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    Progym: Teaching Outlining Skills

    September 6, 2012 by Brandy Vencel

    Okay, before I get started, I want everyone to hold up one hand at eye level. Got them up? Good! Now, please pinch your thumb and forefinger together in such a way that they are almost touching, but not quite. Close your other three fingers as if in a fist. Got it? Now hold it and look at it carefully, because that is my disclaimer.

    That is exactly how much experience I have in teaching outlining skills.

    So why am I writing this post?

    Well, my number one reason is that I know how to outline {cool, huh?}. Number two is that I just taught someone else {a child no less!} and he totally got it.

    This is the celebratory post.


    So, I’m assuming all of us here know what outlining is? It’s when you take something you’ve read, and break it up into parts using outline form {don’t you just adore it when people use a word to define itself?}. This can also be done by pulling ideas out of your head, usually as preparation to writing something. I think we all know that I don’t ever do that, which explains a lot about the content on this blog.

    But I digress.

    My point is an outline. You know…like this:

    I.  First point
        A. Sub-point one
             1. Sub-sub point one
    II. Second point

    And so on and so forth.

    It is just brilliant to start with fables, might I add. No wonder the progym has 2000+ years of history backing it. Why change what works? Fables are so easy to work with!

    I remember being taught to outline back when I was in school, yes I do. I didn’t think it was that hard. But I remember there were some students who really struggled. And now, I think I know why. Every outlining lesson, even when I was quite young, dealt with what I was going to write. All by myself. Out of thin air. Now, I was one who enjoyed making up stories and such, but those who struggled weren’t like that. When we learn to outline using a fable–dealing with something already well-written by a great writer, such as Aesop–we cut out all the creativity/writer’s block barriers and simply learn…to outline. Because, you see, those students were probably perfectly able to outline, they just weren’t able to come up with an idea, for whatever reason.

    So as I said in my plan, for our first week, I did the work {trying my best to think out loud, and allowing him to ask questions along the way} and he watched. Basic modeling stuff. If I were feeling stuffy about education today, I’d say I was using the mimetic mode.

    Dum dum dum DUM.

    When I modeled the outline, he had trouble getting it. Why would I do such a thing? How was this helpful? What was the logic behind an outline? Because we wrote our future variations using the outline rather than the original fable, he very quickly understood how useful an outline could be.

    Knowing where to start is sometimes tricky when we’re beginning on new things. This is why I printed him out a copy of the fable rather than having him read from one of our Aesop collections {if you use the Student Book, it’s already in there–I only bought the Teacher Guide}.

    I taught him to draw a box around the separate parts {most fables have three or four parts} or sections of the tale. We wrote a number next to each box, and we wrote the corresponding numbers farther down on the page underneath the fable {because that was where there was room–goodness I really ought to take pictures of things!} and attempted to name each section.

    So, for instance, in The Ant and the Grasshopper, the first section we named “Grasshopper,” the second section we named “Dialogue,” and the third section we named “Reversal: Grasshopper is hungry in the winter.” These became our three main points of the outline.

    On a fresh page of his notebook, he began the outline. The first Roman numeral, then, was already done in advance! He wrote in “Grasshopper” and moved on to cataloging sub-points. That was the easy part. We simply went through the sentences and wrote out details, such as “in a field in the summer” or “hopping along.”

    The second Roman numeral was “Dialogue” {I had taught him what that word meant the first week when we discussed monologues} and taught him that in a dialogue, the A, B, and C points should each name who is talking. So the outline looked like this {it was virtually identical to the example in the Classical Composition Teacher Guide, but we weren’t using the guide at this point–always nice to know we are on track though!}:

    II. Dialogue
         A. Grasshopper
              1. “Come and chat with me”
              2. “Instead of working”
         B. Ant
              1. “I’m laying up food for winter”
              2. “You should, too”

    And so on.

    And then the third Roman numeral was the reversal section, like I said.

    When we first started, he said, “I don’t know how to make an outline.” Marking the fable physically into boxed sections helped so much–so much that I named it “Boxing” and made it an official step in the process. He suddenly could visualize how the story was organized {and I told him that fables typically have only three or four sections–it was like sharing a secret key} and take it from there. I did a bit of hand-holding for the first section, a little less for the second, and he did the third almost entirely on his own. I was there the entire time, of course, but I made sure I had something else to do so that I only helped if he really needed me.

    So, that’s my big idea: Boxing.

    My life will likely be all downhill from here.

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  • Reply Rachel Cueva January 5, 2020 at 9:51 pm

    You’ve got so many great posts on progym, but I’m having a difficult time following where you are now in this journey and what you do for composition. I love (and need) the step by step guidance like you offered for outlining.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 6, 2020 at 12:24 pm

      Funny enough, I’ve been considering taking up this project again, if I can find the time. This year, I started doing group lessons with three of my kids using a similar process to what I described with my oldest. I hope I can do this sometime soon!

  • Reply lindafay September 15, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    I wrote about the same thing this week, but am just now seeing this post. How did I miss it?

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts September 20, 2012 at 10:57 pm

      I think we only wrote a day apart or so. I saw yours and thought, “You know what they say about great minds…”


  • Reply Anonymous September 7, 2012 at 10:13 pm


    I’ve been reading your posts for several weeks now. (I found you through Ambleside Online.)

    Thank you for sharing this information. School begins in our home on Monday, Sept. 10th. I believe it is the 3rd week that we’ll begin Classical Composition’s Fable Stage ourselves. I am looking forward to adding “Boxing” as an aid to learning outlining.

    Also, I have enjoyed your comments on Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences. I have added it to my Wish List.

    Sharon in KY

  • Reply Rahime September 6, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    Great point about outlining being 100x (well, maybe not your exact words) harder to learn if you’re also having to come up with something out of thin air. I was one of those who HATED creative writing…I Always had writers block (still do most of the time) and didn’t really learn the Purpose for outlines until college. It would have been so helpful to learn to properly outline at a young age.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts September 7, 2012 at 9:43 pm

      The more I read about the progym, the more I realize what a shame it was that we ever abandoned the use of it. It makes *so much sense* and is so easy to teach. I look at how students are being taught to write these days and I am so sad for them!

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