How to Teach Outlining

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An outline picks out the most important points of a written document and sets them down in a logical, heirarchical display. It can be a hugely powerful organizing tool for an author trying to organize her thoughts. And a student learning new material may find that an outline is very helpful in organizing the material in a way that makes sense. Teach your students outlining and watch them thrive as authors and as learners.

  • Explain the hierarchical nature of ideas in a written work: The introduction lays out the main idea, the body of the text expands on two or three points, and the conclusion wraps it all up.

  • Ask students to identify the main ideas in a book chapter. Those ideas may be the heads of various sections; for example, using a history text, a chapter on World War II in the US might include "The Home Front," "The Manhattan Project" and "Science and Technology of War" as section titles. These would be the main ideas.

  • Show students how to identify the supporting points for each section or main idea. For example, the section about the home front during World War II might include civil liberties and wartime industry.

  • Help students pick out the details of civil liberties on the home front during World War II, including the relocation of Japanese Americans and attitudes toward communists in the United States.

  • Remind the students of the hierarchy of ideas: main idea (I), followed by the most important items related to that idea (A and B), and the details of each of those items (1 and 2).

  • Traditionally, an outline is built in a particular way, including Roman numerals, capital letters, and so on. Relieve your students' anxiety by teaching them to build their first outline without stressing over the numbers, letters and indents.

  • Instruct your students to fold a sheet of lined paper in half. Invite them to write one idea at the top of each half (two on the front of the sheet, two on the back).

  • Ask your students to write down two examples that explain that main idea, leaving several lines between each example.

  • Finally, tell them to list one or two details that give substance to those examples.

  • Photo Credit Terry Vine/Blend Images/Getty Images
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