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Vol 34 No 2, April - June 1996
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EFL Reading: An Outlining Technique
by Anna Maria Sola

Current EFL/ESL reading programs focus on developing students' reading skills, such as recognition of main ideas, supporting information, and organizational patterns. Some reading classes may include summary writing of authentic materials-academic texts and frequently, newsmagazine articles. A widely used classroom practice, is to involve students in pre-reading, while reading, post-reading, and follow-up activities aimed at promoting writer-text-reader interaction (Barnett 1989). Students are led to draw on their background knowledge, in order to gain reading efficiency and to understand the text more thoroughly. Among the post-reading activities, students are usually asked to write a summary or to outline the text.

Writing an outline in English is usually perceived by our students as one of the most difficult tasks. It is not unusual for many students who successfully process a text-guessing word meanings, drawing inferences, making predictions, etc-to fail to produce a well organized summary or a coherent outline. It should be pointed out that, on the one hand, research findings on the transfer of L1 reading strategies to L2 reading are not conclusive (Laufer and Sim 1982; Bendetto 1984, 1985). On the other, we lack a systematic teaching approach to outlining at both the secondary and college levels.

The purpose of this article is to present a technique I use in my reading classes as a consciousness-raising device to facilitate outlining-which may help alleviate some of the discomfort students experience when writing an outline of a text intended for native speakers of English.

Examining the "Outlines" section of college reading workbooks, we might notice that students are provided with excellent guided exercises to outline texts, preceded by the following instructions: After reading., write an outline , or Read.; Then write an outline. Obviously, students are expected to write the outline after they have read the whole text.

The assumption underlying the suggested technique is that during the pre-reading activities, the students can start forming a mental picture and jot down the skeleton of the outline of the article they are going to read. This can be achieved by analyzing the title and making predictions based on the information it provides.

Title analysis

During one or two sessions previous to the actual outlining of any text, considerable time can be devoted to title analysis. Working in pairs or in small groups, students are given a series of titles from articles on a wide range of current issues. The first step, after the students have identified the topic, consists of asking them to paraphrase the title, either in English or in Spanish. This is done to ensure clarity, particularly when the title contains figurative language or a cultural bias. Then, based on the information provided in the title, students write down the main idea they expect to find in the passage. (In most cases, the main idea is an expansion of the title.) As the students share their conjectures, the teacher goes from group to group monitoring, occasionally pointing out relevant information in the title which the students have overlooked, or helping them to narrow down the topic, if the one they identified proves to be too broad.


After the topic and the main idea have been identified, students will write down their predictions about the information, that the author is likely to develop in the text. These self-generated predictions will be expressed as words or key phrases.

The topic, main idea, and students' guesses about the information categories will then be written on the board, in the same random order that the students have given them, and each group will receive feedback on the appropriateness of their analysis. This means that information categories considered too far-fetched will be dropped and others may be deleted if students notice any overlapping. Occasionally new categories might be inserted.

As a last step, students will rearrange the main idea and the information categories in logical sequence, from general to specific, in topic outline fashion. At this point, it should be stressed to students that, in doing so, they are actually writing a skeleton outline.

After analyzing a few titles, students realize that standard information categories can be anticipated depending upon the subject matter of the article, (see figure 1 ).

Title analysis and predictions about information categories will now precede any text to be processed. As they read, students will underline in the text any information that matches their predictions. This procedure contributes to building up the students' confidence in outline-writing.

For illustration, I will reproduce the information categories predicted by students in connection with one of the titles I have used as an outlining awareness device: Young and Pregnant , by James P. Comer. There are two equally valid reasons why I have chosen this article. In the first place, its subject matter appeals to the students. Secondly, my objective was to show students that they are able to draft an outline based only on the title.

Upon analyzing this title students came up with the following information categories.

Title Young and Pregnant
Subtitle: none
Main Idea: Pregnant adolescents face many problems
Problems: -health
Statistics: number of pregnant adolescents:
-ethnic group
-social class
-per year
-age span
Reasons: opinions of:
Effects: -school dropouts
-early marriage
-single parenthood
Solutions: -by above groups
-by special groups

Once they read Young and Pregnant , the students modified their sketchy outline according to the information they found in the article. They changed the main ideas to "Reasons why adolescent pregnancies have increased." Under problems , the health and social class categories were deleted since they were not discussed in the article. The country category was altered to show the United States alone. The rest of the information from the article fit the remaining categories.

After students finish reading any text, they verify their predictions and make the necessary adjustments to the basic framework. An outline results from:

  1. Substituting the predicted information categories with actual information from the text.
  2. Adding specific information from the article that had not been predicted.
  3. Deleting information categories which were not discussed in the article.
  4. Re-arranging the sequence of headings or key phrases to fit the development of the topic by the writer.
  5. Numbering and lettering subordinate ideas and details.
  6. Expressing the ideas condensed in key phrases using complete sentences.
  7. Transforming the outline into a summary by linking subordinate ideas and supporting details with cohesive devices.


After analyzing several titles in isolation, as well as the titles of texts they read in class, most students report a gain in confidence about their (intelligent) guesses and claim to feel more control over a text. As students become more familiar with this technique, they seem to be more at ease with outline writing and quite deft at discounting irrelevant information, and visualizing organizational patterns and relationships between ideas. My classroom experience suggests that negative attitudes, or feelings of inadequacy toward outlining diminish considerably when using this technique.

Anna Maria Sola is an EFL professor at the School of Modern Languages of Universidad Metropolitana in Caracas. Her interests include vocabulary development and English materials design.



  • Adams, J. A., and M. A. Dwyer. 1982. English for academic uses. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
  • Barnett, M. A. 1989. More than meets the eye. Foreign language reading: Theory and practice. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Benedetto, R. A. 1985. Language ability and the use of top-level organizational strategies. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Reading Conference.
  • Comer, J. P. 1987. Young and pregnant. Parents.
  • Laufer, B. and D. D. Sim. 1982. Does the EFL reader need reading strategies more than language? Some experimental evidence. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, New York.
  • Mikulecky, B. S. 1985. Reading skills instruction in ESL. In On TESOL '84, eds. Larson, E., T. Judd, and D.S. Messerschmitt. Washington, D.C.: TESOL.

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Vol 34 No 2, April - June 1996
Page 48

figure 1

Subject matter: a new procedure, device, machine, or product.
Information Categories:
antecedents how it was devised
definitions for special or unusual words
researcher, company who devised it
description how it works; characterstics
applications professional areas or fields
comparison/contrast conventional procedures.
cost production, operation
advantages compared with conventional procedures
or products
possible disadvantages technical, economic ,etc.
marketing strategy description and results
author's opinion author's point of view
Subject matter: moral, social, or economic issues
Information Categories:
problem/dilemma identification, description
causes actual or potential
effects actual or potential
solutions actual or potential
statistics individuals and/or groups affected
experts' opinions about causes, effects, solutions
other opinions about causes, effects, solutions
authors' point of view about causes, effects, solutions

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Vol 34 No 2, April - June 1996
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