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August 2018 - Year 20 - Issue 4

ISSN 1755-9715

Cohesion and Coherence: Teaching Writing in English to Chinese High School Learners

Ji Lingzhu is an Associate Professor in Foreign Language Department, Taiyuan Normal University Taiyuan, Shanxi, P.R. China.
Qiao Jianyu is a freelance English teacher now.



This research is based on an earlier similar one done in 2015 by Qiao Jianyu under my guidance in another high school at county level. We are very grateful for the help of the teachers and students in the two middle schools at county level in Shanxi Province.



The book, Cohesion in English, published by Halliday and Hasan in 1976, introduced cohesion and coherence theory in a systematic way. Since then, the theory has been widely applied in teaching writing. In China, many researchers and teachers have often studied the university students’ English compositions. Those of high school students have been neglected since teachers and researchers think that they are just beginners, and it is already very good if they can get the grammar and spelling correct in their writing. Quite a number of high school teachers have not heard of the basic principles of the theory, let alone applying it in their teaching. Their writing ability in English is the weakest among the four linguistic skills, with almost no awareness of cohesion and coherence. The authors investigated the current situation of teaching and learning of writing in English in a middle school at the county level. Qestionnaires were used to collect the students’ and teachers’ ideas, and the students’ English compositions were evaluated. Based on the results of the questionaire and evaluation, we put forward some practical ideas to help the students and teachers to improve the present situation based on  the cohesion and coherence theory.



Writing is one of the basic skills that English learners should master, which can objectively reflect the students’ overall language ability and accumulation of different kinds of background knowledge. Compared with other linguistic skills, writing is often considered to be the most difficult one and last one  for students to acquire either in first or foreign language. Therefore it is a big challenge for learners to write a coherent and fluent composition. Maybe due to the poor English proficiency level, many students lack interests in writing, and sometimes they’re even scared of writing. When high school students write in English, many  of them only  pay  their attention to grammar and vocabulary and spend little time going over what has been  written down and thinking about how to organize their ideas, which results in inconsist and illogical organization. Therefore,  to help students write grammatically  and consistently in English  is an important and difficult task for high school English teachers.

Many linguists and educators have studied cohesion and coherence in students’ writing, and they have contributed a lot in this field.  Cohesion in English ( Halliday & Hasan,1976) became the foundation of cohesion theory. According to them, discourse and cohesion are semantic concepts. Cohesion should be the basis of coherence. And they put forward five basic kinds of cohesive devices: reference, substitution, ellipsis, conjunction and lexical cohesion.

There are mainly three purposes for this study:

  1. Raising the students’ awareness of cohesion and coherence in writing compositions in English  and assisting them to  learn some cohesive devices to express their ideas more logically.
  2. Reforming the  traditional ways of teaching writing in Englih and encouraging  the teachers  to pay equal attention to cohesion and coherence as well as grammar and vocabulary.
  3. Providing the high school English teachers with some practical advice to help them in teaching English writing.


Theoretical basis

A. Cohesion 

In general, when people read a passage, they can find whether it is a consistent whole or just a collection of some unrelated sentences. According to Halliday & Hasan,cohesion and coherence are very necessary and important in a text, which distinguish a coherent text from a collection of unrelated sentences. A text is a semantic unit.

Cohesion is the connection of the syntactic and semantic markers in surface structure of linguistic form, or is the relationship between one component and another that can be explained within discourse. According to Halliday & Hasan, cohesion is semantic relation which helps to make a text. They think cohesion is the most important factor to produce a coherent text and it is the basis of coherence. Any two sentences might be shown to have something to do with each other as long as their meaning is related, and sometimes some elements in the text needs to be explained by another. Cohesion just lies in where the meaning of the elements is explained. For example, if an element in the text requires making reference to some other item in the text, cohesion is needed.

Halliday had divided cohesion into two groups. One is grammatical cohesion,  including reference, ellipsis, substitution and conjunction. The other is lexical cohesion, including reiteration and collocation.

B. Coherence

In Cohesion in English, Halliday does not mention the word coherence, but he uses the word texture to replace it. In his opinion, the concept of texture can be explained as the quality of “being a text” and reasonable relations between sentences.

Coherence is a state where all the sentences fit together well so that they form a united whole. Coherence can be understood as the quality of perceived propose, meaning and connection of a text. The coherence of an article mainly lies in two situations where the meaning of each sentence should be related and the organization should be logically clear.

