An outline is a detailed plan of the piece that the writer is working on. An outline organizes the information into categories and by importance, as well as lists the sequence in which the ideas will be presented. For grade school children just learning to write, outlines are a useful tool to help them organize their ideas in a way that makes sense to the reader. However, writing an outline in the traditional format can also be confusing. Help make the task easier by making it more concrete and physical, using index cards before writing the formal outline.

Start With Index Cards

Give each student a stack of index cards. Have them write on an index card one idea or one fact that is going into their writing piece. Stress the importance of having only one idea or fact on each index card that they use.

Tell the students to spread their index cards out on their desks so that they can easily see each one. If the students need more room, have them spread them out on the floor, a table or two desks together. Have the students quickly read over all of their index cards silently.

Have the students group together the index cards that are about the same main idea. For example, if a student is writing an expository piece about whales, he might have a few index cards related to what whales like to eat. Give the students a few paper clips each and have them clip together the index cards for each main idea.

Taking one group of cards at a time, have the students put the cards for each main idea in the order that makes the most sense. This is the step in which students may need the most help. Circulate through the class to help students order the cards in each group.

Give each student a few Post-it notes. Have the students attach a Post-it note to each clipped and ordered group of index cards. Have them write on the Post-it note a one- or two-word phrase that describes the topic of that group of cards. The students are now ready to create a traditional outline.

Transfer to Outline Format

Have the students take their clipped groups of index cards and put the groups in the order that makes the most sense. Again, students may need some support to complete this step.

Distribute sheets of lined paper to the students. Have them write the title of their writing piece, their names and the date at the top of the page. On the board, write the following sample outline. You may fill in the main idea and details with a topic that is relevant to the writing assignment.


I. Main Idea

A.  Detail 1

B.  Detail 2

C.  Detail 3

II. Main Idea 2

A.  Detail 1

B.  Detail 2

C.  Detail 3

Explain to students that the traditional outline format uses Roman numerals for the main ideas and capital letters for the details. At the grade school level, it is not necessary to introduce additional subheadings. Have students write a Roman numeral "I." followed by their first main idea. They will find this written on the Post-it note on their first group of index cards.

Tell students move to the next line, indent and write a capital letter "A." Have them write the idea or fact from the first index card in the group after the letter A. Have them write a capital "B." on the next line, followed by the second idea or fact from the group of index cards. Have students continue in this fashion (C, D, etc.) until they have recorded all of the ideas/facts from the first group of index cards.

Have the students move to the next line and write a Roman numeral "II." near the margin. Have them write the second main idea, found on the Post-it note on the second group of index cards, next to the "II." Have them record the ideas/facts from the cards on the following lines, indented, with capital letters, as they did with the first group of cards. Have the students record all of the sections of their outline in the same fashion until they have transferred all of the information from their index cards to the lined sheet of paper.