Basic Essay Structure: Introductory and Concluding Paragraphs


By Karen Christie, Ph.D.
Department of Cultural and Creative Studies
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology

Extended "discourse," such as class presentations or essays written as school assignments, has a particular structure arising from particular expectations and standards. Such structure, expectations, and standards vary across languages and modes. For example, the organization of information to be communicated through written English essays differs from spoken English presentations, presentations in American Sign Language (ASL), and essays written in French or Chinese.

Research has indicated that deaf students may not be fully aware of the audience expectations, cultural conventions, or standards by which their essay writing is judged. Like many nonnative users of English, deaf students may create essays which are viewed as having weak organization and a lack of flow. Specifically, one researcher has noted that the conventions for opening and closing academic essays differ significantly across various language groups, and difficulties are evident in these areas when non-natives begin composing essays in English (Kaplan, 1966).

This module focuses on two aspects of the development of a basic essay: the introductory and concluding paragraphs. It describes academic conventions and expectations in writing introductions and conclusions. The goal is to clarify the cultural conventions-audience expectations and the expectations of teachers-that must be demonstrated in order to be a successful writer.

The module also briefly delineates the writing of the thesis statement, the statement that includes the main point of the essay. Although thesis statements can be implied and can appear truly anywhere in an essay, it is suggested that basic writers begin with a directly stated thesis statement which appears in the introduction. As students become more experienced with writing and the purpose of thesis statements, they may demonstrate skill in communicating implied thesis statements or in incorporating thesis statements in the body of their essays.

In the Research Findings and Implications section of this module, a summary of studies which have addressed the above-mentioned aspects of essay writing is provided. In addition, the module offers Guided Practice in developing introductions and conclusions for various essay topics. Lastly, Action Steps are included which teachers can employ to support their students' learning of the cultural conventions of basic essay structure.

Major Considerations

1. Strings of communication, whether spoken, written, or signed, have basic rules for being used and understood. These rules are sociocultural conventions which establish expectations and provide structure for the information being communicated.

2. In addition to restricted access to linguistic features of English, Deaf students, like nonnative users of English, lack access to the cultural conventions for organizing their writing. This becomes particularly evident when one looks at their writing for academic purposes.

3. For some deaf students who have acquired ASL as a native language or primary language, these students may bring to the task of writing a different set of expectations for organization of information than what is expected for writing in an academic setting.

4. While deaf students tend to have a basic awareness of introductory and concluding paragraphs as part of the development of a basic essay, they frequently feel at a loss for any strategies helpful for creating openings and closings in written English.

5. Instruction in which students are given examples to analyze various approaches to writing introductory and concluding paragraphs, as well as direct teaching of cultural conventions, assists students in developing their essay writing skills.

Process Summary

Most written English essays follow a particular structure which instructors use to evaluate their students' writing. The basic structure consists fundamentally of three parts:

1. An introductory paragraph
2. One or more body paragraphs
3. A concluding paragraph

One of the purposes of the introductory paragraph is to house the main point of the essay. This point, or the thesis statement, often occurs at the end of the introductory paragraph. In addition, the point often reappears and is summarized at the beginning of the concluding paragraph. Support for and elaboration of the point appears in the middle, or body, paragraphs. The configuration below represents basic discourse structures.

Graphic with 2 levels: 1) rectangle at top labeled Discourse Structures, 2) under that a row of: a circle labeled ASL with an unlabeled diamond under it, a rectangle labeled Spoken English with an unlabeled funnel shape under it, a rectangle labeled Written English with an unlabeled vertical stack under it of an inverted triangle/rectangle-like shape/rectangle-like shape/triangle

This configuration illustrates three different discourse structures---ASL discourse, spoken English discourse, and written English discourse (see Christie et al., 1999). These structures are visual representations of the framework or schemata people use for communicating information. They also represent the expectations of the audience.

