4 Easy Steps to Teach Your Kids to Outline

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Teach Your Kids to Outline

Outlining is a needed skill in our society.

Kids must be able to read an outline during college lectures. Outlining is an awesome method of teaching kids to take notes. And, of course, it’s an invaluable part of writing.

Kids need to know how to outline. Great! So just how do we teach our children how to outline?

1. Pick Simple Passage

This is the one area where textbooks and encyclopedias have an advantage over living books. You need to find a simple passage. A passage where each paragraph has a clear topic sentence.

My older children all started with The Kingfisher History Encyclopedia around the 5th grade. The passages aren’t the easiest to read, but they have relatively clear topic sentences. The Kingfisher History Encyclopedia also has very few paragraphs on a page.

Other options, such as The Story of the World series, work very well as well. Just find an easy passage of three paragraphs to start.

2. Find the Topic Sentence

During your child’s grammar and writing instruction, you may have covered the idea of the topic sentence. This is what the paragraph is about.

Remind your child what a topic sentence is and why it’s important. Now have your child look for the topic sentence.

My favorite animal is the dog. Dogs are friendly and make good pets. They listen when you talk to them. Dogs are fun to play with and keep your bed warm at night. One day I want a dog for a pet.

For example in the preceding very simple paragraph, the topic sentence is My favorite animal is the dog. Chat about why My favorite animal is the dog is the topic sentence, before writing:

I. Favorite animal dog

Explain the rules of outlining as you have your child observe you write. Now teach your kid to copy the outline’s beginning on their own sheet of paper.

There’s a bit of a debate on the proper number of words in an outline. I was taught to never write a complete sentence, but any number of words was acceptable. One system allows only three words. Another method recommends writing complete sentences.

Teach your children your favorite method of outlining, and don’t get hung up on the details. It’ll all work out in the end.

Continue through the next two paragraphs in the same manner. You may end up with a first level outline looking something like this:

I. Favorite animal dog
II. Hate cats
III. Lions cool

3. Find the Subtopics

Now go back through the paragraphs looking for the subtopics. For instance, in the simple paragraph I used earlier:

My favorite animal is the dog. Dogs are friendly and make good pets. They listen when you talk to them. Dogs are fun to play with and keep your bed warm at night. One day I want a dog for a pet.

The second sentence begins to explain why the favorite animal is the dog. Let’s fill in our outline accordingly.

I. Favorite animal dog
A. Friendly
B. Make good pets
C. Listen when you talk
D. Fun to play with
E. Keep bed warm at night

Write down the parts of the outline as you explain what’s going on to your child. Then have your child copy your outline onto their own paper.

Walk through the next two paragraphs together until you have a full outline built. You’ve just taught your child to outline!

It’s not cemented though. Next week walk through creating another two-level outline together.

Once your child is comfortable copying your outline and seems to have a handle on what’s going on, switch to having your child create the outline under your supervision.

There will likely be many errors to correct, but you’ll be right there to fix the errors immediately. Observe your kids creating outlines until they have a good handle on the process. Then let them outline on their own.

4. Details

I don’t bother teaching children to find details in a passage until they’re comfortable with the two-level outline. Once they’re adept at creating two level outlines, three and four level outlines are easy to teach.

Encyclopedias and textbooks are so packed with information that they’re the best tool for the job. Simply run your child through outlining an encyclopedia such as The Kingfisher History Encyclopedia or Spielvogel’s Western Civilization and have them practice for a time.

While outlining is an important skill for learning to write, it’s not difficult to teach. It’s simply time-consuming. Take the time, sit down with your child, and systematically teach your child one step at a time.

Remember, you don’t need to cover every step in one sitting. Work as long as you can, then put the outline and passage away to work again the next day. Once your child has outlining down pat, you can easily move from there to essays and thesis papers.

If you’re looking for more guidance to teach outlining and writing to your kids, check out IEW’s awesome seminar on how to teaching writing!!! It’s been a huge help to me over the years.

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  1. Great tips! I have a 6th grader this year and it is our first year homeschooling. I will undoubtedly reference this post. Thank you!

  2. Hi Sara! Thanks for linking up at the Laugh and Learn Linkup. I chose this post for my feature pick. We are going to take writing a lot more seriously this year and this was a great and simple, efficient approach to note-taking/outlining that I really like.

  3. Thanks for sharing! We have recently started an IEW curriculum designed for K-2nd graders and it has the kids taking a short paragraph and pulling out important words from it and putting them in an outline form. They don’t really know what they are doing yet (as far a the outline goes), but I think it is a good introduction!

  4. Sara we would be glad if u keep on updating us with the new strategies and steps in future, so that we can use those strategy for students with special needs

  5. Thank You SO MUCH! My daughter and I were watching videos on how to write an outline. She didn’t get it and I didn’t know how to explain it to her. We found your site and it helped us both! Thank You again for showing us in a simply easy to learn method. 🙂


  6. This is something we need to start working on. Thanks for such a simple way to help break it down for the kids. We will be trying to do an outline this week before writing our next paper.

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