According to Halliday, cohesion is not enough to construct a coherence text. Maybe there are many cohesion devices used in one passage, but it is possible that the passage is not coherent at all. But using cohesive devices correctly will help to make an article coherent. Coherence refers to the continuity in meaning, which partly base on the cohesion of the text and partly on the readers’ life experience or the basic understanding of the world from reading and other experiences. When people are reading, they can see obviously and often quickly whether the passage is cohesive or not, but they cannot see whether it is coherent or not immediately.


An investigation of the present situation

A. Method

i. Questionnaire

In order to learn about the present situation of English writing teaching in middle schools, the writers distributed one questionnaire to 22 English teachers in Xinjiang Middle School in March of 2017. There are  14 questions in the questionnaire, each requiring one answer.  The purpose of the questionnaire is to find out the teachers’ attitude towards the importance of teaching writing in English as well as the importance of cohesion and coherence in writing, dominant ways of teaching, the teaching hours spent on writing, difficulties in teaching writing in English and ways to assess students’ compositions. The purpose is to find out whether the teachers combine writing with reading , listening speaking and grammar teaching etc, and whether they are trying to raise the  students’ textual awareness via the ready- made teaching materials in their textbooks.

ii. Evaluation of compositions

To  find out the present situation of the students’ use of   cohesion and coherence in English writing, 75 senior II students in Xinjiang Middle School were chosen as the subjects. They were asked to write a composition entitled my views on middle school students using mobile phones.

B. Investigation results

i. Results of the questionnaire





numbers of



% of



Q1. What do you think about writing teaching in middle school?

  1. very important          
  2. unnecessary
  3. less important than others  

D. not important









Q2. What do you think about cohesion and coherence in writing teaching ?

A. very important          

B. unnecessary

C. less important than others  

  1. not important





A: 4.5

B: 31.8


D: 9.1

Q3. In your opinion, a good writing ability is ________to other skills?

  1. of great help         B. of some help
  2. of little help         D. of no help





A: 4.5




Q4. Do you combine teaching cohesion and coherence in writing with improving students’ listening and reading ability?

A. always         B. sometimes

C. seldom         D. never









Q5. Will you arouse students’ attention to cohesion awareness when you explain the text to students?

A. always         B. sometimes

C. seldom         D. never









Q6. When correcting students’ compositions, you pay more attention to ________.

  1. accuracy of vocabulary

B. correctness of  grammar structures

C. coherence of the discourse

D. integrity of the content





A: 13.4

B: 68.2



Q7. Do you make comments on the cohesion and coherence errors when correcting students’ compositions?

A. always         B. sometimes

C. seldom         D. never









Q8.In the aspect of assigning compositions, you________.

  1. assign writings  regularly

B. don’t assign compositions regularly, but you assign writings now and then

C. simply assign compositions once or twice in one term.

D. never assign compositions









Q9. Have you spent time teaching cohesion and coherence in writing particularly?

A. always         B. sometimes

C. seldom         D. never









Q10. ________ is the most difficult for you in English writing teaching.

  1. Lacking course time

B. Correcting compositions

C. Lacking a suitable textbook

D. Motivating students









Q11. _______ is the most difficult for students to reduce the cohesion and coherence problems.

  1. Arousing students’ attention to cohesion awareness
  2. Learning different cohesive devices
  3. improving students’ logic thinking









Q12.Do you stress different lexical cohesive devices?

A. always         B. sometimes

C. seldom         D. never









Q13.In reference to grammar cohesive devices,  you pay more attention to________.

A. reference      B. substitution

C. conjunction    D. ellipsis









Q14.The main method you use to teach writing is________.

  1. explaining the text
  2. correcting errors in compositions
  3. reciting the writing mode
  4. practicing more









The table shows the 22 respondents’ (teachers) opinions on teaching English writing  in middle schools, and the data is analyzed in the following six aspects.

  1. Attitudes towards English writing and the situation of cohesion and coherence in writing

As the answer to Q1 shows, more than half respondents think writing teaching is less important than others (such as grammar, vocabulary, reading etc.), and nearly 10% of the respondents think writing teaching is not important. And of 22 respondents, only 1 thinks cohesion and coherence is very important, which takes up 4.5%.

  1. Relation between writing and other  linguistic skills

According to the answers to Q3 and Q4, 54.5% of the respondents think a good writing ability is of little help to others, and 16 respondents of 22 seldom or never combine teaching cohesion and coherence in writing with improving students’ reading and listening ability.