The first structure in the configuration shows that a person giving a presentation in ASL directly states the point or topic of the presentation at the beginning. This point is fleshed out, explained, and repeated in closing the presentation.

The second structure, which represents a spoken English presentation, in contrast, gets to the point much later. The speaker often will begin with a personal anecdote and give information to the audience which will lead to the points of the presentation. Thus, in this type of presentation, the speaker allows the audience time to think about inferring the points from information being presented.

The third structure shows that the point of a written English essay often occurs at the end of the introductory paragraph. The introductory paragraph is represented by the first triangle, which begins generally and leads to a specific point. The next two boxes are the body paragraphs. This is where the support for the point is organized. Finally, the conclusion is represented by an inverted triangle, showing a restatement of the point and a gradual fading of the specifics of this topic into greater generalities.

There are also a variety of "rhetorical modes" (types of essays) used in essay writing such as comparison/contrast, process, definition, and argument. Note that the topic of the essay and the rhetorical mode need to be compatible. The type of rhetorical mode will influence both the content and organization of the essay. Since basic essay structure is often taught using the modes of narration and exposition, these types of essay will be utilized in this module.

Following prewriting activities such as clustering and outlining (see the SEA Site module Reading and Writing in Content Areas), students will need to develop both the subject/topic of the essay and the thesis statement.

The Thesis Statement

While various "rules" abound for creating a thesis statement in basic writing and composition texts, a thesis statement is generally viewed as a sentence in which the writer asserts the main point the essay will make about the topic. (See also the SEA Site module Paragraph Structure.)

A thesis statement may be a statement that identifies the topic and indicates how the writer has decided to limit or focus the topic. The following thesis statement outlines the limited focus of the topic:

My most valued possessions are those which spark memories of significant past events.

Another type of thesis statement structure is used as an organizing guide with the inclusion of supporting points. These supporting points will be developed in the body paragraphs. The following is a thesis statement with organizing subpoints:

My most valued possessions consist of my photo albums, my postcard collection, and my box of mementos.

Finally, a thesis statement may be a broad identification of the topic which indicates the writer's opinion, such as the following:

The necklace my grandmother gave me for my 16th birthday is the most valued of all my possessions.

In creating a thesis statement, the degree of specificity used in the introductory paragraph of the essay may be a writer's prerogative. Since a similar statement may be used in the concluding paragraph to summarize the main point, students may use one type of thesis statement in the introduction and a different type in the conclusion.

In focusing on introductory paragraphs, it is clear that the cultural expectations in written English are that the writer introduce the topic or subject of the essay and then proceed to a statement of the main point of the essay. In introducing the topic, it is important that the writer engage the attention or curiosity of the reader.

Often, students are not expected to write a fully developed introductory paragraph in their first drafts of an essay. In these drafts, students should be honing in on their basic point and fine-tuning their supporting ideas.

The challenge of introducing a particular topic comes with a set of reader expectations. One way in which writers create introductions is to begin with a broad approach to the topic. For example, when introducing the topic of "my most valued possessions," one could describe the valued possession(s) of a number of people (for example, Elvis Presley, Hillary Clinton, or one's grandparents) before focusing on one's own possessions.

Another way to introduce the topic would be to offer snapshots of one's many possessions before finally focusing on the most valued possessions. Introducing this topic could begin with a description of funky things one owns or the most expensive things owned. This could lead to the most valued things one owns.

Sometimes, writers will create an introduction which leads to a shift in expectations. A long diatribe about all the worthless things that are cluttering up one's life may lead to an ending concerning the valuable things one cherishes most.

Some topics naturally lend themselves to particular types of introductory paragraphs. In content areas, students are often asked to create essays about topics in which they may need to write an introduction giving the reader background information on the topic. An essay about perceived dangers in American culture may begin with statistical information on violent crimes.

