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What teachers should know about cohesion

Introduction

Cohesion is the term for the quality of a text such that it appears as a single unit, not as a random sequence of thoughts or sentences. Cohesion is achieved by a number of devices or ties as explained below.

ESL students may have trouble understanding a text that seems to have easy words and concepts because they fail to identify the cohesive ties. Conversely, the teacher may fail to understand the ideas or arguments that the ESL student is trying to express because the student has not yet learned how to tie English sentences together clearly and naturally with the appropriate cohesive devices.

Mainstream teachers who have explicit knowledge of the following cohesive techniques will be in a better position a.) to help their ESL students understand the difficult texts in their coursebooks or found on the internet, and b.) to avoid problematic cohesion in their own worksheets and tests.

Backward reference

The most common cohesive device in texts is the backward reference to something that has been mentioned before. The technical term for this type of reference is anaphora. Three examples of anaphoric reference are:

  1. Use of a pronoun to refer back to an already-mentioned noun.
  2. Use of the definite article to qualify a noun that has been already been introduced with the indefinite article.
  3. Substitution of an already mentioned noun by a synonym or hyponym.

Here are examples of each:

Forward reference

Another common cohesive device is forward reference or cataphora. Here are two examples of cataphoric reference:

Ellipsis

Ellipsis is a third cohesive device. This is the omission of words on the assumption that the listener or reader will be able to supply them mentally. Examples:

Conjunctives

A final and very important device that makes texts cohesive is the use of conjunctives or adjuncts. These are the words that show how ideas are connected. For example: firstly, secondly, so, however, nevertheless, in conclusion, by contrast, on the other hand, etc.


Read a detailed analysis of the cohesive devices in a short science text. Or look at some extracts from examination questions with problematic cohesion.