WHAT IS A CONCLUSION?
Before we learn how to write a conclusion we need to determine what a conclusion is.
A conclusion is the final paragraph or paragraphs in a piece of nonfiction writing. We can find conclusions everywhere from letters and reports to persuasive essays and speeches.
Conclusions perform many functions, many of which we will examine throughout this article. Fundamentally, they wrap everything up and finish a piece of writing or a presentation.
Unfortunately, conclusions are often the most difficult section of a paper to write. They are the final words of the writer on the topic and, as a result, play a crucial part in the lasting impression the writing leaves on the reader.
For this reason, our students must take time to understand clearly the functions of a conclusion and how they work. Time spent mastering the art of conclusion writing will be time well-spent.
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WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF A CONCLUDING PARAGRAPH?
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all formula we can teach to our students that they can use to write any conclusion. Conclusions perform several functions and these will vary widely from paper to paper. Some of these functions include:
- Restates a paper’s thesis and explains why it’s important
- Synthesizes the essay’s arguments
- Opens up new questions
- Addresses limitations
- Makes a call to action.
Not all conclusions will perform each of these functions. How our students approach writing their conclusions will depend on several factors, including:
- The conventions of the writing genre
- The intended audience and their motivations
- The formality or informality of the paper
- The tone of the writing.
Now, let’s take a look at each of the functions of a conclusion one by one, along with a practice activity for each to give our students some hands-on practice.
1. A Concluding Paragraph Restates the Thesis and Explains Why
One of the most common errors in writing a conclusion is to use it to simply restate the thesis. Though this is widely taught, it isn’t enough.
The student should also explain why the argument made in their thesis is important. This involves considering the more widespread impact of the thesis and its supporting arguments.
The conclusion should inform the reader why the thesis matters by answering questions similar to the following:
- What are the wider societal implications of the thesis?
- Does the thesis challenge a widely accepted idea or belief?
- Does the thesis have significance for how things could be done in the future?
To write a conclusion in this vein, it is helpful for students to compose similar type questions relevant to their thesis which they can then set out to answer.
These questions will vary widely according to the subject being written about and the genre being written in, but regardless, the conclusion should highlight the thesis’s significance to the wider world. This will bring context to the writing as a whole.
Practice Activity: Connect to the Wider World
To practice this, provide the students with a copy of a well-written essay suited to their level but with the concluding paragraph snipped out. Challenge the students to first identify the thesis statement, it should be in the essay’s introduction, and then to write a conclusion that connects that thesis to the wider world by explaining why it matters.
2. A CONCLUSION SYNTHESIZES THE PAPER’S ARGUMENTS
This is another very common function performed by the conclusion. While each body paragraph in the paper may correspond to a single specific argument in support of the central thesis, in the conclusion, the various strands of supporting arguments are woven into a coherent whole.
The conclusion is not the place to introduce new arguments or to simply list the arguments made in the body paragraphs. Instead, it provides a final opportunity for your students to drive home their main arguments one last time, as well as make connections between them to reveal a coherent whole.
Often, a conclusion will combine functions of functions 1 and 2 by restating the thesis, synthesizing the arguments, and explaining the wider significance of the thesis.
Practice Activity: Write the Conclusion First
Sometimes it’s helpful for students to think of the conclusion as the destination their writing is headed for. The next time your students have completed an outline for an essay, instruct them to write the conclusion first. In it, they should explore the reasons for their thesis and its wider significance and synthesize their arguments. This gives the students a clear focus for the preceding introduction and body paragraphs and gives their writing a clear direction to work towards.
3. A CONCLUSION CAN OPEN UP NEW QUESTIONS
We often think of conclusions as drawing things to a close. But there’s another way of looking at things. Often, through the process of making various arguments in a piece of writing, new questions will emerge naturally.
This often occurs when the central thesis is set in a wider context. We can think of the progression of an essay as moving from a thesis statement through evermore specific arguments that support that initial thesis statement.
To open up new questions in the conclusion, the student should then move from the specific to the more general, generating further possible lines of inquiry on the topic as they go. The effect of this type of conclusion is to spark the reader’s curiosity and further interest in the subject.
Practice Activity: Shift Perspective
For many students, writing this style of conclusion will require a shift in their understanding of what the purpose of a conclusion is. One good way to begin to shift that perspective is to encourage students to rewrite conclusions they’ve written previously in old essays. For example, they might shift the focus of a conclusion from a local significance to a global significance or from historical significance to contemporary significance.
4. A CONCLUSION PARAGRAPH ADDRESSES LIMITATIONS
This type of conclusion is most often seen in academic or scientific reports. In it, the student writer explores the weaknesses of the arguments they have made directly.
It’s perhaps the bravest type of conclusion there is! Students need to be careful not to destroy their own thesis in the process. A sentence mentioning the limitation, quickly followed by a sentence or two addressing the problem should be enough.
