One of the skills I insist my children learn as they become teenagers is outlining.  The ability to pick out main ideas from their studies, organize those on paper, and then create a composition from their outline has proven to be invaluable (so they tell me).

Here’s where it all began:

I first learned to outline at Roosevelt Jr. High School in the ’70s.  The man who taught the honors history block required a number of things if you were going to pass his class.  Neat handwriting, a research paper and a book report each quarter, and a neatly outlined notebook (to be reviewed by him at a moment’s notice!).  Each day upon reporting to class, the chalkboard would be covered with the outline for that day.  Proper form, all information written neatly in a clear cursive hand, ready to be copied.  And so we copied-each word properly spaced, neatly taken down so that we could refer to it later as we studied.  While I dispute some of the conclusions he drew in regards to history, I will be forever grateful to him for the gift of outlining he gave us.  As I progressed through school, I used outlining as a tool over and over again.  Sometimes it was required as part of an assignment; sometimes I used it simply to organize my thoughts as I started to work on a paper.  Because it was so vital to me, I determined my children would learn it too.

The process of creating an outline is simple.  The form is straight-forward and easy to follow.  It should look like this (each new idea is indented five spaces from the earlier one until you get to the next main idea.):

I.  First main idea

A. Subheading for main idea

1. Detail supporting subheading for main idea

a. more specific detail for main idea

b. more specific detail for main idea

2.Detail supporting subheading for main idea

B. Subheading for main idea

II. Second main idea

And so forth.

There are a few basic rules when creating an outline.  You can use either phrases (called a phrase outline) or complete sentences (called a sentence outline).  You must choose one or the other.  The numbering system is standard and does not vary.  Roman numerals for the main ideas; capitol letters for the subheadings; Arabic numerals for details; lower case letters for more specific details; Arabic numerals in a parentheses next; lower case letters in a parentheses after that.  Indent 5 spaces for each notation after a main idea.  If you have a 1, you must have a 2.  If you put in an A, you must also include a B.  When including an outline in a report, the pages are numbers with lower case Roman numerals.

When working on a research paper, a basic precursor to an outline is keeping note cards.  One thought per card.  Only one.  When you have your ideas written down, line the cards up on table (or on the floor, if you need that kind of room) in outline form.  I., A., B., 1., 2., a., b., II., etc.  Number or label them in the order you want to use them, and then transfer this information onto paper.  If you find a few more facts you want to use when it is written, go ahead and add them to your outline.

I am aware that an outline can be generated with most basic word processing systems.  Whatever.  Our children need to know how to generate one using the oldest “processing system” we have- paper, pencil, and their brain.  If they want to learn how to use the computer later, fine.  Just ensure they know how to create one themselves first.  Being able to write a well thought out, articulate paper will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

2 thoughts on “Outlining”

  1. Awesome! My daughter is in the middle of doing her sixth grade research paper as a final for her language arts course. We researched MLA formats for Apple (which is what we have) and have been learning various methods of writing papers.
    I too make my children hand write all but their final draft. I believe they need to learn to check their own work and then only type when it’s required. Their work should be organized, grammatically correct, and neat without the aid of technology.
    This is just another help in our search. Thanks!

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