a topical study.  Each book has twenty-six different sub-topics to develop as deeply as you’d like for your topical study.

     The main body of text on each page is very brief, general information, written in rhyming text.  I will often read just the rhyming verse of one of these books aloud to my grandchildren just for fun.  The true heart of these books, the place where the real “meat” can be found, is in the sidebars of each page.  It is in the sidebar text that the topic of each page is expanded and more thoroughly explained.  

     Here’s an example from M is for Masterpiece: An Art Alphabet, the book we are currently using for a comprehensive study of art and artists.  Here is the main, rhyming text from the “D” page:

“D is for Drawing
with pencil or pen.
And a masterpiece is made –
well, every now and then.”

     The page is illustrated with Da Vinci sketches set into a background of brown tones, with a four page progression of sketches of a goose in the foreground.  Various drawing and sketching tools, including charcoal, are scattered about.  It’s a lovely lay out.

     As I mentioned, the real heart of these books, and the thing that makes them so great for developing a topical study, is found in the side bars.  There are two side bars for the “D” page.  The left side bar features drawing information:

“Great works of art can be created with tons of steel, or huge blocks of marble, or giant canvases and gallons of exotic colors, or a single pencil.

Drawing is the basis of most art, but drawings themselves can also be great works of art.  The simplest and most versatile drawing tool is the graphite pencil.  Pencils also come in a range of colors.  Charcoal has been used for drawing since prehistoric times.  Charcoal comes in thin sticks (called vine charcoal), charcoal pencils, or thick sticks of compressed charcoal.  Other drawing tools include pastels, Conte crayons, pen and ink, and felt-tipped pens.”


     From that side bar entry, I pulled together one great book and  a great set of tools, for my boys to try their hand at drawing with charcoal!


     The second side bar on the “D” page is more academic than practical, and gives us even more opportunity for developing our study of art and artists:

“When we think of genius, we think of Leonardo da Vinci.  Leonardo was born in Italy and lived from 1452 to 1519.  He was an inventor, architect, singer, engineer, naturalist, and the painter of two of the world’s most famous works of art – Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.  He was also a master drafstman (a really good drawer).  But Leonardo’s greatest achievement may have been his notebooks.  He was the first to make such great use of drawing.  Over the years Leonardo filled many notebooks with detailed drawings and writings, recording his observations of the human form, nature, weapons of war, architecture, mechanics, and flying machines.

Leonardo may have just been too smart for his own good.  He had so many interests and so many projects that much of what he began was never completed.”

      With that information at hand, I pulled together some age/grade appropriate biographies on Leonardo da Vinci for each of my boys to read, and some books containing samples of his art.  Because we have studied da Vinci’s works previously, this time we focused our study specifically on his drawings.

      Admitedly, the rhyming text in these books is sometimes a bit convoluted to make it work for each letter, but since we’re using the books simply as a foundation for a thorough study, we overlook the fault.  Be aware that these books are not written from a Christian worldview, but in all the many titles that we own, I’ve only found a couple of sentences that I have objected to.

      To find a Sleeping Bear Press book for a new study, simply type in the words “sleeping bear” along with a search topic (ocean, California, Civil War, etc.) into the search bar at Amazon.  Using the examples I just gave, W is for Waves: An Ocean Alphabet, G is for Golden: A California Alphabet and B is for Battle Cry: A Civil War Alphabet popped right up.  As I was looking for teaching helps on the public library system recently, I ran across B Is for Bookworm: A Library Alphabet using this method and found a treasure to further develop our library science study.  (More on that soon, too!)

     I’ll have another homeschool related post next Monday night.  I’ve some curriculum/product reviews, more of my favorite resources, and perhaps even working through a topical study together in the works.  However, feel free to leave a comment or email me with questions or suggestions for this Monday homeschool series.

God bless you as you look well to the ways of your household!
Proverbs 31:27


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6 comments to Comprehensive Topical Studies – Easy as A-B-C (One of My Favorite Resources)

  • great info!! i will have to look that up tomorrow. my kids might benefit from that!

  • Thank you so much for mentioning these!  We received “K is for Keystone” from my mother-in-love as a gift for my son, and it’s one of his favorite books.  I did not realize that it was a whole series of books!  I just placed a few of them on hold at the library. 

    I have been reading your blog for a few years, but I have never commented before.  I had one child when I first started reading, and now I have three.  I have gotten a lot of inspiration and good ideas from your writings (plus a bunch of great recipes!).  Thank you very much! 

  • Those alphabet books sound great! I love the notion of giving 26 “snippets” of information to a learning child, and then allowing them to find more information and learn more about the subjects of most interest to them. It can foster independent research at an early age (which is such an important life skill). Any budding draftsmen in the family?!?

  • We have several Sleeping Bear Press books also and I love them! What a treasure.  Defining topical study vs. unit study was really a help. I get it now. I’ve wanted to pick your brain on this subject before. Thanks for taking the time!


  • Wow…I would have loved these books when I was homeschooling.  I will take note of them since I have a feeling I might be homeschooling some grandchildren some day.  I have never heard the term ‘topical studies’…I used to do those and called them unit studies.  But how you explained them they really were more like topical studies.  Though I did use Weaver curriculum the first four years of homeschooling and that is definetly unit studies.  I always used my curriculum as a foundation that I would take off from…I’m a creative type and so I always found myself full of ideas and going in those directions.  Oh, how much I miss it. 

    Well, I came on over to let you know that I will most definetly say HellO to your Aunt and Uncle in the bright green VW bus ‘if’ I see them around town.  I haven’t seen them yet though.  They do sound like wonderful people.  Thank you for letting me know. 

    You are such a wonderful teacher…your children are so blessed.  You know my youngest are at EGHS now and though they are doing wonderfully it is so sad to see how the school system is NOT focused on educating, but rather grades, tests, scores, and full-filling requirements. 

  • @seacottage – Thanks for stopping by, Fairmaiden.  I know that you rest in knowing that your children are where God would have them be during this season, and trust Him for them.  Keep your eyes peeled for that VW bus!  They’re found quite often at Chick Fil-A, around Jo-Ann and various other EG hot spots!