  1. Teaching hours

From responses to Q8 and Q9, 50% of the respondents simply assign compositions once or twice one semester, while only 13.6% of them assign compositions regularly once every three weeks or four weeks. What’s more, 16 respondents seldom or never spend time on teaching cohesion and coherence in writing in particular.

  1. Assessing

Responses to Q6 and Q7 reveal that, in the aspect of assessment of compositions, about 68.2% of  the teachers pay more attention to the correctness of grammar structure, while only 9.1% teachers focus on coherence of the discourse.  More than 60 % of the respondents seldom or never make comments on the cohesion and coherence errors in compositions.

  1. Teaching content and methods

As for teaching methods, the answer of Q14 show that only 22.7% respondents mainly teach writing via textbooks. And a majority of respondents seldom or never remind the students of cohesion and coherence when explaining the text shown by Q5. According to responses to Q13, among different grammar cohesive devices, respondents pay more attention to conjunction. Lexical cohesive devices are neglected by more than half of the respondents shown by Q12.

  1. The problems in teaching

Responses to Q10 reveal that 45.5% of the respondents think the most serious problem in writing is to motivate the  students. To reduce cohesion and coherence mistakes, more than half of the  respondents find the greatest problem lies in how to raise the  students’ cohesion awareness shown by Q11.

ii. Results of writing evaluation

After evaluating the 75 compositions, the author finds out that most students lack the awareness of cohesion,  and there are many cohesion errors in their compositions. The authors collect these errors and classify them into the following 5 categories: reference, substitution, ellipsis, conjunction and lexical cohesion errors. Among the 5  kinds of cohesive devices, students use conjunction most frequently, but they make the most number of mistakes with the use of conjunctions. Reference is also commonly used by students, and many errors are made in this aspect, too.. Although ellipsis is the least cohesive devices  used by students, a lot of errors can be also found in their compositions.

C. Analysis of composition errors

The following composition is a sample of the students’ writing. There are many typical cohesion errors in this composition. The sentences are numbered for the convenience of discussion.

         My View on Middle School Students Using Mobile Phones

S1. Nowadays, with the development of economy and technology, more and more people buy a mobile phone,even many middle school students.

S2.  Some think that it is helpful for middle school students to use a mobile phone, for we can look for some useful information through it.

S3. But others don’t think it.

S4. I think there are both advantages and disadvantages of middle school students using it, and we students should use it wisely.

S5. To begin with, we can contact our friends and parents wherever we want, making the relationship closer.

S6. Secondly, when tired of study, movies and music on the mobile phone can relax us.[6] And what’s more, we can use mobile phone to help our study.

S7. However, there are some disadvantages.

S8.  Many students spend much time playing games or surfing the internet, which is harmful to their study.

S9. Moreover, if they addict to playing games, and they will cost a lot of money on them.  S10. All in all, although we can benefit a lot from using the mobile phone, but we should try to use it wisely.


Errors of grammatical cohesion

a. Reference

Reference is the relation between an element of the text and another element it refers to. In order to avoid repetition in writing, reference is often used. The cohesion lies in the continuity of reference. It can be divided into personal reference, demonstrative reference and comparative reference. The following is a figure of different types of references.

Types of reference


personal reference

I, me, mine, you, your, yours, we, us, ours, she, her, hers, he him, his, they, them, their, theirs, it, its, one

demonstrative reference

This, these, that, those, here, there, now, then, the

comparative reference

Same, equal, similar, other, so, such, more, else

Many students focus on the ideas and neglect reference of the text, and they often use many inconsistent reference when writing English compositions. Look at the following example in this composition. In S2,“we”refers to the equivalent of the previous middle school students, they are inconsistent. So“we”should be replaced by“they.” Besides , many vague references can be found in students’ works. Here is one example of vague reference.

Faulty: Xiaomei told her friend Jane that she had got a punishment by using the mobile phone in school.

Revised: Xiaomei told her friend Jane that Mary herself had got a punishment by using the mobile phone in school


b. Substitution

Substitution refers to the replacement of one item by another. There are mainly three types of substitution: nominal, verbal and clausal. The following is a list of the items that occur as substitutes; the list is very short:

       Nominal: one, ones, same

       Verbal: do

       Clausal: so, not

In English writing practice, some students had no sense of using substitution,nor can they use it correctly in their compositions. The word“it”in sentence[3] should be changed into “so”, otherwise this is not a complete sentence. The word“so” is commonly used to represent a belief, an assumption, following the words believe, expect, think and so on. Here are some examples from other students’ samples.

Faulty: My younger sister likes my mobile phone very much, so I give one to her.

