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Vol 34 No 3, July - September 1996 Page 44 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT

Coherence and Students' Errors
Weaving the threads of Discourse
by Zahariah Pilus

Recent development in English Language teaching has seen a shift in focus from teaching individual components such as reading, writing, speaking, and grammar toward teaching these components integratively as they are being used in daily communication. This change in methodological approach subsequently affects the way teachers perceive learners' errors in writing. Teachers no longer view errors only as those which affect discreet grammatical, lexical, or structural items but also as errors that affect the discourse of a written text. In other words, teachers today are also concerned about a particular piece of writing communicating effectively and meaningfully by means of its coherence and its conforming to the expectations of its prospective readers.

My experience in teaching writing to pre-university students and undergraduates at the International Islamic University, Malaysia shows that incoherence is a recurring problem in the students' writing and can be a major obstacle to their success in writing classes. "I cannot follow your argument" and "I don't understand what you are saying" are just two of the comments written on students' papers to indicate the inability of the papers to be understood by their teachers. Unfortunately, unlike grammatical errors which can be easily corrected, errors in coherence are often more difficult to handle as they involve a chunk of units, such as a series of sentences or paragraphs. Because of the difficulties in correcting errors, students sometimes do not get sufficient insights into their errors. Teachers find it impractical to correct the whole erroneous section.

This paper was initiated because of the need for students to be made aware of and to understand what coherence is in their writing. Although initially understanding coherence is self-exploration, it will be beneficial to other teachers who encounter similar problems in teaching writing. This paper is based on the convictions that:

  1. Coherence is an area that deserves attention, for problems can easily arise from coherence or cohesion either in reading or writing (Dubin and Olshtain 1980; Cohen et. al 1979; Cook 1989).
  2. English as a second language (ESL) teachers may believe they have a sense of what incoherent means, but they often discuss coherence (and incoherence) with their students only in vague terms (Johns, 1986);
  3. As a result of the above factors, students do not have a clear understanding of the concept of coherence, often focusing only on errors at sentence level when asked to revise their own work or that of their colleagues.

Therefore, there is a need for a simple definition of the concept and examples of typical mistakes made in coherence. (see Footnote 1 ) This paper will be based on previous literature on coherence and illustrated with samples of students' errors.

What is coherence?

To begin with, coherence is not a well defined notion (Van Dijk, 1977:93). The vagueness in its definition may be related to the fact that coherence is an "interpretive process," created by the reader while reading the text (McCarthy, 1991:26). Thus, a writer always needs to predict the reader's response to his/her text. This task is what some learners cannot cope with. Despite its arbitrariness in definition, coherence can be generally viewed in two aspects: text-based and reader-based coherence (Johns, 1986). The former refers to the features associated with the internal structure of the text itself while the latter is associated with the meaningful aspect of writer-reader interaction. Within this framework, a text is said to be coherent if it fulfills the following conditions.

Text based coherence

Unity of ideas: An assertion made in a piece of writing should be related to all other elements. This simply means that each idea must relate to the main idea (topic sentence) of the particular paragraph it is in and also to other ideas in the same paragraph. The main idea of that paragraph is in turn related to the controlling idea (thesis statement) of the essay. There is an underlying thread weaving all the points in the entire essay as shown in the diagram below:

Figure 1

In this regard, the following example of a paragraph is incoherent.


Ever since its first existence, man has known power as the highest target. No one doubts that economy is the strongest weapon of total control. Singapore with the width smaller than Pahang for example, is actually the giant in South East Asia. It has an economic growth rate of 11 percent and foreign savings of 230 billion dollars. Man dares to do anything including begging and killing in order to fulfill his desire and sense of self love. Due to this very statement, I strongly believe that no illegal immigrant should be given citizenship in view of the country's development. (P1)(See Footnote 2 )

This introductory paragraph has not advanced any coherent background information in relation to the thesis statement that "no illegal immigrant should be given citizenship.." Although some of the points may be useful in providing background context, the connections between those points are not shown. The student should state clearly the reasons that make him or her feel that illegal immigrants do not deserve to be given citizenship. Is it due to social problems they have caused in the country such as begging or killing? Is it because it is a hindrance to the country's development? These and other questions have to be asked by the student to clarify his/her ideas in the introduction.

