Wednesday, August 10, 2011

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What is Cohesion & Coherence? (Cambridge Testing Explained)

This post explains an important aspect of the marking structure of the IELTS exams.  Cambridge exams like IELTS, FCE, CAE and many others have strict guidelines about what makes a 5.5 or a 60%.  Here are the guidelines for marking/assessing IELTS Task 1 and IELTS Task 2 writing.

One of the columns is labelled Cohesion & Coherence.  This is one of the ways the writing is assessed: is the composition cohesive, is the composition coherent?  (Cohesion is the noun, cohesive is the adjective; coherence is the noun, coherent is the adjective.)  This is the focus on this post.

What is Cohesion & Coherence?

Cohesion and coherence aren't too difficult to explain.  Cohesion refers to connectivity in a text.  Coherence refers to how easy it is to understand the writing.

Cohesion & Coherence

"My favourite colour is blue.  I like it because it is calming and it relaxes me.  I often go outside in the summer and lie on the grass and look into the clear sky when I am stressed.  For this reason, I'd have to say my favourite colour is blue."

Cohesive AND coherent: Blue > Relaxes > Clear Sky > Blue (Photos from Flickr)
This sentence is both coherent and cohesive, but let's focus on the cohesion first.  I've highlighted the ways that each sentence is connected to the sentence before.

Cohesion with NO Coherence

Now, here is a sentence that has cohesion but is not coherent.

"My favourite colour is blueBlue sports cars go very fast.  Driving in this way is dangerous and can cause many car crashes.  I had a car accident once and broke my leg.  I was very sad because I had to miss a holiday in Europe because of the injury."

Cohesive NOT coherent: Blue > Sports CarFast Driving > Car Crashes > Broken LegHoliday in Europe (Photos from Flickr)
As you can see, there is plenty of cohesion here.  The sentences connect clearly together but if you read the paragraph, it really makes no sense - I start talking about blue and I finish talking about a holiday in Europe.  There is no coherence in this sentence.

Coherence with NO Cohesion

Now, let's take a look at a sentence that is coherent but not cohesive.

"My favourite colour is blue.  I'm calm and relaxed.  In the summer I lie on the grass and look up."

Coherent NOT cohesive: Blue - Calm & Relaxed - Looking Up (Photos from Flickr)
This is more difficult to understand but basically this lack of cohesion means a lack of sufficient connectors to join the ideas together.  If I try hard I can understand what the person is saying: a short answer, an explanation, an example; however the sentences don't fit together.

Cohesion & Coherence in Conversation

Are your conversations coherent?  Are they cohesive?
Now, in spoken discourse, the easiest example I can think of is a Cambridge First Certificate speaking exam, part 3: the students' conversation.  Two students are asked to talk about some pictures but if they do not respond to what each other is saying and make no attempt to reference each other then the conversation can be coherent but can completely lack cohesion.  For example:

A. "I think these people are having a good time."
B. "It appears these people are enjoying themselves."
A. "They seem to be on holiday."
B. "It looks like they are on vacation."

Obviously there is no connection between A and B in this conversation.  We understand them and they are coherent.  What is missing is cohesion.  They are not connected.  A is not listening to B and B is not listening to A.

On the other hand, take a look at this example:

A. "I think these people are having a good time."
B. "Time is difficult to manage.  I am always late for my social appointments like when I have a date with a girl."
A. "I like girls with long, dark hair and brown eyes."
B. "My dog has brown eyes and a long tail."
etc, etc.

This example shows that there is cohesion but the conversation makes no sense and therefore it is missing coherence.

Next time you are looking at a piece of writing; a newspaper, an essay you wrote, another student's essay, a web article like this one, you should consider the cohesion and coherence of the composition.  It is worth 25% of your IELTS mark and it is an important factor in the other Cambridge exams as well.

Hope this helps you.  Comments are welcome.

44 comments:

  1. Hi Gordon! I found this webpage by chance and it was very useful for me as I'm preparing this topic for college. I assisted to your seminar in GualeguaychĂș, Entre Rios, Argentina two years ago I think. THANK YOU VERY MUCH for your great dedication to teaching! I truly think I'm going to you as a model once I get my degree as a teacher. :)

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  2. Yes, the seminar was two years ago now. It feels like a lifetime! Thank you for your encouraging words and good luck teaching once you finish your degree!

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  3. Nicely organized and examples are excellent!!!i must say u r indeed a very good teacher.

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  4. Very helpful and easy to understand thanks to your examples and illustrations.

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  5. good article easy to understand even for the laymen

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  6. Very helpful. It described clear difference of the two cocepts.

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  7. This was excellent. Thank you! :)

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  8. great, thank you!

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  9. They say that the green dye used in St. Patrick’s Day beer is carcinogenic. I’ve been served green eggs, but no one yet has ever offered me green ham. My wife doesn’t care for Dr. Seuss; she says that his illustrations are degenerate. You’ve provided us with a clear, concise and well illustrated explanation of coherence and cohesion; thank you. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxxXLUeRECs

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  10. I'm currently studying English Language Unit 2 and I had been struggling with all this metalanguage being thrown around. The imagery you used really helped me understand the differences between the two and what they actually mean. Thanks!

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  11. This is one of the nicest i have read... Thanks a lot

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  12. This topic was not been discuss in our school . Thanks a lot .

    You're a nice teacher .

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  13. Thanks for this explanation of cohesion and coherence, especially how you show one without the other. It's very clear and I'll be adapting what I read here and using it for the IELTS classes that I teach. Cheers!

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  14. By chance, I entered this site....The way you have explained things is really systematic...Good work...Keep it up...)))

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  15. At least your explanation is both coherent and cohesive. Thanks.

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  16. your teaching was cohesive and coherent.

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  17. I turned NET upside down to find easy way to explain coherence and cohesion to my students.No result. Downloaded lots of material including PPP but i myself had some doubts. Your explanations are the simplest and examples make them easy to understand. Thank you very-very much!

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  18. How about cohesiveness?

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  19. To be honest, I think I would say cohesiveness and cohesion are basically the same thing.

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  20. I would like to one day be such a competent teacher. thanks great explanation

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  21. nice, thank you so much for this awesome explanation :)

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  22. Mr. Gordon, Thank You so much! ^_^

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  23. Mr. Gordon, Thank you so much!

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  24. thankyou so much for nice writings, it helps my assigmnet :)

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  25. Awesome Explanation. Thanks Man!!

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  26. gotta love this. It's really easy to understand! Thank you so much!

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  27. Thanks for your good explanation! I liked it.

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  28. finally found the best article which describes this topic well.. thanks..

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  29. yeah.. in fact, i searched cc a lot but couldn't get the idea for which i was looking. this stuff made it very clear to me .
    thank you :)

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  30. its good but i think those topics are similar

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  31. Great and smart explanation ... thanks

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  32. I found it useful. It is easier to understand. Thanks

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  33. Thank you very much.
    you are really a teacher of English

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