Revised: My younger sister likes my mobile phone very much, so I give it to her.

Faulty: E-mails are quick and cheap. So can the mobile phone messages.

Revised: E-mails are quick and cheap. So it is with the mobile phone messages.


c. Ellipsis

Ellipsis is the omission of the  item(word, phrase or part of speech) for avoiding repetition and achieve textual cohesion. It can also be divided into nominal ellipsis, verbal ellipsis and clausal ellipsis.

The ellipsis of subjects or objects happens frequently in students’ compositions, and many of them are wrong in grammar instead of briefing and shortening the sentences. In sentence[6], the subject and predicate of the subordinate clause should not be omitted, for the subjects of the main clause and subordinate clause are not same. So “we are”should be added before “tired of study”. Here are some other errors of ellipsis.

Faulty: We should use mobile phones wisely, if not to, they will do harm to our study and life.

Revised: We should use mobile phones wisely, if not, they will do harm to our study and life.

Faulty: Parents asked them not to bring mobile phones to school, but they weren’t willing...

Revised: Parents asked them not to bring mobile phones to school, but they weren’t willing to.


d. Conjunction

Conjunction is based on the assumption that there are in the linguistic system forms of systematic relationships between sentences. According to Halliday and Hasan, conjunctive relations can be divided into four types:

  • Additive: and, also, or, in addition, alternatively, furthermore, besides, similarly, likewise, for instance, in other words etc;
  • Adversative: but, though, however, yet, instead, at the same time, at least, on the other hand, nevertheless, at any rate, as a matter of fact etc;
  • Casual: so, consequently, as a result, because, for this reason, for, under the circumstances etc;
  • Temporal: then, next, after, that, finally, soon, after a time, at this moment, from now on, hence, forward, on another occasion etc.

This composition uses many conjunctions to make the text coherent, such as and, but, however, moreover. But some of these conjunctions are wrongly used. In sentence S7, “and”as well as “what’s more”both convey additive meaning. It is better to delete“and”in this composition. The word “and” in S9 should be deleted, for it is unnecessary in the clause. The conjunctions “althoug” and “but” should not exist in one sentence, so one of them, in S10, should be deleted.

  1. Errors of lexical cohesion

Lexical cohesion is the continuity that is constructed in a text by choosing words. It is the links between the content words. Lexical cohesion can be divided into reiteration and collocation.   Reiteration can often be achieved by using synonyms or general words. The cohesive effect of collocation depends on these words seem to share the same lexical environment.

It was found that repetition of the same word formed the largest percentage of use, followed by synonym and collocation. For example, in the sample composition, there are three“think”in the first paragraph, and it can be replaced by hold, argue, or contend to avoid redundancy and make the paragraph more cohesive.

Students often fail to notice the difference between synonyms, esp.those words with similar meaning in Chinese but very different in English. In S9, students use“cost” as a synonym of “spend”, but the usage of them is different. The sentence can be changed into “this will cost a lot of money”.



A. Raising students’ textual awareness

The organization of ideas and the ways in which the ideas are linked coherently in sentences are of great importance to a well-written text, but many high school students don’t have the awareness of the  importance of cohesion and coherence. It is responsible for teachers to drawthe  student’s attention to cohesion and coherence. Here are some suggestions based on the answers of the above questionnaire  and result of the evaluation of students’ compositions. First, teachers can raise students’ cohesion awareness with the teaching materials in their textbooks. Many teachers complain that there isn’t enough time left for them to teach English writing. However, the real situation is that they spend over 90% of the class time translating the text, and explaining the vocabulary and grammar, even asking the students to do some grammar exercises.

Our suggestion is that  when explaining the text to students, teachers shouldn’t only stress vocabulary and grammar, but spend some time stressing the organization of the text as well as cohesion in this text. The teaching of vocabulary should be conducted at the discourse level. Teachers can help students analyze those transitional sentences and learn how to use them in their writings. Teachers can also make full use of the text, and spend some time on raising students’ awareness of cohesive devices. For example, teachers could select a text with good structure and sentence sequencing and scramble these sentences and then ask the students to rearrange them. It would be helpful if teachers could provide the students with some assistance, such as asking them to look at some pictures related to the content of this passage.  The students can be asked to fill in the blanks of a text using correct words to make the text coherent with cohesive words such as conjunctions, pronouns, synonyms, antonyms and so on.

Secondly, teachers can help students to understand  the importance of cohesion and coherence in writing by comparing two versions of compositions, whose ideas are similar but the structure, sentence sequencing and the use of cohesive devices are different.

