What teachers should know about cohesion

This page has information about cohesion and its relevance for ESL students in what they read and write in their various mainstream subject classes.


Cohesion is the term for the quality of a text such that it appears as a single unit, not as a random sequence of thoughts or sentences. Cohesion is achieved by a number of devices or ties as explained below.

ESL students may have trouble understanding a text that seems to have easy words and concepts because they fail to identify the cohesive ties. Conversely, the teacher may fail to understand the ideas or arguments that the ESL student is trying to express because the student has not yet learned how to tie English sentences together clearly and naturally with the appropriate cohesive devices.

Backward reference

The most common cohesive device in texts is the backward reference to something that has been mentioned before. The technical term for this type of reference is anaphora. Three examples of anaphoric reference are:

  1. Use of a pronoun to refer back to an already-mentioned noun.
  2. Use of the definite article to qualify a noun that has been already been introduced with the indefinite article.
  3. Substitution of an already mentioned noun by a synonym or hyponym.

Here are examples of each:

  • My sister's on the phone. She says she needs the drill that she lent us.
  • When I looked out of the window yesterday I saw a man and a woman standing by the gate. The man was wearing a hooded jacket and the woman was carrying a baseball bat.
  • There was so much delicious food on display, but I'm on a diet so I had to stick to the salad.

Forward reference

Another common cohesive device is forward reference or cataphora. Here are two examples of cataphoric reference:

  • Perhaps I shouldn't tell you this, but when I was young I had hair down to my waist!
  • Please send your reply to the following address.


Ellipsis is a third cohesive device. This is the omission of words on the assumption that the listener or reader will be able to supply them mentally. Examples:

  • I ate a peach and my wife (ate) a plum.
  • The horse (that was) injured in the road accident had to be put down.
  • I would love to visit New Zealand but I can't afford to. ( .. visit New Zealand.)
  • I'd rather talk to someone on the phone than send them an email. Wouldn't you? ( .. rather talk to someone on the phone than send them an email?)

[More on ellipsis]


Another device that makes texts cohesive is the use of conjunctives or adjuncts. These are the words that show how ideas are connected. For example: firstly, secondly, so, however, nevertheless, in conclusion, by contrast, on the other hand, etc.

Note that conjunctives are also called transitions. Here is a good list of transitional devices from the Online Writing Lab at Purdue.

Lexical items

Writers tie their texts together cohesively by using words in the same semantic group or through semantic features such as synonymy and hypernymy. So in a text about gardening, for example, you can expect to see words from the same semantic group such as plant, flower, dig, cut, water, etc.

The following sentence from a biology text contains an example of hypernymy: The killer whale tosses the penguin into the air and generally torments its prey before eating it. Prey is the hypernym and penguin its hyponym.

Using hypernyms allows the writer to avoid repeating the hyponym or using a pronoun. But such texts can be difficult for ESL students to understand. In this case, they may not understand that penguin and prey refer to one and the same thing.


Mainstream teachers who have explicit knowledge of the above cohesive techniques will be in a better position to:

  • avoid problematic cohesion in their own worksheets and tests
  • help their ESL students understand the difficult texts in coursebooks or found on the internet
  • advise students whose writing has poor cohesion

Note, however, that cohesion is just one aspect of good academic writing. Equally important is coherence There is no clear-cut difference between cohesion and coherence.

But, simply put, a text can be cohesive without being coherent. However, it is unlikely to be coherent if it is not cohesive.
. This is the quality of a text such that the reader can easily follow its structure and perceive that it makes sense as a whole. Good topic sentences A topic sentence is in most cases the sentence which starts a paragraph. It indicates to the reader what the paragraph will be about and helps create a mind map of the structure of the writing. are one way to ensure coherence.

Further investigations of cohesion and coherence

Read a detailed of the analysis of cohesion in science texts.

Investigate some examples of problematic cohesion .

Here is a useful article on coherence.