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September 2012
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Teaching Coherence and Cohesion in Writing
by Belinda Braunstein

As a university lecturer teaching freshman composition, my duties include guiding students to write with clear organization and flow. Many of my charges struggle not just with staying on topic in their essays, but also with including text that clearly supports their writing goal, whether describing a cultural event or making an argument. Whereas cohesion is often explicitly taught in ESL and college writing courses, less attention is given to producing writing that is coherent (Witte & Faigley, 1981). Many of my students come to class with techniques for connecting sentences, focusing primarily on transition words, but they lack other tools for supporting the sense of the whole, as well as an awareness of how to recognize cohesion and coherence at both the global and local levels.

Using Joseph M. Williams’ text Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (9th ed.) as my inspiration and resource, I use one two-hour class period to help students recognize both good and poor coherence, a mix of cohesive devices, and the importance of addressing both in their writing.

I begin by explaining to students that the definitions of coherence and cohesion vary and are sometimes interchanged depending on the sources one refers to. What one source calls coherence or local coherence another might call cohesion. Thus, to be clear, the definitions I use for this lesson are coherence as a sense of the whole (also called global coherence or unity) and cohesion as a sense of flow (sentence to sentence, and paragraph to paragraph).

Techniques for Teaching Coherence
I have found that an easy way to communicate the idea of paragraph or essay coherence is to use Williams’ analogy of a jigsaw puzzle. Using PowerPoint, I show my students a picture of a jigsaw puzzle with an image of a large, smiling daisy on it. I explain how this puzzle represents a paragraph, with each piece representing a sentence. All of the sentences together should form a complete picture, in this case the flower. If one sentence isn’t contributing to this big picture in some way, it should be reconsidered. I then provide a new version of the jigsaw puzzle image, with one of the pieces part of a rose garden instead of part of the daisy.

I explain how this example symbolizes some of the writing errors I see, with one sentence in a paragraph focused on a related topic—roses and daisies are both flowers—but not contributing to the big picture of the daisy. Similarly, the jigsaw puzzle of just the daisy also represents an essay, with each piece a paragraph that contributes to the big picture or message the author wishes to impart.

The fun begins as students read and discuss three paragraphs―projected in PowerPoint or provided as a hard copies―that demostrate common errors of coherence. The first example has one sentence that obviouslyisoff topic of the main idea of the paragraph. I ask students to individually read this paragraph from a student essay about Mexican wedding traditions and identify the target sentence (italicized here), which they do without difficulty. We then discuss the paragraph as a class.

After the cake is served, a dance called The Money Dance begins, which is when the bride dances with all family members that are men and the groom dances with all family members that are women; right before they dance with the couple, the family members must pin a 20 dollar bill or higher to the couples’ clothing. The family members make a line waiting for their turn, usually taking 20 seconds to dance with the bride or groom. The food served usually has beans, tortillas, rice and meat, anything else added to the dish the couple wishes to serve.

The second example paragraph is more difficult, with a sentence that is on topic, but not supportive of the writer’s purpose. This introductory paragraph is from a student’s opinion essay on whether advertising is more beneficial or harmful in society. The target sentence has been italicized here but isn’t italicized for the exercise. Students read the paragraph and then discuss which sentence could be removed to improve the introduction and why they think so. As with the previous example, we then discuss this as a class.

Will Rogers once said, “Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don’t have for something they don’t need.” I really do believe that advertising does manipulate the way that the people in our society live. For that reason, I would have to say that advertising is harmful to society. It is also beneficial though I am leaning more towards seeing advertising as something that is harmful to our society. Advertising consumes our thoughts and our ability to have self-control over whether or not we need those objects in order to make us happy. Advertisements get to us, the consumers, because we are easily persuaded often to want the product when we really do not need the product.

The third example paragraph has a tangential sentence that is not on topic but is related to the topic of the paragraph. Like the prior example, it does not move the essay forward. It may be more difficult to locate. For this example, too long for this article, I use a long, descriptive paragraph from The Names: A Memoir, by N. Scott Momaday, with a sentence added by Richard Nordquist. Alternatively, instructors can use examples from their own students’ writing (with permission).

At the end of this practice in locating sentences that do not support coherence, students read a short sample essay to identify one paragraph that does not contribute to the purpose. They then take out their own essays in progress and are instructed to do the following:

  1. Identify the topic and purpose of every single paragraph. Write it directly on the essay or on a separate sheet of paper.
  2. Do you go off-topic at all in any paragraph? Underline or highlight questionable sentences.
  3. Does your essay have good coherence overall? Mark paragraphs that might need attention.

Techniques for Teaching Cohesion 
To introduce cohesion, I ask students to read two unlabeled paragraphs of nearly identical content but different construction. One paragraph offers old information before new, uses connecting words and phrases, and contains references to prior information through pronouns, determiners (e.g., this, that), and repetition of ideas with different wording. The other paragraph breaks all conventions of cohesion and thus is difficult to follow. After asking students which of the two paragraphs seems to flow better, we discuss why that is. They usually identify the connecting words first, and I point out any cohesive devices that they haven’t noted on their own. We examine examples of cohesion within paragraphs and then between paragraphs.

Once they have written down the elements of cohesion, we do a strip-story activity in class—that familiar activity in which students are provided the first sentence of a story, asked to add two sentences of their own, and then told to pass the stories around in small groups for additional sentences. The focus in this activity is cohesion, not coherence; although stories can wander, they must be cohesive, so students read what was written before their turn. After one round of writing, students underline the cohesive elements of each story and check with classmates. They identify which story in each group has the best flow and explain why.

To keep these concepts of cohesion and coherence separate, I then have a student read aloud the following paragraph from Style that has great cohesion but no coherence—to a humorous effect. After the first and second sentences I ask what the class expects to follow. As the student continues reading aloud, laughter usually spreads in the class, and then we discuss why.

Sayner, Wisconsin, is the snowmobile capital of the world. The buzzing of snowmobile engines fills the air, and their tank-like tracks crisscross the snow. The snow reminds me of Mom’s mashed potatoes, covered with furrows I would draw with my fork. Her mashed potatoes usually make me sick – that’s why I play with them. I like to make a hole in the middle of the potatoes and fill it with melted butter. This behavior has been the subject of long chats between me and my analyst.

Turning to their own essays again, students are instructed to do/answer the following:

  1. Underline all the cohesive devices in your essay.
  2. Are they all the same type, or do you use a variety?
  3. Is your essay “jumpy” at all? If so, make some changes now to give it good cohesion within paragraphs and also between paragraphs. Have a partner check your improvements.

In sum, my approach is to explain the concepts, have students practice recognizing examples and errors in writing samples of increasing difficulty, and then have them look for good models and errors in their own work. If the lesson is done well, students have tools for checking the cohesion and coherence of future writing assignments.


Williams, J. S. (2007). Style: Lessons in clarity and grace (9th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Longman.

Witte, S. P., & Faigley, L. (1981). Coherence, cohesion, and writing quality. College Composition and Communication, 32, 189–204.


This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of HEIS News, the Higher Education Interest Section newsletter of TESOL International Association.

Belinda Braunstein coordinates the English Language Institute and the Summer Bridge Program at the University of California, Merced. She works with both international teaching assistants and incoming generation 1.5 freshmen.


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Building a PLN on a Budget
Formative vs. Summative Assessment
A Glance at the Common Core
Teaching Coherence & Cohesion in Writing
Free Activities: Vocabulary
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