Cohesion: grammar at the level of the text

Primary English: Knowledge and Understanding - Medwell Jane A. 2014

Cohesion: grammar at the level of the text


A teacher must:

3. Demonstrate good subject and curriculum knowledge

have a secure knowledge of the relevant subject(s) and curriculum areas, foster and maintain pupils’ interest in the subject, and address misunderstandings

demonstrate a critical understanding of developments in the subject and curriculum areas, and promote the value of scholarship

demonstrate an understanding of and take responsibility for promoting high standards of literacy, articulacy and the correct use of standard English, whatever the teacher’s specialist subject.

4. Plan and teach well structured lessons

impart knowledge and develop understanding through effective use of lesson time

promote a love of learning and children’s intellectual curiosity

contribute to the design and provision of an engaging curriculum within the relevant subject area(s).

8. Fulfil wider professional responsibilities

take responsibility for improving teaching through appropriate professional development.

Curriculum context

National Curriculum programmes of study

This knowledge is designed to underpin the teaching of the Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 programmes of study for English, which state, for example, that pupils should be taught

in reading to:

✵ develop pleasure in reading, motivation to read, vocabulary and understanding by:

image discussing the sequence of events in books and how items of information are related Y2

image identifying main ideas drawn from more than one paragraph and summarising these Y3/4/5/6

and in writing to:

✵ draft and write by:

image using a wide range of devices to build cohesion within and across paragraphs Y5/6

✵ evaluate and edit by:

image assessing the effectiveness of their own and others’ writing and suggesting improvements Y3/4/5/6

image proposing changes to grammar and vocabulary to improve consistency, including the accurate use of pronouns in sentences Y3/4/5/6.

Early Years Foundation Stage

The Early Learning Goals specify that, by the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage, children should:

✵ follow instructions involving several ideas or actions;

✵ develop their own narratives and explanations by connecting ideas or events;

✵ write simple sentences which can be read by themselves and others.


As we pointed out earlier, the popular view of grammar is that it is largely concerned with sentence structures. Grammar, however, operates at a wider level than this and includes the rules and expectations concerning how groups of sentences work together to form texts or discourse. In this chapter, we will look at the ways in which texts cohere and illustrate the importance of understanding this to provide appropriate help to learner readers and writers as they interpret and create texts.

The differences between spoken and written language

One of the mistakes often made when thinking about language is to assume that speech and writing are just two forms of the same thing, differing only in the medium of expression. Written language, however, is much more than spoken language that has been ’written down’. The differences between these media are historic in origin and mean that, in order to be a successful user of written text, one needs to have some understanding, albeit perhaps implicit, about how written language works.

Writing emerged to satisfy new communicative needs at a particular period of history. As societies became more and more complex, their organisational systems began to go beyond the here-and-now interchanges of speech. There was a need for permanent records, which could be referred to again and again, and writing developed principally as a means of satisfying this need. The contexts, therefore, in which written language tends to be used are very different from those in which spoken language is used. The reader is, in most cases, removed in both time and space. They read the text at a different time from when it was written, and in a different place. As a result, the language of the written text has to make greater allowances for the reader in order to facilitate understanding.

Written language does, in fact, perform many of the same functions as spoken language: to get things done (e.g. public signs, product labels), to inform (e.g. newspapers, advertisements), to entertain (e.g. fiction books, comic strips). These various functions of the written language are reflected in the characteristics of the texts themselves, observable within the sentences at the level of grammar, and beyond the sentences at the level of text structure. This creates the idea of ’style’, which includes such areas as choice of vocabulary, layout, etc.

The characteristics associated with written text can sometimes occur in spoken language and vice versa. In other words, some spoken texts will be more like written texts than others, and some written texts will be more like spoken texts than others, depending on the purpose and the context. Look at the following two written texts. The first is a written note left for a parent and the second is from an academic text:


Please can you make sure my blue T-shirt is clean? I need it for the disco tonight.


