We all want our students to produce coherent, cohesive writing. Since I first started teaching, I’ve asked my students to produce “coherent, cohesive writing.” Thing was, back then I could have clearly defined neither coherent nor cohesive, nor could I have effectively distinguished between the two concepts. But when we’re teaching—especially writing, but the other skills as well—it can be valuable to introduce these ideas to students, cohesion in particular.
In this post, I’ll define and differentiate these terms, and provide some quick tips for incorporating cohesion into your teaching.
First, some etymologizations: The verb cohere derives from the Latin haerare, to cling (which we also find at the root of the modern words adhere and inherent), and the prefix co-, meaning with or together. So to cohere is to cleave together or stick together. From cohere we get our two adjectives, coherent and cohesive. These and their respective noun forms, coherence and cohesion, have come to have distinct but closely related meanings, both related to language.
Coherence is a feature of ideas and how they relate to one another and follow from one another. The following text is incoherent:
HTML is the standard language used to create web pages. Combine the dry ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Dalí’s wife Gala modeled for many of his paintings.
Though the words are all used correctly and the individual sentences are well formed, the ideas are disjointed. If there is some connection in the writer’s mind, we have no idea what it is. Clearly, coherence can impact the readability of the text—indeed, unreadable text is often dismissed as incoherent—but it relates more to critical thinking and one’s way of organizing ideas than it does to language or writing per se. What is coherent for me may not be so for someone else.
Cohesion, on the other hand, is a characteristic of language itself. Scott Thornbury defines cohesion as “the use of grammatical and lexical means to achieve connected text, either spoken or written” (2006, p. 32) We can point to features of cohesion in a text. Consider the following sentences from Lewis Thomas’ “On Speaking of Speaking” (1983):
The changes in languages will continue forever, but no one knows for sure who does the changing. One possibility is that children are responsible. Derek Bickerton, professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii, explores this in his book, The Roots of Language. (p. 51)
We have a variety of topics—changes in language, children, Derek Bickerton, The University of Hawaii—whose relation to one another is not self-evident. And it’s more than just verbs and prepositions that show us the relationship between these things; many subtler features make up the texture of the language. One feature of cohesion is the repetition of the same or related words, in this case changes and changing, to keep us oriented from clause to clause. But to keep our language from becoming too repetitive, we use a great deal of ellipsis, leaving out words that can be understood from context. In this text, the changing refers to the changing of language, but we can leave this out because it is clear from context. Another key feature of cohesion is the use of pronouns and other reference devices—in the third sentence of this passage, this refers to the possibility that children are responsible for changes in languages. Discourse markers such as conjunctions and transition words are also important to cohesion.
So now that we know what cohesion is, how should we go about teaching it? As always, a lot of that depends on your teaching context and course objectives, but I’ll try to provide some all-purpose tips.
It’s a good idea to introduce the concept of cohesion and the term. I teach it explicitly from the upper intermediate level onward. Before that, students should already be getting acquainted with several of the features of cohesion even if they don’t know it by name.
One of my favorite activities to introduce cohesion is to take a text like the one above and quickly remove the features of cohesion, producing a text that looks something like this:
The changes in languages will continue forever. No one knows for sure who makes the changes in language. One possibility is that children are responsible for the changes in language. Derek Bickerton is a professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii. Derek Bickerton explores the possibility that children are responsible for the changes in language in his book. His book is called The Roots of Language.
Using this and the original, cohesive text, we have a lot of possibilities. We can perform a side-by-side comparison and consider why each feature of cohesion makes for a better text. With a more advanced group, we can give students only the incohesive text and ask them to add features of cohesion.
Although it’s most common to discuss cohesion in the context of writing instruction, it needn’t be limited to that context. In reading activities, it’s quite easy to incorporate awareness-raising exercises. The same can be done with listening, particularly to prepared and semiprepared texts like lectures or speeches.
I’ll only recommend dedicating one or two lessons in a course expressly to cohesion. More important is to develop an awareness in yourself and your students. As language teachers become attuned to, say, idiomatic language, recognizing that simply understanding all of the words in a text doesn’t mean that you can understand that text. We consider this when planning, selecting texts, determining when a word or phrase needs to be glossed. Likewise, an awareness of cohesion should become one of the many factors informing our planning and teaching.
In readings, force students to consider why the writer said awareness raising in one sentence, but switched to becoming attuned in the next. In listening classes, help them become aware of discourse markers and the various subtle ways in which we help our listeners understand how our text is organized. Help students to become familiar not only with the typical pronouns, but also subtler and more academic uses of anaphora and cataphora, such as phrases like the former and the latter, many of which, etc.
Thomas, L. (1983). On speaking of speaking. In Late night thoughts on listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Thornbury, S. (2006). An A-Z of ELT: A dictionary of terms and concepts used in English language teaching. Oxford, United Kingdom: Macmillan.