Another example is the following:


Apart from expenditure and environment, life without automobiles will decrease the number of road casualties. A country like Denmark where people of all generations ride on bicycles in the city has proven it. The road casualties could be decreased by not using automobiles. Furthermore, road accidents that are caused by bicycles have lesser degrees of serious injury. On the other hand, if a collision happens, for example, between a car and a lorry, the possibility of death, major injuries and handicap is higher. [It is also known that the rate of road accidents excessively increases during major festivals such as Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, and school vacation.] These examples clearly show that how automobiles can turn our lives into miserable ones. (U1)(See Footnote 3 )

In the above paragraph, the student inserts information (the rate of accident is higher during festivals) which is of no direct relevance to the topic being discussed. The digression diverts the reader's attention from the main idea for a while. In that sense, it is a problem in coherence because there is a lack of unity in points which requires extra effort on the reader's part to review the paragraph for a better understanding.

Organization of points: This aspect in producing a coherent text concerns the need of the points to progress in a logical sequence from the beginning till the end of the essay. An alternate or reverse order of the points can cause confusion to the reader as evident in the example below.


Advertising is a kind of business tool that is used by producers to attract people's attention to buy their products. Advertisements also seem like news of fashions, and styles. [Producers promote their products in magazines, newspapers, posters, and also through television and radio.] Whether we realise it or not, advertising brings more negative than positive effects. Our life is influenced by advertising without realizing that we are cheated by the producers who used advertisements to promote their products.(U2)

The sentence in brackets would be more appropriately placed at the beginning of the paragraph. With some adjustments made to the sentence in this case adding "through advertisement" to the sentence, (producers promote their products through advertisements in magazines.), the points in the paragraph are arranged in a more systematic order, that is from general to more specific ideas. The paragraph can also do without the sentence in question.

Meanwhile the following example illustrates another problem in organization:


Most magazines and periodicals survive because of advertisements. The people of firms that advertise provide the necessary finance to keep these magazines running. Both parties can benefit. The publishers get to carry on their business and the advertisers get to sell their roducts. [However, some magazines seem to lose their original purpose after a while because they carry too many advertisements].

For an employer looking for workers, advertising provides one of the most efficient methods to get them ________________________________________________________.

It is the same when people want to sell or buy houses, cars and other things. Through advertisements, they can come in contact ________________________________________________________.

In contrast, as useful as it is, advertisements are sometimes abused by unscrupulous people. Misleading the public is the most common form of abuse ________________________________________________________.

Since the above essay is constructed is such a way that the first half of the essay focuses on the uses of advertisements while the later half of the essay concentrates on its abuses, the sentence in brackets is thus out of place. It causes discontinuity in meaning and may mislead the reader.

Link and reference (cohesion): This concept is associated with the surface marking of coherence which signals the ties between sentences and points being made. It ought to be noted however, that cohesion is only part of the convention of coherence (Van Dijk 1985) for the elements of a text can be seen as "connected, with or without overt linguistic connections between these elements." (Brown and Yule, 1983).

According to Halliday and Hassan (1976) whose work comprehensively deals with cohesion, there are five main types of cohesive relations: reference, substitution, ellipsis, conjunction and lexical cohesion. I will limit this discussion to those areas in which errors are perceived to be causing the most problems to the learners. They are as follows:

Reference: These are expressions which make reference to other words in the text for their interpretation. They are obviously illustrated by third person pronouns. A third person pronoun can be used to refer back to a noun mentioned earlier in the text (anaphoric reference) or to refer to a noun which the pronoun proceeds (cataphoric reference).

The following is an example of a cohesive error in the third person pronoun.