Kate xx

With so much emphasis on pair and group work in classrooms today, trust, openness, and relationships between members of the group have become of vital importance. Many classroom activities require students to reveal information about themselves, their work, their private lives, their friends and family, and for many this may be a new and somewhat alarming experience.

It is obvious that the second text is less like spoken language than the first. But how? What are the features that make written discourse different from spoken language?

Linguistically, written text tends to be more complex, with longer sentences, more complex clauses and greater information load. There are good reasons for this. As mentioned earlier, unlike spoken interaction, with written discourse there is no common situation: the situation has to be inferred from the text. The words themselves must carry all the shades of meaning that in spoken discourse could be conveyed by non-verbal behaviour. The writer must make assumptions about the reader’s state of knowledge. If incorrect assumptions are made, then communication may be hindered.

These extra layers of understanding affect both readers and writers. Readers have to be able to interpret the systems by which information is carried through written texts, and writers have to be able to use these systems to create meaningful texts. By analysing written text, we are able to see the decisions that the writer has made, with regard to how sentences are formed internally and combined with others externally, and how assumptions regarding the reader’s knowledge of the subject and ability to interpret the text will play an important part in this process.

What makes a text a text?


Below are ten sentences, but they are placed in the wrong order. Can you reorder them so that they read as a piece of coherent written text?

(a) Eventually, he came to the rescue.

(b) A door led from the cells to the dock.

(c) The magistrates arrived at Warwick’s No. I Court.

(d) It was jammed and nobody could open it.

(e) The court started its proceedings 20 minutes late.

(f) Jim Glossop, 39, was a defendant on a charge of assault.

(g) They were faced with an embarrassing problem.

(h) The police tried and an engineer tried.

(i) Still the lock would not open,

(j) He kicked the door open.

What helped you to reorder this text? You will probably agree that certain words helped, e.g. pronouns like it, he, they, conjunctions like still, eventually. Also, you had an expectation that the text would relate the events in chronological order.

Now try this one. Reorder the sentences:

(a) A British Aerospace spokesman said: ’We are just very grateful that Mrs. Fuller was not more seriously injured.’

(b) ’When I spoke to her later in hospital, she could only remember the dazzling lights.’

(c) Roy, 31, said: 7 was first on the scene and it was a terrible shock.’

(d) And last night, as air chiefs began an inquiry, concussed Julie was making a good recovery in hospital.

(e) Julie swerved around the tractor, but slammed into the plane’s wing.

(f) She was about to pick up Roy when she was dazzled by the light of an oncoming tractor towing a Hawk training jet.

(g) Julie’s fireman husband Roy raced to the crash scene to find her injured in the wreckage.

(h) Bruised motorist Julie Fuller was nursing her dented pride yesterday after smashing into a five-million-pound plane.

(i) ’The car was badly damaged and she had head injuries.’

(j) Their car was a write-off and the jet’s wing was damaged.

(k) Julie, 27, had been driving along the perimeter road of Surrey’s Dunford airfield.

(l) But the couple’s baby son Bryn luckily escaped unharmed.

Which of these two reordering activities did you find more difficult to do? Why do you think this was the case?

You probably found the second reordering activity considerably more difficult than the first. Why? Once again, there were words/phrases that could help: the use of a full name followed by the use of a first name only; words like she, he, their; conjunctions like and or but; definite and indefinite articles, e.g. a (five-million-pound plane) and the (plane); the use of different tenses (had been driving); and the use of related vocabulary, e.g. plane, jet and wing.

You may have found that you had groups of sentences but were not sure how to order the groups. One of the reasons for this may be that the facts are not included in chronological order. The second text is a newspaper report and typical of newspaper reports is that they begin with the main fact — in this case that Julie smashed into a plane and is now in hospital — and then describe the details — the damage to the plane and the people involved, and how the crash happened — before finishing with comments — both personal and official. In this case, knowledge of the information structure of newspaper reports of this type, as part of an awareness of the genre, helps reconstruction of the text.

