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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.

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