Helping Intermediate Learners Better Understand Cohesion

Helping Intermediate Learners Better Understand Cohesion

                           Caroline teaching one of her previous LSA’s

by Caroline Leaming 2012


Cohesion is regarded by Halliday as ‘the crucial criterion to distinguish text from ‘non-text’ (Y. Liu & K.L. O’Halloran, 2009, p.368). Along with coherence, cohesion plays an important role of creating texture in a text (Halliday and Hasan 2003, p.17). However, based on my experience of teaching Japanese and Saudi students, cohesion appears to cause trouble to learners of all levels of English. These observations were also noted in studies concerning the use of cohesion with EFL students. Crane (2000, p.142) remarks that while Japanese students have a firm grasp on the theoretical structure of the English language, they ‘seem to lack the ability to coordinate functional usage of this knowledge with semantic patterning.’ Research also reveals that even advanced level, non-native speakers of English rely on a ‘restricted repertoire of features in constructing unified text’ (Hinkel, 2001, p111). Recent studies show how Arabic cohesion differs greatly from the conventions in English (Ahmed, 2010, p.218) and explains why my students in Saudi Arabia struggled to understand the importance of repetition and reiteration when writing or speaking in English. In Arabic, it is ‘considered good style to simply repeat the same word several times’ (Murcia & Olshtain, 2000, p.83).

What becomes obvious then is that cohesion in English follows different rules from many of our students’ native languages, therefore time invested studying cohesion in English should not be underestimated. It is for these reasons that cohesion will be considered in this assignment. This examination will pertain to the intermediate learner as this is the level in which the learning of these devices takes prominence. While linguists agree cohesion is essential to texture, the text-forming resources which are believed to constitute cohesion, differ between them. Hassan refers to cohesion in terms of the cohesive devices Theme, Information and Parallelism (Martin, 1992, cited in Liu & O’Halloran, 2009, p369) whereas Martin ‘introduces Collocation and Sequence of Tone but excludes Parallelism.’ Eggins’(2004) view that Cohesion is created from Referential, Lexical and Conjunctive Cohesive devices as well as the use of Theme and Rheme will be adopted for this study.

It should be noted that McCarthy (1991, p.2) warns us that ‘discourse analysis is not a method for teaching languages; it is a way of describing and understanding how language is used. With this in mind, the following section describes the various forms of cohesion. The final section explores problems students have understanding and applying these forms, and offers some suggested solutions that could remedy these issues.

Section One: Analysis of Cohesion

1.1      Conjunctive Cohesion

Conjunctive cohesion involves the use of conjunctions to create and express logical relationships between the parts of a text. Conjunctions act as a “cohesive tie between causes or sections of text in such a way as to demonstrate meaningful pattern between them,” (Bloor. T. & Bloor. M. 2004, p 97). According to Halliday and Matthiessen, (2004, cited in Eggins, 2004, p. 47) the three main types of conjunctions are Elaboration (for example, in fact), Extension (and, also, moreover) and Enhancement (next, likewise, hence, however). Conjunctions add texture by creating semantic unity in texts which makes them ‘unproblematic,’ (Eggins, 2004, p.47)

1.2      Referencing

Referencing allows writers to introduce participants, such as people, places, and things, and then ‘keep track of them once they are in the text’ (Eggins, 2004, p33). Three types of referencing exist. Homophoric refers to the shared information of a culture for example, the Queen. Exophoric refers to information from the immediate context of the situation. These two types of referencing contribute to the texts’ situational coherence (ibid. p.34). The final type of referencing, endophoric, exists in the internal texture of the text and can be categorized into three types; esophoric, in which the referent occurs in the phrase immediately following the presuming referent item. cataphoric, which refers to a referent that has not yet appeared, and anaphoric, which refers to a referent that has appeared earlier in the text.

1.3      Lexical Cohesion

Unlike other forms of cohesion, lexical cohesion is non-grammatical and concerns the relationship between words which are members of the same semantic set. Bloor & Bloor comment that these meaningful relationships between words help create cohesion when they are used together in the same short stretch of written English (Bloor. T. & Bloor. M. 2004, p. 87). Eggins purports that there are two kinds of lexical relations between words; taxonomic (words relate to others through class/subclass or part/whole) and expectancy (where a nominal element is linked with a predictable verbal element). Lexical relations analysis is a way of systematically describing how words in a text relate to one another and can be represented in the form of lexical sets or lexical strings. The importance of students being aware of lexical cohesion was proved in a study conducted amongst Japanese students of English which showed the considerable effect the knowledge of lexical cohesion had on their understanding of texts (Muto, 2007).