What’s more, combining writing teaching with the teaching of reading and listening is also a good way. Cohesion and coherence are also very important in teaching reading and writing, since either in verbal or in written discourse, logic thinking always exists. There are many studies on the application of cohesion and coherence theory in the teaching of reading,listening and speaking etc.

B. Doing some practice using the five categories of cohesive devices

By doing cohesive exercises, students can consolidate what they have learned and teachers can find out their problems  in writing. Here are some exercises connected  the five kinds of  cohesive devices.

Practice 1: Correct the following mistakes.

  1. He thinks a person should learn to make their own decisions.
  2. A few pod diseases will damage the beans if they are left to develop.
  3. I love poetry and I write some poems in my free time, showing to my teacher.
  4. That day we went into a big room, absent­minded and confused, then you were lectured.


  1. He  thinks  a person should learn to make his own decision.
  2. A few pod diseases will damage the beans if the beans are left to develop.
  3. I love poetry and I write some poems in my free time, showing them to my teacher.
  4. That day we went into a big room, absent­minded and confused, then we were lectured.

Practice 2: Fill the blanks with correct substitutes

  1. The girls in red over there were older than ____ you were playing games with. (those)
  2. ---Which is your bag?

 ---___in the corner is mine. (The one )

  1. She plays the piano better than she ____the guitar. (do)
  2. There are some apples, you may take ____. (one)


Practice 3: Rewrite the sentences using the knowledge of ellipsis.

1) If it is true, this will cause us a lot of trouble.

2) I’m thirsty. Are you thirsty?

3) ---You think Tom already know?

  --- I think everyone knows.

4) He is taller than I thought he was.

(The correct answers are as follows)

  1. If true, this will cause us a lot of trouble.
  2. I’m thirsty. Are you ?

3)---You think Tom already know?

   --- Everyone knows.

  1. He is taller than I thought.


Practice 4: Join the two sentences together.

  1. He studied very hard term. He got good grades .(He studied very hard term so that he got good grades)
  2. Girls have to stay at home at night. Boys are allowed to go out alone. (Girls have to stay at home at night while boys are allowed to go out alone.)
  3. He ate breakfast. Then he went out to play basketball with his friends. (He went out to play basketball with his friends after breakfast.)
  4. You cannot pass your exams. You work hard and you can pass them.( You cannot pass your exam unless you work hard)


Practice 5: Replace the words in bold form with their synonyms.

  1. We finished the work alone.
  2. Actually, this question is very easy.
  3. When she arrived in America, she suddenly felt lonely.
  4. in addition,using mobile phones is bad for our health.



Written texts target at the  readers. To have  effective and  successful communication , both cohesion and coherence are needed. In this paper, the authors try to introduce the basic content of cohesion and coherence theory to the teachers  and students in the secondary school English teaching context . Based on questionnaires to teachers and 75 sample compositions from senior two students, we analyzed  the problems existing in teaching English writing in high schools at the county level, and the errors from these sample compositions at lexical level and grammatical level.

Some practical advice is put forward to improve writing teaching in middle school  based on the cohesion and coherence theory and the results of the investigation. Raising the  students’ textual awareness is very important for them to reduce cohesion and coherence errors.  Firstly, teachers can make full use of the reading,listening and even speaking materials in their textbooks to help students understand the importance of cohesion and coherence. Seconly, teachers can combine writing teaching with the teaching of reading and listening. In reading class teachers should guide the students to the organization of ideas and different cohesive devices employed to see how they contribute to textual coherence instead of just summarizing the  main ideas of each part and some important details. What’s more, while evaluating students’ written work, teachers should pay more attention to cohesion and coherence, and make clear comments on errors in this aspect, instead of only correcting their grammar and vocabulary mistakes. In order to consolidate students’ knowledge of cohesive devices, the authors suggest some kinds of exercises for teachers. It is hoped that the application of cohesion and coherence theory can help to improve the quality of students’ compositions in English.

Cohesion is only one feature that good writings should possess. There are many other features of a good piece of writing, such as content, ideas, accurate spelling, meaningful punctuation, appropriate vocabulary, correct grammar, clear handwriting and format etc. Cohesion and coherence cannot solve all the problems that students encounter in their writing, they are just one of many issues in creative writing. to improve the students’ overall writing ability in English, teachers will have to work hard to guide the students in areas of  reading,listening, speaking, grammar, vocbulary,logical thingking and creative thinking etc.



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Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary course at Pilgrims website

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