Writing

Coherence and Cohesion – What Does it REALLY Mean?

Today, I want to talk to you about coherence and cohesion. Yes, yes, I bet you THINK you already know what it means… but this article might surprise you. In fact, I’m sure it will because, according to research that I will explain in a moment, even IELTS examiners don’t always fully understand coherence and cohesion. As you can see, then, it is a lot more complicated than most people think, so I’m going to spend a little time talking about what it REALLY means and how you can get a high score for that section of the IELTS writing test.

Ok, let’s begin our lesson.

What is Coherence and Cohesion?

Whether you take the IELTS academic or general test, in both task 1 and task 2 of the writing exam, 25% of your score will come from something called coherence and cohesion. This is the same value as vocabulary, grammar, and answering the question properly, so obviously it is very important. But what does it mean?

Generally speaking, coherence and cohesion means how well your ideas are linked together. Most people think of it as structure, but this is a little too limited and it is in fact a bigger and more complicated idea than that. After all, you could probably learn the basics of essay structure in less than one hour!

Perhaps we should first consider what those two words mean because they are not exactly the same. “Coherence” is defined in the Cambridge dictionary as “a clear relationship between parts” while “cohesion” means “the state of sticking together.” In my 2019 book, How to Write the Perfect Essay for IELTS, I explained that:

coherence means the connection of ideas on a larger scale, while cohesion means connection at a sentence level. You could think of it another way: coherence refers to your paragraphs, and cohesion is about how your sentences link together

So from that, we can gather that a high score in coherence and cohesion requires having your ideas put logically into paragraphs and having your sentences flow together in an intuitive way. It is about the organisation of ideas.

Taking a Closer Look at Coherence and Cohesion

Now we have a GENERAL idea of what coherence and cohesion means, let’s look at the IELTS band descriptors to get a better understanding. These are freely available on the IELTS and British Council websites, but actually they are quite difficult to understand, and this causes various problems. Many candidates and even IELTS tutors misunderstand the words used here, and that is hardly surprising. In fact, a 2008 study reported that IELTS examiners found it more difficult to mark coherence and cohesion than any other part of the exam, and this seems to be partly related to the language used. As such, I want to show you the descriptors and explain exactly what they mean so that you fully understand what is required of you.

When we look at band 5 for IELTS writing task 2, we can see it talks about the essay having “some organisation” but perhaps lacking progression. It talks about “inadequate, inaccurate or overused cohesive devices,” as well as repetition and poor paragraphing.

If we skip ahead to band 7, there is now LOGICAL organisation, CLEAR progression, mostly good use of cohesive devices, and good paragraphing. When we go above band 7, there is nothing really specific. It just talks about those same things being done in a better or more natural way, with few if any problems.

If we look at the band descriptors for task 1, which is to say a letter or report, the criteria given is basically the same, except that there is no specific mention of paragraphing. Thus, we can conclude that there are 5 important factors in getting a good band score for coherence and cohesion:

  1. organisation
  2. progression
  3. cohesive devices
  4. referencing
  5. (for task 2) paragraphing

Let’s look at each of these in turn so that we can understand how to improve our IELTS essays.

Organisation

First of all, let’s look at organisation. This means how your ideas are arranged within the essay. As I mentioned earlier, an essay that gets band 5 for coherence and cohesion will have quite limited or ineffective organisation. There may just be a very basic structure imposed upon the ideas in this essay. At band 4 and below, it will be extremely random and quite difficult to understand.

To score band 6 means having your ideas presented in a way that a reader could somewhat understand, and beyond that they will be more neatly divided. Let’s say you are asked to “discuss both views” for a certain question. Well, organising your essay would first require putting those ideas into paragraphs. Most logically, you would have one paragraph with one perspective and another with the opposite perspective.

You might be wondering why “organisation” and “paragraphing” are listed as two different criteria here. Well, that’s because by “paragraphing” we mean the intricate and difficult aspects of building paragraphs rather than just grouping ideas loosely according to their topic.

It is also why there is no real mention of paragraphing for task 1 even though you are expected to use paragraphs. In a letter or a report, the paragraphs are seldom structured with the same degree of complexity as a task 2 essay. Last week, I talked about “grouping data” for task 1 reports and I said that you can often split a chart or table or diagram into two parts and devote one paragraph to each. Likewise, for a letter, you would give one short paragraph for each main point. These are both examples of organisation.