From these activities it seems clear that there are certain rules or regularities that people follow when creating written text. These rules depend on the context, or the situation that gives rise to the discourse, and within which the discourse is embedded. But there are two different types of context: the linguistic context —the language that surrounds or accompanies the piece of discourse under analysis — and the non-linguistic context within which the discourse takes place, for example the type of communicative event (newspaper report, letter or note); the topic; the purpose; the participants and the relationships between them; and the background knowledge and assumptions underlying the communication. Roughly speaking, we can refer to the linguistic elements of discourse as cohesive items, and the interpretation that the reader brings based on non-linguistic context as the establishment of coherence.

Texts contain text-forming devices — words or phrases that enable the writer to establish relationships between the clauses and sentences of a text, and which help to tie the sentences together. These devices may be grammatical or lexical. They are clues or signals as to how to interpret the text, but not absolutes. In the first text, ’they’ could refer either to the magistrates or to the police and engineer, but our interpretation of the text, based on our own knowledge that magistrates are probably less likely than the police to put their shoulders to the task of knocking down a door, guides us to the correct interpretation. In other words, cohesive devices are guides to coherence. Coherence is something created by the reader in the act of reading the text and is the feeling that a text hangs together, that it makes sense, and is not just a jumble of sentences. Take, for example, the following two sentences:

Clare loves potatoes.

She was born in Ireland.

These are cohesive (the ’she’ in the second sentence links to ’Clare’ in an obvious way), but they are only coherent if one already shares the stereotypical ethnic association between being Irish and loving potatoes, or is prepared to assume a cause-effect relationship between the two sentences. Cohesion and coherence in written texts are not, therefore, the same thing. We will come back to this point later in the chapter.

What is cohesion?

Cohesion, as defined by Halliday and Hasan (1989, p4), occurs where the interpretation of some element in the discourse is dependent on that of another. In other words, it is the linguistic glue that makes parts of a text stick together. Cohesion operates both within and across sentence boundaries and texts generally consist of chains of cohesive links forming a complex web of meaning relationships. As an example of this complexity, look at the following, relatively simple, extract from a children’s novel.

’Let’s start at once,’ said Roger, but at that moment the kettle changed its tune. It had been bubbling for some time, but now it hissed quietly and steadily, and a long jet of steam poured from its spout. The water was boiling. Susan took the kettle from the fire and emptied into it a small packet of tea.

The links within this text that are most obvious are, as with most texts, the nounpronoun sequences. The ’its’ in lines 2 and 3, and both occurrences of ’it’ in line 2 refer back to the kettle and understanding these references is crucial to understanding this text. The ’it’ in line 4 also, most probably, refers back to the kettle, repeated immediately before in the same sentence. It could, however, also refer to ’water’ in line 3. Such ambiguous reference will not matter here since, even if a reader ’reads’ the ’water — it’ reference, this will not make an appreciable difference to their understanding of the text overall. There are, however, texts in which such ambiguity could make a difference to understanding.

There are other, more subtle, links here. ’Tune’ in line 2 leads to ’bubbling’ and then ’hissed’, both exemplifications of the changing nature of this tune. All these then link to ’jet of steam’, which explains the origin of these phenomena. ’The water was boiling’ then provides further explanation and ’fire’ adds to the sequence. Neither of these items makes full sense by itself, but only in the context of the others.

Cohesive ties

Halliday and Hasan (1976) offer a comprehensive analysis of cohesion and identify four broad categories, which may be further subdivided:



These are the cohesive devices in a text that can only be interpreted with reference either to some other part of the text or to the world experienced by the sender and receiver of the text. Reference items include pronouns (personal reference), demonstratives and the article ’the’ (demonstrative reference), and items like ’such as’, ’more’ and ’as much’ (comparative reference).

Here are some examples:

Personal reference is achieved by means of personal pronouns, possessive pronouns and possessive adjectives.