All of these various strategies may be used alone or in combination. In the aforementioned topic concerning dangers in American culture, one may also use questions or quotations related to this topic. Quotations may stimulate readers' background knowledge regarding the topic, and posing questions to readers gives them a sense of how they would approach the topic.

Langan (2001) lists various strategies for creating introductions. A number of strategies can be used in one introductory paragraph. An adapted list includes the following:

A. Begin with a broad approach to the topic and narrow it down.
B. Begin with an opposite idea you will develop or one that leads to a shift in expectations.
C. Give important background information or create a brief story.
D. Utilize surprising questions or quotations related to the topic.

Transitions and Thesis Statements

While students often have developed a thesis statement prior to the fleshing out of their introductory paragraph, thesis statements sometimes need to be changed to fit into the introductory paragraph. Frequently, a transition will assist the student in creating coherence in the introductory paragraph (see the SEA Site module Expressing Logical Relationships). Transitions also serve to alert the reader to the importance of the sentence. In the basic essay sample provided later, note how the "skeleton" thesis statement given in examples above has a transition which facilitates the flow of the introduction.

In writing a concluding paragraph, one typically begins with a transition, which alerts the reader to a statement summarizing the main topic or subpoints of the essay. The goal now is to lead the reader to a satisfactory closing. This occurs in several ways.

Frequently, a writer will recall the subpoints of the essay for the reader and hint at points beyond the scope of the essay. The paragraph below illustrates this type of concluding paragraph.

As you can see, my photo albums, postcard collection, and box of mementos are irreplaceable. If there were a fire in my house, these would be the things I would grab first. When I settle down, I should put them in a safe deposit box in the bank. Without these valued possessions, I would feel that parts of my life were missing and I would be unable to share them, and the memories they inspire, with my great grandchildren.

Conclusions to narrative essays often point out for the reader the lesson learned or the understanding achieved by the event recounted. The following concluding paragraph exhibits features of this strategy.

Thus, the confusion I experienced related to the number of laps I was swimming led to my most embarrassing moment. After some teasing by my family and teammates, the coach talked with me about how I could be certain about the number of laps. After this, one of my teammates always wrote the number of laps I had left to swim on a clipboard and had it ready for me to see. While I lost other races, none were ever again due to the confusion in lap counting.

Finally, a concluding paragraph often has a sense of the future about it-the next logical step to consider or a new topic that has arisen. An essay about how technology is being slowly accepted concludes in this manner.

Therefore, computers have sneaked into my life. Both at play, at home, and at work, I now depend on computers. Not only that, I am becoming more dependent on technological things every day. I guess you really can't stop technology from becoming an important part of your life when you learn how much easier life is with technological advances. In fact, this holiday season I may be buying a pager and a DVD player!

To summarize, the basic strategies for concluding an essay include the following:

A. Recall/summarize the subpoints.
B. Tell the long-term outcome or lesson learned.
C. Give a sense of the future.

Openings and Closings

The introductory paragraph and concluding paragraph serve as buffers-a slow preparation of the readers for the meat of the essay and the gradual moving away from the topic. In truth, only the thesis statement and the concluding statement directly address the topic of the essay.

An additional consideration in writing introductions and conclusions is the relatedness of the two paragraphs. While an introductory paragraph might consider valuable possessions one had as a child, the concluding paragraph might consider valuable possessions one may have in the future. Thus, a writer may strive to think about how the introductory paragraph and concluding paragraph work together. In this way, the student can view the essay now not as composed of various parts but, rather, as a whole.

It is a good practice for students and teachers to read a number of essays and analyze the strategies a writer used when introducing and concluding the paper. There are quite a number of other strategies beyond those presented in this module. "Model essays" written by former students as well as published professional essays are good sources of basic essays for reading and analyzing.

In reading below a sample of a personal example essay, you may wish to note the strategies used for writing the introductory paragraph and concluding paragraph. In addition, the thesis statement appears in these paragraphs in two different forms. It may be helpful to introduce the student to the diagram provided at the beginning of the Process Summary section and then analyze the sample essay together.