Progression

Progression is a tricky topic, or at least it seems that way at first. As we saw earlier, band 5 essays typically lack progression, whilst band 7 ones have “clear progression,” and even a band 6 essay will have “overall progression.” But what does this mean?

I’m sure you know the word “progress,” which is usually defined as moving forward or developing. An essay, letter, or report should feature progress by guiding the reader from a logical beginning to a logical ending. For essays, we start with an introduction. This will set the topic and tell the reader what comes next. Then there’s the middle of the essay, which will logically discuss ideas or provide an argument, before this is all neatly summarised in a conclusion.

A report is a bit simpler, with an introduction that gives an overview, followed by the relevant details, whilst a letter tends to be a bit more complicated, yet at the same time rather intuitive. It starts with a greeting, then states the purpose, gives the information, offers some sort of closing statement, and then signs off.

Problems with progression tend to come in the introduction, where people make mistakes like having a first sentence that fails to set up the topic in an easily understandable way, or lacks a thesis statement or opinion, if one is required. Similarly, body paragraphs may fail to demonstrate progression if each sentence does not logically build upon the previous one.

Cohesive Devices

Cohesive devices… Right, now here’s a topic I love to talk about! That may sound weird, right? Well, it is an interesting one because there’s so much bad advice on the internet nowadays. In the band descriptors for both task 1 and task 2, for band 7 it says you must use “a range of cohesive devices” and that’s the source of all this trouble.  

Because of this, some unqualified teachers tell their students that they must use lots of cohesive devices. Likewise, there are some AI-powered marking programmes that claim to be able to assess your writing and these are always pre-programmed to accept a certain number of cohesive devices as a sign of a band 6 or 7 or 8. If you put the word “However” at the start of each sentence, they’d give you a band 9, but of course this is not how a language works.

The most important thing about cohesive devices, first of all, is that you use them correctly. As for the number of them, well, I would invite you to go and read some articles by professional writers. In formal or semi-formal writing, how many cohesive devices do you see? Not that many… and certainly not as many as you find in the average IELTS essay.

In fact, I encounter at least one essay each week that has a cohesive device at the beginning of each sentence. This is just too much. It sounds artificial and, instead of giving greater coherence and cohesion, it actually makes the essay weak and disjointed. This would most likely cap your score for this section at just band 5 as it clearly falls into the category of “over-use.”

Instead, a good essay will not NEED many cohesive devices. It will logically guide the reader by presenting relevant information through the aforementioned organisation and progression. Instead, you should just use a few cohesive devices when they are necessary or to stress a point. Good writers often them to introduce an example or to highlight contrast.

Note that cohesive devices are typically quite formal and so if you are doing the general IELTS test and you must write a letter to a friend, then you really don’t want to include words like “however” and “meanwhile.” It would sound quite inappropriate. You can swap these out for less formal words. Similarly, there are some informal cohesive devices used only in spoken English like “last but not least,” which should definitely be avoided in a task 2 essay.

I should also mention here that we almost never modify cohesive devices and that you should aim to use them with total accuracy. Two common problems that I see in people’s essays are mixing together two different cohesive devices into a new one and misusing cohesive devices by misunderstanding their meanings.

Referencing

When I mark IELTS essays, one of the most common pieces of feedback that I give is that candidates need to reference more often and more clearly.

But what do I mean by “referencing”? In the context of the IELTS exam, referencing means using one word to refer back to a different word or phrase. Most commonly, this means replacing a noun with a pronoun, such as in these examples here.

The main benefit of this is avoiding repetition, which is something that native English speakers hate. In other cultures and languages, it is perfectly fine to say the same word dozens of times. In English, though, it sounds strange and oddly unpleasant. That’s why we use words like pronouns and synonyms to avoid saying the same thing again and again.

Sometimes this means replacing one single word with another word, but other times it might mean replacing a much longer phrase or group of phrases. Sometimes you have several ideas within a sentence that you need to refer back to, and so you need to make it clear to the reader which of those you are pointing to. The difference between “it” “this” and “that” becomes quite important. Perhaps most of all, though, you need to think about whether something is plural or singular – in other words, should you say “this” or “these,” “that” or “those”?

Referencing is something that you NEED to master regardless of whether you do the academic or general test, and is equally applicable in task 1 and task 2. Next time you read an article in English, pay attention to how the writer mentions previous ideas and avoids repetition. It might help you pick up on some subtle methods you didn’t know.