… she has knitted together folk, pop and country in her songs.

It will be released in the New Year.

Who do ’she’, ’her’ and ’it’ refer to?

If we have access to the context in which the sentences appear, we can answer these questions with no problems.

Since Nanci Griffith began recording 16 years ago, she has knitted together strands of folk, pop and country in her songs. She is about to hit 40, divorced and nomadic. And so for her twelfth album she has focused on personal reflection and made a work of striking beauty. The album was recorded in Tennessee with the help of other renowned country musicians. It will be released in the New Year.

In this example, ’she’ and ’her’ and ’it’ all refer back to something previously mentioned in the text: to Nanci Griffith and to the twelfth album. These are cases of personal reference referring anaphorically (i.e. backwards) to something previously mentioned.

Now look at the following examples. Who do ’he’ and ’her’ refer to in the following sentences and in what way do these reference items differ from those in the previous sentences?

He was called ’The Voice Beautiful’ when a student at drama school, and Ralph Fiennes, on the phone to me, certainly lived up to the name.

In her tight blue dress and red high heels, Kate Moss stepped out of the taxi and walked towards the door of The Nitecap Club in downtown Chicago.

’He’ refers to Ralph Fiennes and ’her’ to Kate Moss, but notice how in these examples the reference items point the reader forwards — they draw us further into the text to find the elements to which the reference items refer. This is cataphoric reference and is sometimes used by authors for dramatic effect, to heighten the suspense, conveying a message of ’read on and find out’.

Demonstrative reference is expressed through demonstratives (this, that), the definite article and the adverbs here, there, now, and then. For example:

One section of the book that seems weaker than others concerns establishing trust. This is, indeed, an important area, as a negative group atmosphere is often the result of feelings of insecurity.

On the way out she dropped her wallet near the door. Fortunately the shop assistant saw it lying there and picked it up.

Here, ’this’ refers back to ’establishing trust’, and ’there’ to ’near the door’.

Comparative reference is expressed through adjectives and adverbs and serves to compare items within a text in terms of similarity or difference.

’Circle Time’ is an activity designed to change the relationship between the teacher and the children. It involves asking those children who have something to say to contribute. Such an activity has therefore a dual purpose.

Three hours is insufficient for this amount of work. You will have to allocate more time.

’Such’ and ’more’ are examples of comparative reference.

In all the above examples of reference, the reference items all referred (anaphorically or cataphorically) to a referent mentioned in the text: that is, they were text-internal. But it is also possible to refer ’outwards’ from texts to identify the referent, in cases when backward reference does not supply the necessary information. Such outward, or exophoric, reference often directs us to the immediate context, such as when someone says ’leave it on the table please’ about a parcel you have for them. Sometimes the referent is not in the immediate context but is assumed by the speaker/writer to be part of a shared world, in terms either of knowledge or experience. In English the determiners often act in this way:

The government is to blame for unemployment.

It would be odd if someone then asked the question ’Which government?’ as it is assumed by the speaker that the hearer will know which one, usually ’our government’ or ’that of the country we are in’. Exophoric references like these will often be culture bound and outside the experience of those not belonging to the culture.

Substitution and ellipsis

Whereas reference indicates a semantic relationship between two items, substitution is more grammatical in nature. A word, phrase or clause is substituted in a following sentence for one with a similar grammatical function. Look at the following short text:

Car tyres eventually wear out, of course. New ones have to be fitted.

’Ones’ here is used as a substitute for ’tyres’. In this case, because it is a noun that is substituted, this is referred to as nominal substitution. In English this kind of substitution is often achieved by the use of ’one’ (or ’ones’) or ’the same’, and, as with reference, these can be anaphoric or cataphoric. Look at the following examples:

My school was in the next village, over two miles away, and, although we could afford one, we didn’t have a car. (cataphoric — the substitution occurs before the noun)

There were ghosts in that old house. I had to admit I’d never seen one , but I knew they were there. (anaphoric — the substitution occurs after the noun)

In the next example, it is a verb phrase that is substituted, and this is referred to as verbal substitution:

Some animals feed their young with milk. Animals that do this are called mammals.