Type of Essay: Personal example essay
Assigned Topic: People you would like to meet

Desired Meetings

I've been fortunate to have met many wonderful people. I have had the chance to meet some elderly family members before they died and also some well-known people. When I was young, I met my great grandfather, which is nice because my mother talks about him so much. I've met I. King Jordan, who became president of Gallaudet University following the "Deaf President Now" protest. I've also met famous people such as Maya Angelou, former U.S. President George Bush, and Terry Bradshaw. However, three people I wish I could have met are Emeline Pratt, Zora Neale Hurston, and Laurent Clerc.

One person I would like to have met is Emeline Pratt, who was my great great grandmother. I have recently done some family history research with my mother and found out a lot about this amazing woman. I would love to be able to meet her to ask her about her life. For example, I know that her parents died when she was still young and she went to live with another family. I wonder why the other family didn't adopt her legally? How did the family agree to take Emeline and raise her? Also, Emeline had 10 children and moved a lot when she was in her childbearing years. I wonder how she did it and why they moved so much. Meeting Emeline Pratt would answer many of my questions. It would be interesting to get her views on her life and find out what she was like as a person.

Another person who would be fascinating to have met would be Zora Neale Hurston. Ms. Hurston, who died about forty years ago, wrote one of the best books I have ever read. The book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was not recognized as a great book while Ms. Hurston was alive. I would like to have told her how important her book was to me and ask her about how she wrote it. Often, when I read a book, I feel I get to know who the writer is. I would be curious to see if Ms. Hurston is like I imagine or if she was different. It would also be interesting to know what Ms. Hurston thinks about contemporary African American women writers such as Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison.

Finally, I think that most Deaf Americans would like the opportunity to shake hands with Laurent Clerc. I would like to thank him for agreeing to come to America with Thomas Gallaudet and tell him how much Deaf people, even today, appreciate him. Because Clerc grew up in France and later moved to the United States, I would love to chat with him about differences between the two cultures. Clerc also could share with me his experiences with Abbe de l'Epee, who founded the first Deaf school in the world, and Jean Massieu, the first Deaf teacher of the Deaf. I think that if Clerc allowed me to watch him teach a class of Deaf students, I would still learn a lot from him. I wonder what Clerc would think of mainstreaming, cochlear implants, and TTYs. Just meeting him would be a great honor.

Thus, the three people I would like to chat with include a family member, a writer, and an educator of Deaf people. These people reflect my interests and my love of history. All these people have been dead for many years. However, if they could come back to life for just a brief meeting with me, I think that would be a dream come true.

Strategies Used

In the essay "Desired Meetings," the writer used several strategies to introduce the topic and lead her readers to the thesis statement. The opening sentence "I have been fortunate to have met many wonderful people" is a much more general statement that the closing sentence of the introduction which mentions three particular people. Thus, there is an overall sense of beginning with a broad statement and leading to a more controlling statement-broad to narrow.

The writer then gives snapshots, that is, brief examples of various people she has had the opportunity to meet. These snapshots also provide a bit of background information about the writer and her interests. This use of background information, while not a prominent strategy, does allude to the type of people the writer will focus on.

The concluding paragraph of this essay offers a summary of the subpoints of the essay. The first sentence refers to each of the three people who appear in the previous body paragraphs. Clearly, it is also the sentence in the conclusion which relates most directly to the body of the essay. One could argue that there is a sense of the future about the ending of this essay even though it has a greater sense of fantasy.

Research Findings

In analyzing 600 compositions from nonnative English writers, Kaplan, (1966) noted that the paragraph development of these writers followed different organizational formats depending on their language background. One research study has shown that Deaf writers have some basic knowledge of discourse rules but apply them in writing less frequently than hearing writers (Marschark, Mouradian, & Halas, 1994). However, both Deaf writers and nonnative English writers with basic writing skills need to be specifically taught how paragraphs and essays are expected to be developed and constructed.

