Reverse Outlining for Finding Main Ideas

by David Hoffman

A common reading challenge for ESL learners is recall. With so much of our attention focused on the task of making meaning from grammar and vocabulary, it can be difficult to see the big picture – or main ideas – of an article or essay. An easy and practical solution is the reverse outline.

What is a reverse outline?

A reverse outline is a summary of an article or essay made after reading a published text. It has the same form as an outline that we would create while preparing to write a text ourselves. The key difference, of course, is that a reverse outline reduces a full, published text to a simplified outline. As we accomplish this, we filter out only the main ideas with their supporting evidence. This allows us to identify the main ideas and key support in the text.

How do we create a reverse outline?

When making a reverse outline, I like to suggest the following steps (for most word processing software):

1.       Read the article carefully twice.

2.       Note keywords and ideas in the margins.

3.       Look up any difficult, repeated vocabulary and note their definitions.

4.       Open a word processing document on your computer.

5.       Start a bulleted list.

6.       First, write down the main idea of the entire article at the beginning (hit “Enter” or space down – don’t worry about numbering yet).

7.       Note the main idea of each paragraph – (hit “Enter” or space down).

8.       Below each main ideas, note any key evidence that you find – authorities cited, numbers presented, examples given To create an outline form, hit “Enter,” then “Tab”to move this information to the right.

9.       Note the conclusion given by the author at the bottom of your document.

10.   Return to the top and format as an outline and name appropriately:

a.       Use “Thesis Statement:” for the article’s main idea.

b.       Use “Topic Sentence:” for each paragraph’s main idea.

c.       Use “Evidence / Support:” for the main support.

d.       Use “Conclusion” for the author’s final comments.

How do we use a reverse outline?

A reverse outline can be used not only to identify the main ideas and key support in an article, but it can also be used to create a summary. Once the outline has been completed, we just have to write a simple paragraph based on the most important information from the outline, remembering to start the summary with a sentence identifying the original author and title. For example, a summary could start with: In a recent article, “Reverse Outlining for Finding Main Ideas,” Hoffman (2020) defines and explains a reverse outline, how to make it, and how to use it. The following sentences would then relate the main ideas of this article, moving down the main ideas of the outline and using transitions like “Next,” “After that,” and “Finally,” to introduce the topic sentences for important paragraphs.

Another way to use a reverse outline is for the more advanced student looking to analyze a difficult text. Once the reverse outline has been created, the student can more easily identify the author’s rhetorical organization and begin to ask questions about why they used this particular order. An analysis of the article will help them identify the logical progression of the author, especially in opinion or argumentative writing, where the function of paragraphs is not always immediately apparent. For example, an author may begin with a story. Why? As students move through the rest of the outline, they will note key ideas that will somehow relate to the story, helping to give it context and clarity. Outlining these disparate aspects of professional writing can give powerful clues to interpreting implied meaning, especially once all difficult vocabulary has been understood.

Do you have any experience using reverse outlines? Do you use them differently? Let us know with a comment below.