Various forms of the verb ’do’ frequently substitute for other verbs in English.

Sometimes, much more extensive sections of text are substituted, as in these examples:

The teacher said to me, ’Well, now you should be able to complete this exercise by yourself .’ ’I hope so,’ I replied rather uncertainly.

Has everyone gone home already? Surely not.

Such clausal substitution often uses ’so’ or ’not’ as the substitute.

Another type of cohesive tie that operates in very similar ways to substitution is ellipsis. Look at the following example:

They walked slowly along the path that wound between the rocky outcrops. On one side they could trace the course of a dried-up stream, and on the other a broken wall rose from time to time.

Most readers will have no problem recognising that the second sentence could read:

On one side of the path they could trace the course of a dried up stream, and on the other side of the path a broken wall rose from time to time.

To avoid the inelegance of repetition, words have been omitted in the first version of this sentence. This phenomenon is known as ellipsis and, as can be seen in this example, appreciating how it works is crucial to understanding the text. The reader has to be able to supply, almost subconsciously, the missing words to make sense of the sentence. When ellipsis occurs, something is presupposed and, as the words are not physically present, they have to be supplied by the reader.


Conjunction differs from reference, substitution and ellipsis in that it does not set off a search backward or forward for its referent. It is not anaphoric or cataphoric. However, it is a linguistic cohesive device in that it signals a relationship between segments of the text. Halliday (1985) suggests four broad categories:

Additive conjunctions simply add on a sentence or clause as if it were additional information or an afterthought — in addition, furthermore, for instance, besides.

Adversative conjunctions draw a contrast between the clause or sentence they introduce or are contained in and the preceding clause or sentence with which they form a cohesive relationship — however, yet, on the other hand, nevertheless.

Causal conjunctions make a link of cause or consequence between two clauses or sentences — therefore, as a result, hence, because.

Temporal conjunctions make a time link, usually of a sequential nature — finally, next, subsequently, after that.


To check your understanding of these types of conjunctions, try to classify the underlined words in each of the following sentences according to the type of conjunction they represent. Try to do this before looking at the answers below.

(a) Furthermore, I think there is little chance we will be successful in this.

(b) I will try to answer your question next.

(c) He was delayed in traffic, hence missing the train.

(d) The solution, therefore, is to make sure you get there early.

(e) Besides, he cannot really have expected to win that game.

(f) Your ideas, on the other hand, I find very challenging.

(g) My only reservation, however, concerns my ability to do this on time.

(h) Finally, we come to the question of your payment.

The answers are as follows:

















on the other hand








In speech, four basic conjunctions — ’and’, ’but’, ’so’ and ’then’ — tend to be more used than any other. However, in many types of written discourse, a much greater variety of conjunctions will be found, as writers use different styles to suit their audience and purpose.

Lexical cohesion

Lexical cohesion occurs when two words in a text are semantically related in some way — in other words, they are related in terms of their meaning. Halliday and Hasan (1976) identify two major categories of lexical cohesion: reiteration and collocation.

Reiteration may be of four kinds:

✵ The same word may be repeated in succeeding sentences.

There was a large tree growing in the meadow. From the top of that tree you could see for miles.

✵ A synonym or near-synonym of a word may appear in a following sentence.

I began my ascent of the hill. The climb was quite easy and I reached the top in less than two hours.

✵ A word may be replaced in a following sentence by another that is superordinate to it.

William has bought himself a new Jaguar. He practically lives in the car.

✵ The word may be replaced in a following sentence by a word that describes a general class of objects.

’What shall I do with all this shopping?

’Just leave the stuff there.’