Even worse is the third type of irresponsibility which is very dangerous to a large number of people such as the prime minister proposing an unsuitable policy to parliament and getting it accepted; [then implemented it in his country.] (U4)

The absence of "he" before "then" in the last sentence is an anaphoric reference problem.

Conjunction: Halliday and Hassan (1976, 226) assert that "conjunctive elements are cohesive not in themselves but indirectly, by virtue of their specific meanings."

In order to use conjunction competently, students have to know the semantic properties of conjunctive words which are categorised by Halliday and Hassan into four classifications.

Additive: And he filled in the leave form.

Adversative: But, John did not approve his leave.

Causal: Therefore, he resigned from his post.

Temporal: Then, he regretted his action.

The author's observation of the students' work show they rarely commit errors in using temporal conjunction but do commonly make them in the use of some additive, adversative, and casual relationships.

The typical types of errors are:

Using the wrong conjunction to signify a particular meaning. For example:


Firstly, it is a waste of time and a waste of money. When blood is taken from a particular person, the blood sample has to be sent to a laboratory and it needs a couple of days to get the results. The traveller may be only on a week's vacation and with this interruption, the traveller will face difficulties and regret the interruption. [On the other hand,] the cost of the test will not be paid for by the traveller. Instead the government will pay for the cost of the test and each test will cost at least RM $50 and if all the travellers are being tested, how much will the government pay?(P2)

Since the second supporting point in the paragraph "...the cost of the test." is adding to the first point, a more appropriate transition for the sentence is "In addition" not "On the other hand" as used in the text. The wrong choice of a transitional word though does not lead to a breakdown in communication, it simply disorients the reader.

Another example is the following:


Secondly, electronic media can give direct information and easily reach the consumers. For example, when we watch news on television, we can get quick national and international information. [Hence], information in print media is limited. It can give information only to those who read the newspaper or magazines. If not_____________________________________.(U5)

Instead of a causal relation, the student should have used an adversative conjunction such as "however" or "meanwhile".

Using the wrong form of the linking phrase occurs in the example below:


It will lead to a harmonious condition instead of a boring condition. [In the other side,] single occupancy vehicle users are more individualistic and do not care about others.(U6)

The use of "in the other side" versus "on the other hand" is less detrimental, for readers can probably still get the gist of the message. It nonetheless, interferes with the readers' smooth flow of thought because they have to stop to review the meaning. To this extent, it is incoherent.

Lexical cohesion: My observation of students' work does not find lexical cohesion a prominent problem as students do not intentionally choose words which are not associated with or are distantly related to what they are writing on. It is natural for any writer to use words which are semantically related when they are writing on a particular subject either in the form of collocation or reiteration such as in the use of synonyms. Despite not being a pressing problem for students, I found it is beneficial to highlight the link between the topic of sentences in the same paragraph. By writing the topical structure of each sentence in a paragraph on the board, students can see whether the points are interrelated or not and can observe the existence or nonexistence of an internal topical framework in that paragraph.

Reader-based coherence

This aspect concerns the ability of a text to be understood by the reader. Apart from displaying the characteristics discussed earlier, the content of a text must also be consistent with the reader's pragmatic knowledge or his expectations based on his world knowledge. Before a reader reads, s/he will have certain basic assumptions and expectations about the communication such as what is important and relevant to that particular discourse. For the reader to make the appropriate inference, the writer will have to conform to the communicative principles by being "informative, relevant and sufficiently clear" (Van Dijk, 1985: 113). In other words, the text must have a sense of connectedness and appropriateness in terms of form and content. In this respect, any text which does not follow its prompt (often said as being "out of topic"), or which advocates ideas perceived as not sensible by the reader, are considered incoherent. For example:


When people speak of drugs, they usually speak on its worst rather than the advantages. Usually, people know the effect of drugs and try to prevent their families from being drug abuses. And it is wise, that anti-drug education programmes should begin for children as early as the age of 10 in an effort to prevent drug abuse. In my opinion, drugs have bad effect and taking it can only risk our own life. And it is proper for kids to know more about drugs and their effects.

