The past month, the topic teachers most often searched for at PushWriting.com has been outlining. I suspect the reason teachers are seeking help with outlining is that they secretly concur with their students’ far more public opinion that outlining is a weird English class thing totally unrelated to their real lives. Actually, stripped of the furbelows that decorate it like a Victorian ball gown, an outline is about as exotic as a grocery list scribbled in pencil on the back of an envelope.
Outlines are misunderstood
Every post-secondary student I’ve ever had has believed outlining is a post-composition activity. That preposterous idea may not actually be taught in American schools, but it certainly isn’t refuted there. My sister, who is enrolled in a master’s program for physician assistants, is taking a course that requires students to pick a research topic, prepare a PowerPoint presentation outlining the research they plan to do, and then write their research papers. She said her classmates each picked a topic, wrote their research papers, and then wrote detailed summaries of their work arranged in “outline format.”
Students’ misunderstanding of what an outline is may derive from the common use of outline to refer to the contours of an object. For example, when we read the phrase “the outline of a barn in the distance,” we assume that the barn already exists. Perhaps that’s why students who haven’t had good ELA teachers tend to think of an outline as a sketch of the contours of a completed piece of writing .
Writers’ outlines should be tentative steps toward accomplishing some communications goal, just as a grocery list is a shopper’s tentative step toward preparing meals. Unfortunately, students tend to think the outline is a list of what the shopper actually brought home after visiting three stores and deciding to order take-out Saturday evening instead of cooking.
An outline is just a plan.
You need to teach your students how to use an outline as a communication planner in the same way you use a grocery list as a shopping planner. When you notice you’re running low on coffee, you write coffee on your grocery list. Writing that may remind you of two or three other items you need to buy or it might remind you of something you need to do before going to the grocery, like get gas or deposit check. Even if you don’t immediately think of anything to do other than buy coffee, you’ve primed your brain to look for other things you need to get on your shopping trip.
For an outline to be worth doing, it needs to be prepared as soon as possible after a writer is assigned a writing task. Your students may not think immediately of all the points they are likely to need or want to make in their communication, but like your shopping list, the plan should remain open to additions and substitutions right up to the time the communication is delivered.
An outline by any other name gets more use.
If you want your students to plan their written work—which is a highly desirable goal—don’t use the words outline and outlining. Instead, use the word plan. The plans students make are usually geared toward something they want to do or achieve. Thus, by saying plan instead of outline, you make the skill you’re about to teach into a familiar activity that students’ typically associate plans with positive outcomes.
In keeping with that informal, you’re-already-familiar-with-this approach, avoid talking about writing a plan. Instead use terms that make outlining seem a very routine, informal, no-sweat activity that helps students accomplish something they want to do. Students associate verbs like make, do, scribble, jot, record, construct, build, and craft with activities that most of them find much more fun than writing. If you use one of those non-ELA terms instead of write, you make preparing a plan sound like something students might possibly find useful outside school. That is precisely the impression you want to give.
Teach and monitor students’ planning.
Planning is a skill that students will need throughout their lives and in every aspect of their lives. The ability to put a plan for communicating ideas and information on paper is particularly important in their “public” or outside-home roles. You don’t need to preach, “Someday you’ll need this.” What you do need to do is:
- Teach students how to prepare a simple, written plan for communicating information (which textbooks often call a “three-point outline” and which I call a “writing skeleton™“).
- And make sure students practice preparing a communication plan every time you give them a writing assignment.
Teaching how to make a writing skeleton™ is a quick and easy task. Making sure students practice planning isn’t hard, but it requires you to closely monitor every step of students work. That is tedious, time-consuming, boring, and absolutely necessary if students are going to learn to write well on demand, which is the writing that counts outside school.
A written communication plan has two parts.
In its most basic form, a communication plan has two main parts: a single-sentence assertion of what the planner says is true—which is the thesis the communicator hopes to prove—and a series of between three and five reasons for believing that assertion is true.
The writing skeleton™ format for a basic outline looks like this:
- A thesis statement (A single sentence that makes an assertion about a topic.)
- Thesis + because + reason one.
- Thesis + because + reason two.
- Thesis + because + reason three.
You can teach the writing skeleton™ format to students as young as middle school by using an example of something students of their age might want to convince someone about. Middle schoolers might want to convince their parents to let them have a dog; high school students might want to convince their school administration to let them hold a fund-raiser at the school for non-school organization.
Although I don’t normally recommend having students write about topics that are not course-specific, having students plan how to convince someone to do something for them can be a useful introduction to using a writing skeleton™. When students feel a personal stake in the success of the communication, it is relatively easy to make them realize that to be convincing, they must look at their proposal from the perspective of the person(s) they need to convince.
Craft topics that encourage planning.
For most students, the tricky part of writing is deciding on something to write about. By write about, I don’t mean just a topic, like peanuts or presidential debates. What students write about must be an idea that:
- Is expressed in a full sentence.
- Elicits differing viewpoints.
- Has been discussed by knowledgeable people willing to share their insights publicly.
- Is worth spending time discussing.
The best way to make sure students have good writing topics is to craft them yourself. That way you can be sure topics students write about are relevant to other required topics in your curriculum. Once you’ve taught the general plan, you should have no trouble thinking up a legitimate, class-related topic on which to have students develop a communication plan. However, if you’re still baffled by how to craft course-related writing topics, you may want to take a look at my books of ELA writing prompts, each prompt wrapped in a writing lesson:
- Ready, Set, Write: 20 writing prompts on ELA topics for teens and adults who are not yet competent writers
- Bullying Begins as Words: How verbal and nonverbal communication can promote or reduce hostility is explored in three sets of five prompts specifically for either not-yet-competent, competent, or proficient writers.
Ideally, the writing topics you assign should be interesting to a majority of students, but not to the same majority each assignment. If you have assigned three topics that each interested the same 75% of your students, you need to deliberately seek out topics that will interest the other 25% for at least a quarter of your remaining class writing assignments.
©2020 Linda G. Aragoni