Paragraphing

You probably knew already that an essay, letter, or report needs paragraphs. For a standard task 2 essay, we usually have an introduction, two body paragraphs, and a conclusion. For task 1 it can be a bit more fluid, but you still need to group your ideas together.

When it comes to the art of paragraphing, we need to keep in mind this rule:

One paragraph = one idea

That’s not the only rule, but it is the most important one. Your introduction has one idea, which is to introduce the topic and tell the reader what to expect. The conclusion serves the purpose of summarising. But what about the body paragraphs?

Well, a good IELTS essay will have paragraphs that are clear and obvious. If you’ve been asked to look at a problem and solution, you will most likely discuss the problem in one paragraph and the solution in another. When discussing both sides of an argument, you will usually have one side described in each paragraph. It is not particularly difficult to do.  

The harder part of paragraphing is what I call “internal paragraph structure.” This means how the various sentences in each paragraph work together to achieve unity – that is to say, to give the paragraph its singular meaning.

We normally start with a topic sentence, then have one or two sentences that explain the idea further. Depending on the content, we might then have an example, some details or a hypothetical situation, or a suggestion. It depends on the essay. Sometimes, we even have a concluding or transitional sentence at the end. It’s actually a huge topic to cover and I go into it in detail in this video here.

The key thing, though, is that each paragraph should have one idea and that every sentence within the paragraph should to some extent support that idea.

Overlap With Other Criteria

Before we review and finish this video, I’d like to add something that is NOT mentioned in the IELTS band descriptors. This is the fact that sometimes coherence and cohesion can be affected by your other English skills.

Think about it. Even if you took all of my advice in this video, studied the band descriptors, and learned the most amazing structures, you might find it hard to get a band 8 or 9 for coherence and cohesion if your grammar or vocabulary was really poor. That’s because big problems with language can reduce the clarity of your sentences and paragraphs. A few misused or misplaced words could mean that your sentences are very difficult or even impossible to understand.

In the previously mentioned study, this is one of the criticisms made. Every single examiner expressed some doubt over the marking of coherence and cohesion because they were unsure whether to categorise a problem as part of this or another IELTS marking criteria. In her excellent ebook, An Ex-Examiner’s Guide to the IELTS Band Descriptors, Shelly Cornick explains that big mistakes in language will make your essay impossible to understand, which would mean you could get a maximum of 6. She points out that the obsession most students have with so-called advanced vocabulary ensures they will get a poor score for coherence and cohesion.  

I mention this because it is important not to look at IELTS as a series of tasks you must complete in order to get a high score. Rather, it is an effective system for judging English ability. There is therefore some overlap between the different marking criteria. It’s good to know all about coherence and cohesion, but without levelling up all of your other skills, it alone would not be enough to save you from a poor score.

Conclusions

When it comes to coherence and cohesion, many people say “write four paragraphs and use lots of cohesive devices,” but as we have seen that is not a good enough approach. Coherence and cohesion is more complicated than that. It requires a good grasp of both language and logic.

In order to get better at this part of the exam, I would recommend doing several things. First of all, I highly recommend that you read lots of different articles and essays in English. As long as they are not too informal, they could help you to see how native speakers organise ideas, show progression, and substitute words to avoid repetition.

You should also look into cohesive devices, which are sometimes known as transition words, linkers, signposting language, and various other terms. Just remember that you shouldn’t use them for every sentence, and you MUST know their precise meaning and spelling.

Most importantly though, whether you are writing a practice essay or a real one, please spend some time to plan out your essay before you start writing. Most of what I have mentioned in this video could be more easily achieved by following a simple plan. Whilst this may seem like a waste of time to some people, it will help you do at least 3 of those 5 important things we discussed:

  1. Organise your ideas
  2. Show progression throughout
  3. Paragraph logically

Once you can do that, the cohesive devices will be easier to apply and then you just have to work on your referencing skills. With all that down, you’ll be on track for a great IELTS writing score.   

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' and the founder/editor of Beatdom literary journal. He lives and works in rural Cambodia and loves to travel. He has worked as an IELTS tutor since 2010, has completed both TEFL and CELTA courses, and has a certificate from Cambridge for Teaching Writing. David has worked in many different countries, and for several years designed a writing course for the University of Worcester. In 2018, he wrote the popular IELTS handbook, Grammar for IELTS Writing and he has since written two other books about IELTS. His other IELTS website is called IELTS Teaching.

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