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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 blue. Blue 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 Car > Fast Driving > Car Crashes > Broken Leg> Holiday 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.