1.4      Theme and Rheme

The importance of theme in creating cohesion in a text is supported by Eggins who asserts that the theme/rheme structure of a clause is an essential component in the construction of a cohesive text (Eggins, 2004, p. 326). Theme is the departure point which the writer has chosen for a clause and typically contains familiar or ‘given’ information. Since the aim of this essay is to concentrate on the metafunction of texture, and in particular on its use to create cohesion, the interpersonal properties of theme will not be explored. Instead, the role of textual elements in the position of theme, such as continuity adjuncts and conjunctive adjuncts, will be considered.

Continuity adjuncts are mainly used in spoken discourse. When used as theme, they indicate a speaker’s orientation to the interactive continuity of their contribution (Eggins & Slade, 2004, p.84) and their response to what has previously been said. Examples include, yeah, oh, well. Conjunctive adjuncts are conjunctions such as so, but, and which act as textual theme when positioned before the first topical theme in a clause.


Section Two

Issues for Intermediate Students & Suggested Solutions

This section comprises the principal challenges hindering intermediate, adult learners from using & understanding cohesion and some suggestions for the teacher. Since cohesion can be related to both written and spoken discourse, the following offers a variety of both, indicated with either S (spoken), W(written) or B (both).

2.1    Conjunctive Cohesion

Problem 1 – Misuse of discourse markers

Intermediate students often overuse many discourse markers in oral or written tests, thinking it will gain extra points. However, they are often misused and in fact do the opposite in losing them points. Similar research has been noted by Anderson (1989) and Lindsay (1984) in Murcia & Olshtain (2000, p.206).

Suggested Solutions

Students need additional practice with incorporating discourse markers into their productive work. This can be achieved through:

  • (W) – Gap fill exercises in which the discourse marker is missing and the appropriate one is chosen from a selection. Gradually, as the student’s familiarity with their use grows, the selection is removed, forcing students to recall an appropriate discourse marker by themselves. This works well with analytical & visual students and students with logical-mathematical intelligences.
  • (S) – Giving students in small groups (2-3 students) a pack of discourse marker cards. Students have to start and continue a story using the discourse marker written on the card each time it is their turn to contribute to the story. This is excellent for verbal learners with interpersonal intelligences. The teacher gives students a topic based on the lesson’s context to make the story more relevant.
  • (B) – Cohesion Mingle: Students are given different halves of a sentence, one with a discourse marker, one without. Students find their correct other half. In later lessons, students are asked to write their own sentences on two pieces of card. The teacher collects them in, shuffle them, and redistribute them randomly. Students, once again, have to find the other half of their sentence. Bodily-kinesthetic & interpersonal intelligences respond well to this type of activity. My Saudi intermediate students enjoyed the challenge of making their own materials and being responsible for their learning. This is a technique I have used often in classes teaching conjunctions.
  • (W) – Cutting up short texts (stories, newspaper articles etc…) and asking learners to rearrange them in the correct order. This alerts them to the importance of cohesive devises for linking texts. Spatial intelligences are satisfied by this type of activity.
  • (S) – For visual learners, pictures telling a story are given out, mixed. Students should rearrange the story into a logical sequence and then tell the story using cohesive devices.
  • (B) – Nuttall (1982, p.82) suggests tackling cohesion issues by identifying problems and then asking questions in which the meaning of the cohesive items is made explicit. For example, the clause: The Scottish went there because…, would raise the question, Why did the Scottish go there?’ This may be challenging for some intermediate learners, but could be introduced initially with pre-made cards that students had to match. Gradually, the students write and make the cards which are swapped between groups. This worked particularly well with a number of intelligences in my Saudi class of intermediates such as, kinesthetic, spatial, linguistic, and interpersonal. They were split into teams and had great fun trying to catch the other team out with difficult questions.

2.2    Referencing

Problem 2 – Students have difficulty understanding references

English often creates ambiguity in terms of referential ties. E.g. Bob talked to Hans and then drove his car to Berlin (Murcia & Olshtain, 2000, p.131). Whose car was driven, Bob or Hans, is unknown. When a student’s L1 offers access to additional pronoun features such as gender to help them retrieve the antecedent more easily, students may have difficulty understanding references in English.

Suggested Solutions

Provide activities that ask learners to locate obscure reference and practice identification and utilization.

  • (W) – Give students in groups a place/ person/ thing mentioned in a text and have them work together to highlight with (coloured pens or pencils) all the references back to (or forward to) the place/ person / thing in a text. Repeat the process with another referent. Have groups compare their answers and discuss their results. This activity has worked well with my analytical learners and students with spatial, linguistic and interpersonal intelligences.
  • (B) – Encourage Ss to make reference chains for the main items in the text. Reference chains are used to show the patterns of the main participants in the text and their importance. Students then use higher critical thinking skills to discuss in groups what the intention of the author was when mentioning certain places/ people/ things more often than others. This will appeal to analytical learners and students with linguistic, spatial and logical intelligences. My Japanese learners especially were able to learn much from this type of referencing and would often use this technique in subsequent classes, regardless of the text type. They enjoyed being pushed to think outside the box, which is a skill they are often not encouraged to do at school.