When done well, this strategy serves to strengthen the impact of a paper by dealing head-on with potential criticisms by making strong counter-arguments in the process.
Practice Activity: Poke the Weak Points
Students take a conclusion they have written already, such as one written for a previous activity. Then, set the students the task of rewriting the conclusion to address any limitations of the supporting arguments. To do this, students need to ask themselves:
- What aspects of my arguments are open to contradiction?
- How can I address those contradictions?
5. A CONCLUSION CAN OFFER A CALL TO ACTION
In a call to action type conclusion, the writer compels the reader to take a desired action or perform a particular task. The purpose of this type of conclusion is to persuade the reader or listener to do something.
Call to action conclusions work in many different genres including presentations, speeches, advertisements, and persuasive essays.
There are various techniques students can use to inspire action in their conclusions, such as appeals to emotions, the use of strong imperatives, or appeal to the reader’s or the listener’s self-interest.
Practice Activity: Blog It!
Blogs often use calls to action in the conclusions of their informational articles. Set your students the task of identifying several blogs on subjects that interest them. Students may benefit from doing this activity in groups.
Once they’ve identified some suitable websites, instruct the students to look at the conclusion of some of the articles.
- Can they identify any calls to action there?
- How do the writers introduce their calls to action?
- What techniques does the writer use to motivate the reader?
Challenge students to identify as many different motivational techniques and strategies as possible and then to make a list that they can then share with the class.
When students have become good at identifying calls to action, and the various motivational techniques and strategies, they can then write a blog article on a subject that interests them making sure to include a call to action in their conclusion.
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WHAT SHOULDN’T A CONCLUSION DO?
So far we’ve discussed some conclusion writing strategies by talking about things a good conclusion should do. Now, it’s time to take a look at some of the things a conclusion shouldn’t do.
The following list contains some of the most common mistakes students need to avoid making in their conclusions. This list can be used to help students troubleshoot their conclusions when they get stuck or run into problems.
1. Uses a Vague Thesis Statement
If the student is struggling to make a powerful impact in their conclusion, it may be because their thesis statement is too vague.
If this is the case, then they messed up a long time ago.
The first time the reader sees the thesis statement should be in the introduction and, because all arguments stem from that statement, a comprehensive rewrite of the entire paper will most likely be needed.
2. Opens with a Clichéd Phrase
When students begin to learn to write conclusions they often learn some stock phrases to help kickstart their writing. Phrases such as ‘in conclusion’ or ‘to conclude’ can be useful as prompts to get students quickly into the meat of their writing. However, overuse of such stock phrases can leave the writing feeling mechanical.
Ultimately, we want more for our students. If one of the purposes of a conclusion is to make a powerful impact on the reader, we must encourage our students to be creative and bold in their writing.
3. Doubts the Thesis
In the first part of this article, we briefly discussed the idea of addressing the limitations of the thesis and supporting arguments. This can be an effective strategy for students to use, but it can also be a risky strategy. Here, the student needs to ensure they don’t undermine their own stance.
When students are using this strategy, make sure they understand that addressing limitations is not the same thing as apologizing for the position held. A good conclusion is impossible without the writer actually concluding something; conclusions should end with a strong statement.
4. Contains Irrelevancies
Students need to ensure that every piece of information included in their essay or article is relevant to the topic and thesis.
One of the most common mistakes students make is failing to ‘kill their babies’. That is, they go off on a tangent in their writing, but are reluctant to remove the offending sentences in the editing process.
Often this happens because the student doesn’t want to throw out something they spent time writing, even if it’s completely irrelevant to the topic they’re writing about.
At other times, students fail to be merciless in their editing because they’re waffling to reach an assigned word count.
In this case, it’s important to remind students that to the seasoned eye of a teacher or examiner any puff and padding in their writing is obvious.
5. Fails to Address the Why?
As an article or a paper draws to a close, it’s essential that the reader feels the time they spent reading was time well invested. To achieve this, the student must answer the why? question satisfactorily. Students should make sure their readers leave their writing feeling like they have learned something of value, are inspired to take action or have new questions to research and answer.
Drawing the Curtains on Our Work on Conclusions
We’ve covered a lot of ground in our article on conclusions. We’ve looked at many strategies and techniques that our students can use to hone their conclusion-writing skills.
Now, it’s up to us as teachers to create opportunities for our students to perfect their understanding and ability to use these strategies and techniques in their writing.
While the ideas above will go a long way to ensuring your students are capable of composing well-written conclusions, with time and practice they’ll develop their own style and approach to the conclusion conundrum – and surely there can be no more fitting conclusion than that!
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Content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh. A former principal of an international school and university English lecturer with 15 years of teaching and administration experience. Shane’s latest Book the Complete Guide to Nonfiction Writing can be found here. Editing and support for this article have been provided by the literacyideas team.