Sometimes when reading a stack of student compositions, I’ll run across a section of writing that goes something like “My first car was unreliable. A car was ugly, too.” I’ll feel my attention start to drift, my eyes close…
I confess I have been known to put my head on my desk and drift off, only to be waken hours later by a family member. Not that the writing was so bad, but the lack of idea organization, coherence, and connection between those ideas, cohesion, is very tiring on the reader, who has to work to make sense of the passage. And the reader, after all, should be doing minimal work; it is the writer’s job to work to make the connections as clear as possible.
Some attention is paid to coherence and cohesion in student composition textbooks, which typically give lists of words and phrases like “however” and “in addition to” and their functions. However, the problem with coherence and cohesion in student writing usually goes beyond the lack of these simple words and phrases which are relatively easy to teach and learn—it is not very difficult, that is, to remember to put such a connecting device at the beginning of each paragraph, which is usually how composition textbooks address them. However, it is not the lack of these terms that wears on the reader. No, the lack of connections is deeper and more intrinsic to the writing.
Problems with Coherence and Cohesion in Student Writing
Lack of connections: jumping from topic to topic
In the paragraph quoted from above, the writer jumps from the car’s unreliability to its ugliness from one sentence to the next. Later in the paragraph, the writer picks up both topics again, again jumping from topic to topic. There should be some internal organization of the paragraph, with all the sentences on the car’s unreliability grouped together and then its ugliness, perhaps also ordering the ideas by importance, addressing the appearance first then building to the more important unreliability.
Lack of linking words
Linking words, or transitions, do have their place, in this case signaling the reader when moving from point to point and the importance of those points: “First, the car was ugly....The most important problem, however, was the car’s unreliability.” Providing such linking words guides the reader through the paragraph, signaling when the topic or subtopic is changing and in what direction it is going.
Lack of synonyms
Another “tiring” element in the sample paragraph beginning is the repetition of “car…car…” instead of varying with the vocabulary with “car…automobile...vehicle…Ford.” Using different terms like this actually creates more connections in the text because it emphasizes the theme, the main point, of the car, and tying sentences together in a way that continual repetition of the word “car” doesn’t. Suggest students use their word processing program’s thesaurus to check for synonyms, and this will expand their vocabularies as well create more cohesion to their writing.
Misuse of Pronouns
Pronouns can be misused or not used enough even by professional, experienced writers, who might make the mistake of writing something like “Joe stopped the car. Joe got out and popped the hood. Joe saw steam coming out. Joe closed the hood…” etc. This reads as choppy and disconnected. Much more fluid is “Joe stopped the car. He got out and popped the hood. Then he saw steam…” and so forth. Instead of constantly repeating Joe’s name but rather varying it with pronouns, a sense of connection across sentences is created.
Misuse of articles
In “My first car was unreliable: a car was ugly, too,” the article “a” was misused; the article should be “the,” because this is the second mention of the car, and the reader is left wondering if this is a different car the writer is introducing. Misusing articles this way is typical of ESL students as articles do not exist in a number of languages. Teaching students the correct use of articles, especially the use of “the” for the second mention of something, will help them create cohesion in their writing.
So these are some elements to create coherence and cohesion in student work: organization, linking words, synonyms, pronouns, and articles.
What are some methods to teach these devices? They follow:
Methods to Address Lack of Coherence and Cohesion
Look at sample essays
Look at the writing of someone like William F. Buckley in the classic essay “Why Don’t We Complain?” and note the progression from a hot train coach, where no one complained, to a movie theater and bad projector where no one complained, to complaining in general. The reader sees the connections and is not confused. Discuss how the effect was achieved.
Revise a paragraph
Read aloud a paragraph with coherence/cohesion problems, perhaps one you created. With students note its lack of organization, of transitions, of synonyms and so forth. Have students revise it for better cohesion and coherence.
Revise a peer’s work
Have students read each other’s work, perhaps aloud. When it is not your own work, it is much easier to note the lack of connections as it won’t make sense to you; you will have to work to understand. This is not the case with your own writing, of course, which you are very familiar with, and you can “see” the connections between the ideas even when they’re not actually on the paper.
Revise own work
After having revised sample paragraphs and peers’ work, students can now go back to their own papers and see them more critically, looking for the elements they have noted in their classmates’ work: have they grouped ideas? Used transitions and synonyms? Proofread their pronouns and articles? Give students a checklist of items they should look for in revising for coherence and cohesion.
Coherence and cohesion are often dealt with superficially in writing materials, often confined to use of linking words.
However, when readers compliment writing, they often say “It flows well,” by which they probably mean it has good coherence and cohesion. Teaching our students the elements of coherence and cohesion will help them connect their ideas better and make it “flow.”
Do your student papers demonstrate problems with coherence and cohesion? How do you address them?