Taking drugs can make people around you avoid seeing you. Your friends will no longer be your friends to chat and laugh with. They will avoid you and declare that you are not one of their friends. And the worst is when your own family abandons you. And finally you're entirely alone in this world. You don't have friends or even relatives to rely on. It will make your life worse because in our lives we need someone to rely on. (P3)

The second paragraph (and indeed all the supporting paragraphs in the above essay) describe the negative effects of drugs on people instead of on the reasons for introducing anti-drug programs for children as early as the age of 10. This deviates from the main objective set by the question and it does not even support the writer's own thesis statement that "children should know more about drugs and their effects."

Let us take another example:


Mr. Ali is my grammar and writing teacher and Puan Zainab is my reading lecturer. Mr Ali is a handsome man. He always wear slacks, trousers and shirts when he teaches me. Without [ it ], he also smiles and jokes when my class. (P4)

"It" does not seem to have any referent. Even if "it" is substituted by "them" in which case the pronoun "them" would refer to slacks, trousers and shirts, the sentence would then be grammatically correct but semantically inappropriate as no reader would be able to infer that a teacher would come to class improperly dressed.

Conclusion and implications for teaching

In conclusion, coherence is an intricate notion consisting of a number of mechanisms either explicitly stated or implicitly embedded in the text. It concerns the meaningfulness of a discourse which leads to a successful interaction between the reader and writer of the text. The role of considering the reader and following some theoretical constructs for the text to be interpreted as coherent is what many student writers need to be made aware of. From post-composition conferences with my students, I have found that a misconception ESL students have is that if they write as much as possible on a particular topic the higher marks they can expect to get. They feel they need to demonstrate the depth of their knowledge to the examiner; therefore, they tend to include irrelevant ideas and deviate from the topic. When this occurs throughout the whole essay, it creates a web of confusion that teachers find difficult to disentangle.

Based on the above, I feel that more emphasis needs to be given to the teaching of coherence. Although students are taught the basic techniques of writing (writing topic sentences, thesis statement, paragraphing) in great detail, students are not able to apply the skills when it comes to actual writing. Thus, there is a need to revise or review these skills with reference to students' own errors. Johns (1986) provides a systematic approach in teaching coherence by breaking the lessons into three units: deconstructing the prompt and preparing a thesis, examining a thesis and the relationships among assertions in an essay, and examining the information structure. ESL teachers may employ similar strategies by using their own students' work as samples, for students learn better when they see how corrections are made on their essays.

Another indispensable issue triggered by this observation is in the evaluation of essays. Unreliability in grading is particularly inherent in essays which are superbly written with good points but do not answer the questions. Teachers sometimes have difficulty agreeing on the relative merits of these essays. Graders should use marking profiles which list the basic assessment criteria for evaluating an essay, notes on coherence in the "content" and "organisation" section should be explicitly stated. In this way, essays which do not adhere to their prompts would be dealt with accordingly, taking incoherence into consideration, and thus narrowing the difference in scores given by different teachers.

Although this paper shows that ESL students may not encounter problems in all aspects of coherence, it does call for a reevaluation of the ways coherence is taught in ESL classes and for emphasis on the role of the teachers to raise the students' awareness for producing a clearly communicated text. In most cases, this requires teachers to demonstrate to their students their errors and to seek clarification frequently from their students for ambiguous and vaguely written text.

Editor's note: All of the above examples of student compositions are printed here as they appeared in the original manuscript.

Zahariah Pilus is a lecturer teaching English at the Language Division, International Islamic University, Malaysia. Her interests include syllabus design and computer-assisted language learning.



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Footnote 1

These are based on my experience of teaching ESL writing for eight years in Malaysia.

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Footnote 2

Abbreviation: P = pre-university
1 = student 1

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Footnote 3

U = University
1 = Student 1

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