There are a number of these general words that have a cohesive function in texts. Words such as ’people’ and ’person’ refer to humans, words such as ’creature’ refer to non-human living things, and words such as ’thing’ refer to inanimate objects.

Reiteration is extremely common in English texts in which there is little direct repetition of words, and often considerable variation from sentence to sentence. Such variation can add new dimensions and nuances to meaning, and serves to build up an increasingly complex context, since every new word, even if it is essentially repeating or paraphrasing earlier words, brings with it its own connotations and history. Reiteration does not occur by chance. Rather, writers and speakers make conscious choices whether to repeat, or find a synonym, or a superordinate.

Collocation refers to the cohesive relationship between pairs of words that commonly occur next to each other in some recognisable meaning relation:

bread and butter

fish and chips

There are many examples in English, and in other languages, of words that are statistically more likely to occur close to each other. Implicit knowledge of these likelihoods makes the reading of text a much less strenuous activity since words can often be predicted from their collocates in advance of their being actually seen.

It has been argued that lexical cohesion is the most important form of cohesion, accounting for approximately 40 per cent of the cohesive ties in a text. It also appears that the number of lexical relationships between the clauses or sentences of a text will be directly related to the cohesiveness of that text.

Why is understanding cohesion important?

The material so far in this chapter should have convinced you that, even in apparently simple texts, there is a depth of complexity in the ways in which ideas and meanings link together. As a teacher of reading, you need to recognise the complexity of what you are teaching, that is, the ability, albeit implicit, to recognise and respond to the elements in a text that make it more than just a collection of unrelated short sentences. Any model of reading must take account of the processing of complete texts, since this is how the majority of reading is done.


There is evidence that many children find aspects of cohesion difficult to grasp and that their difficulties with it affect negatively their understanding of their reading. Chapman (1987, p49) has summarised the evidence on these issues from research and suggests the following:

✵ The ability to perceive and process cohesive ties is associated with reading proficiency and comprehending.

✵ The perception of cohesive ties is subject to a developmental pattern.

✵ This developmental pattern relates to types of ties, so that a typical order of perception among young children progresses from reference, lexical cohesion, substitution/ellipsis to conjunction.

✵ The number and types of cohesive ties in a text affect recall after reading that text.

✵ There are gender differences in the abilities of children to handle cohesive ties efficiently.

✵ Ties are handled to different degrees of efficiency depending on the register of the text.

✵ The relationship of cohesion and register to text comprehension is affected by cultural knowledge, assumptions and beliefs.

Studies from outside the discipline of education have also found significant effects of text cohesion on reading speed and comprehension. Liu and Rawl (2012), for example, found a significant increase in the reading comprehension of cancer patients when the pamphlets they were asked to read were deliberately written to include high levels of text cohesion.


Anderson (1992, p40), building on the work of Chapman, suggests a range of classroom strategies to enable children to focus on and develop their proficiency with cohesion in texts. These strategies include the following guidelines for readers faced with complex texts:

✵ Look carefully at the connectives, particularly those that link sentences. Are the relationships in meaning between the sentences clear?

✵ Sometimes the order in which the sentences are presented implies a relationship. Does this occur in this passage?

✵ If the vocabulary is unfamiliar, this may be because unfamiliar synonyms have been used. Use a thesaurus to check alternatives for some of these.

✵ When in doubt, resort to reading aloud. The intonation pattern may help to clarify the meaning.


In this chapter, we have outlined the ways in which a text is a cohesive entity. Cohesion, however, does not necessarily mean coherence. Texts can be cohesive without being coherent and vice versa.

Read the following passage. Your study of this chapter should instantly convince you of its cohesion.

Eric bought a car. The car in which my Aunt Mary was riding along Downing Street yesterday was green. Green has an /i:/ sound. You sound weird today. Tomorrow I’m going to Paris. Paris loved Helen. Proper names have certain semantic functions. I can’t make head nor tail of semantics. If you are born with a pig’s tail, you’re cursed!