Ball (1991) reported that African American students typically prefer to use different organizational patterns for academic writing tasks than the organizational patterns American mainstream teachers expect and reward. Therefore, teachers with basic writers from diverse cultural backgrounds should also directly teach about the organizational structure expected.

Livingston (1989) studied the revision strategies of Deaf writers and found that teachers tended to ask Deaf writers for more information and indicated the need for additions and elaborations following their first drafts. In addition, Deaf writers were able to improve their initial drafts with subsequent revisions although the revisions seemed to be focused on grammar. Thus, Livingston suggested that teachers form their questions on students' drafts by looking at the writing from a whole (that is, discourse-based instead of sentence specific) especially during the initial drafts.

Bienvenu (1993), Bienvenu and Colonomos (1989), and Roy (1989) described the structure of an ASL lecture or presentation. Deaf students may follow this type of structure when writing their early drafts in English. One researcher (St. Clair, 1980) found that the written compositions of Native American students also used structures influenced by features of their culture's rules for storytelling or public speaking. For deaf students who use ASL, directly teaching an awareness of the ASL structure and contrasting it with the written English structure may be helpful.

Guided Practice

Action Steps

1. While students often find strategies helpful, an instructor can best assist a student by giving examples and explaining the purpose of these strategies (see the "Basic Sample Essay" section). Without understanding the purposes of these strategies, a writer may use them haphazardly. Basic writers often feel pressured into writing to prove what they know and disregard the fact that they need to write so that readers can easily follow their information flow and so that the essay communicates as a whole piece.

2. Before assigning a topic or guidelines for topic selection, review basic English texts to determine the type of essay you will expect students to write (that is, example essay, argumentative essay, etc). Clarifying the type of essay will assist students in their organization and thinking.

3. After you assign a topic or students select a topic, discuss the limitations of the topic. For example, "a point will need to be made and supported in 3-5 body paragraphs."

4. Give students time to think about the topic by discussion, making webs, outlines, or free-writing These pre-writing activities allow students to search for ways to limit their topic, group similar ideas, and create a main point (thesis statement).

5. Have students "talk through" their papers: retell the story, free-write it, or create a videodraft. In this way, students have the information they are planning to use already thought through. Thinking and writing at the same time often requires a lot of cognitive energy. In this way, much of what students want to say is already clear in their minds. Everhart and Marschark (1988) have shown that frequently the complexity of Deaf student's productions is greater in sign language than in their written productions.

6. If students are using a videodraft, it may be beneficial to show them contrasts between an appropriate ASL presentation and the structure of an English essay (see Christie, Wilkins, McDonald, & Neuroth-Gimbrone, 1999). In this way, a positive transfer of knowledge of discourse structure can occur across the presentation of information in two different ways.

7. Often, when students retell a story, create a videodraft, or begin their first draft(s), they do not include a formal introduction and conclusion. Familiarize them with the basic format of the essay and the general conventions for writing an academic essay. Allow the students to note the lack of introductory and concluding information included in their own initial drafts.

8. Have students develop several thesis statements in appropriate form from the main point.

9. Introduce students to examples of basic essays to read and analyze. Note the strategies used for introducing and concluding the essays. In general, students often feel that this introductory and concluding material is a bit "off the point" of their main point. Discuss the expected functions of introductory and concluding paragraphs.

10. Allow students to practice writing introductory and concluding paragraphs using various strategies. You may suggest that the students create one or more introductory and concluding paragraph pairs before discussing which pair fits a holistic reading of the essay.

11. Meet individually with students to discuss the early drafts of their papers. Often teachers' written comments are misunderstood or contain assumptions which could be clarified during one-on-one meetings. Refrain from grammatical correction in the early drafts (see Livingston, 1989). This often interferes with the student's ability to focus on the structure of the essay as a whole.