Problem 3 – Distance between the referent and its antecedent confuses students

When referents and antecedents are placed far apart in the text, students’ ability to process the text might be slowed down considerably and students may need to read a second or third time.

Suggested Solutions

  • (W) – Reassure students that reading texts several times to search back for referents and antecedents is not a problem and that in real life, native speakers often have to reread things, as they probably do too in their own L1. If students’ affective filter is raised every time the teacher asks students to do this type of activity, they will not be productive in their learning.
  • (W) – Start slow. Introduce students to progressively difficult references by choosing texts in which the references become gradually further from the antecedents. This will slowly ease students into this type of cohesion and build confidence in their reading abilities.

2.3    Lexical Cohesion

Problem 4 – Unaware of the importance of repetition and reiteration in English

As mentioned previously, (Introduction) some languages do not value the importance of varying repetitions and using different synonyms.

Suggested Solutions

  • (W) – Ask students to identify lexical chains from a text to show how often, different words from the same lexical field are used in English. E.g. family – parents – mother. Students could then be asked to rearrange the chain based on semantic relationships. This exercise alerts learners to the synonyms & hyponyms and words of the same lexical field in a text and shows how important lexis is in creating a cohesive text.
  • (B) – Teach synonymy through Odd One Out games in which students must correctly identify which, out of 3 or 5 items, does not belong in that lexical field. I tried this activity with my younger Saudi learners with excellent results. I believe this worked especially well because a competitive element was added by having groups compete and discuss answers in teams.

Problem 5 Producing cohesive written text

Students struggle to produce cohesively written texts, often because they fail to see the cohesion in their own writing.

Suggested Solutions

  • (W) – Ask students to attempt writing parallel texts. Through contrastive analysis, the importance of the cohesive devices they use naturally in their L1 can heighten their awareness of their importance in English. Parallel texts could also be used as a reading exercise in which students are asked to notice and evaluate the differences in use of cohesive devises between their L1 and English. This would be especially beneficial to Arabic and Japanese learners in which the conventions of cohesion are different to that of English.
  • (W) – Give students a random mixture of sentences and challenge them to discover the connections between them and add appropriate cohesive devices. This will appeal to linguistic and spatial intelligences.
  • (B)In as Few Steps: Give students two random words and ask them to come up with and write/ say in as few steps as possible, a possible connection between them. Students should use cohesive devices to show the connections. This can be made more challenging if a competitive edge is added with other teams. A time limit could be set in which learners must try to come up with as many connections between words, using cohesive devises, as possible in under two minutes.



Taking the metafunction of texture, and concentrating specifically on the role of cohesion, this essay has analysed the different types of cohesion according to Eggins. As cohesion is a difficult area of English for even advanced learners to fully understand, this essay has set out to explore the principle problems intermediate learners face as well as to offer some evaluated solutions and activities.

Section Three: References

Ahmed, A.H. (2010). Students’ Problems with Cohesion and Coherence in EFL Essay Writing in Egypt: Different Perspectives, Literacy Information and Computer Education Journal (LICEJ), 1 (4), 211-221.

Bloor, T. and Bloor, M. (2004). Functional Analysis of English (2nd Ed.). London: Hodder Education.

Crane, P. A. (2000). Texture in Text: A Discourse Analysis of a News Article Using Halliday and Hansan’s Model of Cohesion. Retrieved on 20th November, 2012 from

Eggins, S. (2004). An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics (2nd Ed.). Great Britain: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Eggins, S. and Slade, D. (2004). Analysing Casual Conversation. London: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Hinkel, E. (2001) Matters of Cohesion in L2 Academic Texts, Applied Language Learning, 12:2. 111-132.

Liu, Y., O’Halloran, K.L. (2009). Intersemiotic Texture: analyzing cohesive devices between language and images. Social Semiotics, 19:4, 367-388.

McCarthy, M. (1991). Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Muto, K. (2007). The Use of Lexical Cohesion in Reading & Writing, 107-129 Retrieved on 19th November, 2012, from

Nuttall, C. E. (1982). Teaching reading skills in a foreign language. London: Heinemann Educational Books.

Thornbury, S (2006). An A-Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan.

Lesson Plan Download

Caroline Leaming LSA4

Published by Marisa Constantinides

I train TEFL teachers at CELT in Athens Greece and online - our main courses are Cambridge CELTA and Delta. I interact with educators from all over the world through social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and through blogging

4 thoughts on “Helping Intermediate Learners Better Understand Cohesion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: