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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Writing Superhero Conclusions with the Phantom Endings Exercise

Students are taught that a closing paragraph should accomplish three things:

  1. Restate an essay's thesis
  2. Summarize main points
  3. Provide a finished feel

In response to this information, young writers often exhibit confusion. "Aren't I repeating myself if I copy the same content from the first paragraph? And what's a finished feel?"

Although well intended, essay writing practice is often unfocused, instead of a targeted way of addressing problems with conclusions. And while instructors commonly suggest that novice authors read more mentor texts, this is not a direct route to improving writing, much less constructing conclusions. So what's a more time- and energy-efficient way to give students confidence about writing conclusions?

Goals and Models

Phantom endings, an assignment I developed for high school authors, is an efficient 15-20 minute exercise that helps students compose stronger endings. Learners read an essay with the last paragraph temporarily removed, write their own ending for the essay, and then compare their conclusion to the essay's original. Before trying this technique, complete two steps with your students.

Step 1: Teach Your Students the Goals of a Conclusion

There are two options here. Provide students with a very clear description of a conclusion with Purdue Online Writing Lab's (OWL) Writing a Developed and Detailed Conclusion (OWL describes three goals of conclusion writing that were mentioned in the first paragraph of this blog post). In addition, Time4Writing's Writing a Good Conclusion Paragraph suggests that a closing paragraph demonstrate to the reader that the writer accomplished what he or she set out to do.

To provide your students with less structured, more creative options, check out Lila Chalpin's On Ending with a Bang Not a Whimper (NCTE login required). Chalpin offers six compelling conclusions that will leave the reader with a strong impression, such as "end with the meaning that the theme of a literary work has to contemporary man" and "end with a by-product or after-effect of an issue which has just been analyzed." She also provides an example of each type of ending.

Also check out pages 90-103 of Steve Peha's The Writing Teacher's Strategy Guide, which provides over 15 strategies for what he calls "happy endings." He also includes examples of unsuccessful essay conclusions.

Step 2: Focus on Conclusion Models

Give students examples of the types of conclusions you want them to learn to write: novels, short stories, expository essays, etc. But don't overwhelm them by assigning too many long essays to study. It's only necessary to have them analyze a few whole works so they can see how final paragraphs draw on earlier sections of an essay.

Linda Aragoni suggests teaching conclusions via "how do" rather than "how to," explaining that students learn better by actually seeing closing paragraphs at work and analyzing how authors have used them, rather than by taking notes on how conclusions should be written.

Now You're Ready for Phantom Endings

This activity requires copies of sample essays that are short and categorized by reading levels -- we want the students to focus on the conclusions, not deciphering the text. You can find sample essays at Monroe College's Examples of Five-Paragraph Essays and at Sample Student Essays. Print out some essays that you would like to use and cut off their closing paragraphs. Make sure to save these endings. You'll need them later.

Next, have students read the essays (with conclusions excluded) and write their own final paragraphs for the texts. They should use the strategies and techniques you went over in Step 2.

After they complete their own conclusions, hand out the original final paragraphs and allow students time to compare and contrast. They should focus on what things the author included in his conclusion and why, and how the original final paragraph does or does not work better than the one they wrote. Here is some models completed by my 11th grade students.

Benefits of the Phantom Endings Activity

Since endings are "one of the most difficult parts of papers to write" (according to UNC's Writing Center), students need methodical, focused assistance in order to craft compelling conclusions. For those reasons, the phantom endings exercise is a good place to start. Additionally, the activity:

  • Takes minimal time for students to complete and teachers to evaluate
  • Works with multiple genres
  • Involves learners in identifying similarities and differences -- a high-yield instructional strategy
  • Is one that students find enjoyable

Give it a try. If you have a different approach to teaching endings, I'd love to hear about it in the comments section.

Comments (4)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

I LOVE this! What a great idea! Or even have students write everything but the last paragraph, and have someone else write their conclusion... the possibilities are endless, and much more intriguing - sort of like everyone writing a paragraph in a story, moving it along.
I now want to try this myself- I've just got to find grownups who want to play along!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

This? Makes me so very, very happy. I struggled to teach conclusions both in writing and public speaking. I can't wait to share this with my former colleagues!

Richard Kahn's picture
Richard Kahn
Teacher trainer, English Language Fellow, Ibn Zohr University, Morocco

Ouch, you do realize that you are preparing your students to write the kind of essay that most university composition teachers spend an entire semester trying to get your students to un-learn? Those first year comp classes will very likely ask your students to show how others have seen the issue, and then suggest that it fails to account for the subjective or objective perspective of the writer (that is, personal experience or observation). The conclusion will not be recapping information but a resolution of the original idea and the new information. A real essay (see Montaigne) is not pounding the reader on the head with 3 reasons and then (since by then, the reader is stunned) telling again what she was clearly too dumb to understand the first time. Instead, it is a conversation between two, intelligent beings. Try that with your students and you might be surprised how much better they write when they use their conversational skills and are asked to listen as well as speak.

WGibbons's picture
WGibbons
J/S high LA and computer teacher Alberta, Canada

I am with Richard but for a different reason. When students know there is a "correct" answer then what ever they write is never good enough and they want the correct answer. How can they hope to complete with what someone else wrote?

I often have gr.9 students write an intro one day and then an ending to the same essay topic a different day. On a third day they write the body. Then they are free to make adjustments as needed.

Sometimes we write the body paragraphs, then a conclusion and then the intro. This shows them that they don't have to write the intro first. Many students find this a relief and it takes away the stress of essay writing.

Some fun topics I use are How to eat Spaghetti, My Super Powers, Convince your parents to let you have an odd pet-- skunk or hippopotamus or fly, etc., .

Essay Conclusions: A Kinesthetic Approach
I really like this approach for teaching conclusions and have helped my students attain great success using this. I found it years ago on the internet and made some modifications. Sorry I don't know where or the teacher who posted this.

Objective: Students
-will understand the essential elements of a conclusion.
-will write a coherent conclusion to an essay.
-will be able to identify the elements for a strong ending.

Materials: You the actor.

Lead-in: Stand in front of the class with my hand on her forehead, as though looking at an approaching train. Ask, "What am I doing?" After students comment, tell them I am demonstrating one of the essential elements of a strong conclusion; the writer must look to the future.

Procedure: I will use gestures to explain the four elements of a conclusion.

Use my hand to reach over my shoulder and pat my back. This represents the need to "touch back" to the main idea of the essay, as stated in the thesis paragraph.

Second, put my hand on my forehead and look right around to left to demonstrate the importance of looking to the future.

Third, hit my heart with my fist to signify the importance of going to the heart of the matter; What difference does it all make? Why should the reader care?

Finally, pull my arm back like I am about to let go of a slingshot while extending the other arm forward. This is the "zinger" or final statement that leaves the reader thinking, "Wow!"

After explaining the four conclusion elements, ask the class to join in and gesture along with me, "Touch back; look to the future; go to the heart; end with a zinger."

Invite the students to repeat the words for the actions, perform actions in rows, all boys, all girls, etc.

Assessment: Students can be assessed on the conclusions they write or rewrite using the 4 types.

I often ask for only 3/4. Sometimes I pick the 3, but mostly I let them pick 3 to use.

If you believe you originally wrote this or posted it please let me know.

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