Cohesion and coherence

Dec 1 / Katherine Moynihan

Delve into the realm of cohesion and coherence, often overlooked aspects in teaching. Uncover practical strategies to make these concepts tangible for students, elevating their writing skills beyond grammar and ensuring their words flow effortlessly.

Coherence and coherence are often ignored by teachers, probably because they’re hard to define and seem like a bit of a fuzzy concept. How can you teach something that seems so undefinable?
This also means that lots of students find it difficult to write well, even if their grammar is fine! In this blog, let’s have a look at cohesion and coherence, and examine some of the ways we can make them more concrete for students. 

Cohesion is how we connect ideas in a text to make them meaningful. It actually mostly related to language, and without it, any writing a student does can seem random, and probably repetitive.
Cohesion is achieved through language we call cohesive devices. Let’s have a look at the five main types (identified by Halliday and Hassan, 1976).
1) Reference: This is when one part of the text needs another part to make sense, it’s usually done with pronouns, articles and determiners. For example, “The author wrote that she was not an expert until recently.”
2) Ellipsis: when speakers/writers leave out language/ structures they feel is obvious. For example, “the first man was tall, the second (man was) short”.
3) Substitution: when a word is substituted for another, usually with one, do, so, not and same. For example, “Which hat do you want?” “The pink one”.
4) Conjunction: probably the easiest and most familiar! This is how we connect clauses, using words like and, but, however. For example, “Jessica lives in London and Michael is staying with her”.
5) Lexical cohesion: this is the way we use words to link themes in a text. It’s usually done with repetition, synonyms, antonyms, and collocations, as these create semantic (meaning) associations and help connect the text’s ideas.

Coherence is how a text makes sense (as obviously, if it’s incoherent, it doesn’t make any sense!). It’s different from cohesion in that it is not related to specific language devices, which makes it harder to define. It’s largely about how information is ordered and how readers’ expectations are respected.
We can see coherence at the macro (global) and micro (sentence) level.  

Micro level coherence is found in the following ways:
Theme and rheme
In English, we tend to try and put understood or known information at the beginning of a sentence, and anything we consider new or interesting at the end. This is very different to some languages (e.g. Japanese, which tends to do the opposite), and so students can find it really hard to understand (and teachers to explain!) why their writing seems unnatural or difficult to read.

Logical connections between sentences
When sentences connect, they usually do in one of the following ways:
1. Adding more information
2. Contradicting something
3. Giving a reason/ cause
4. Showing a time

It’s not always important to make this connection clear with words, readers often use the context to make it make sense.
For example, “Watch out! Thieves are about!” The second sentence explains the first, but the connection is not shown with obvious language like "because", as the connection is logical.  

Macro cohesion is usually found in these areas: 
Reader expectations
So, when we read something, we have expectations about how that piece of writing will look, don’t we? When I read a newspaper article, I’ll expect it to look and behave like all the other articles I’ve ever read before. If it doesn’t, I might get confused. Imagine if you read a newspaper article that looked like a poem! That would be very confusing, and you might give up reading it quite quickly. This means it’s important that a writer understands the conventions of different genres, in terms of presentation, language, information order etc. Otherwise, they might alienate their reader and make their writing seem incoherent.

Information order
English writing tends to order information in specific ways. Usually, we go from general to specific, from whole to part, from big to small etc. We also tend to keep all information in a paragraph related to the main idea of that paragraph, and don’t add extra or ‘irrelevant’ details. For example, in an essay, the introduction usually gives the general information about the topic, and then the rest of the text goes into more detail as it develops. Other languages can do this differently, so it’s important writers understand how to structure and order information so that they don’t confuse the reader. 

It's really important that teachers are able to explain and clarify these areas so that their students can get effective practice in them. Hopefully this blog has helped you understand cohesion and coherence in a more concrete way. Have a think about how you can start building up your students’ awareness and incorporating them into your lessons!
If you get your learners to work on cohesion and coherence, remember to tell us about it in the community!