This passage has texture as Halliday and Hasan (1989) define it, that is, a range of cohesive relationships within and between the sentences. The passage comprises a set of sentences that constitute a text because of the following cohesive markers: a car—the car, green—Green, sound—sound, today—Tomorrow, etc. These connections, or cohesive ’ties’, bind the text together and help us interpret every single sentence as a whole. But is cohesion sufficient to identify any one ’passage’ as a text? Why is it that we have been unable to exact any coherent (that is, at the text level) meaning from reading this passage?

According to Halliday and Hasan, a passage must exhibit some of these cohesive relationships in order to qualify as a text; otherwise, it is reduced to a mere list of sentences. Nevertheless, they agree that it is the meaning relationships that are constitutive of texture (1989, p71). It is hard to perceive a coherent set of meaning relationships between these sentences, although we almost instinctively try. Cohesion is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for ’textness’.

If cohesion does not automatically guarantee coherence, is the reverse relationship true? Are coherent texts always cohesive? Look at the following example:

Jill: The phone’s ringing.

Jack: I’m tired.

In this case, there are no explicit cohesive markers to bind these two sentences together. It seems that Jack has totally disregarded, or failed to interpret, the meaning of Jill’s utterance. Nevertheless, in our everyday lives, we often engage in this sort of conversational exchange with few, if any, difficulties.

As a reader, we naturally assume that these sequences of sentences do constitute a text and we interpret the second sentence in the light of the first sentence. We assume that there is a semantic relationship between the sentences. Perhaps Jack’s reply indicates that he feels he always has to answer the phone and wants Jill to do it on this occasion. Or perhaps Jack knows who is on the other end of the phone line and does not want to talk to this person this late at night.

What has happened here is that these seemingly unconnected sentences have been made to form a coherent text, but only by the reader supplying ’real world knowledge’. Making sense of any text involves interpretation and depends to a great extent on what the reader brings to the text. The reader has to rebuild the world of the text, see into the mind of the writer, using their experience of that world. The reader has to activate their background knowledge, make inferences and constantly reinterpret as new information is provided. Look at the following two sentences:

John was on his way to school last Friday.

He was really worried about the Maths lesson.

Ask yourself: Who is John? What is he carrying?

Your answers will probably be that John is a schoolboy and he is carrying his schoolbag with his books in it. But read on:

Last week, he had been unable to control the class.

Now ask yourself the same questions: Who is John? What is he carrying? Your answers will be different as you will have adjusted your interpretation in the light of new information: John must be the Maths teacher and probably he has a briefcase with his lesson notes in it. But, read on:

It was unfair of the Maths teacher to leave him in charge.

You have to abandon your previous interpretation yet again, but now you are at a loss as to how to answer the question: Who is John? A teacher of another subject? Read on:

After all, it is not a normal part of a caretaker’s duties.

Everything is clarified! When we read, we construct an interpretation by using more than is explicitly given in the text, and drawing on our background knowledge. This is schema theory — a theory of language processing, which suggests that discourse is interpreted with reference to the background knowledge of the reader or listener. The reader brings to the text their schemata; a set of knowledge structures which are activated by interaction with the text.

Although an appreciation of how cohesion works to produce texts is a vital factor in understanding what one reads, it is not, therefore, the only essential ingredient to this. Readers need also to bring to bear previous knowledge and experience. The teacher’s job is to develop both these sources of knowledge for reading.


image An understanding of cohesion is useful for teachers attempting to develop children’s reading of connected prose.

image Written language is different from spoken language because the contexts in which it is used are very different and often much more formal and complex.

image In some texts, facts may not be included in chronological order, for example in newspaper reports.

image Cohesion operates within and across sentence boundaries, and texts consist of chains of cohesive links that identify meaning.

image There are four categories of cohesive ties: reference; substitution and ellipsis; conjunction; and lexical; each of which has two or more subdivisions.

image By itself, cohesion is not sufficient to ensure coherence, i.e. sense, in a text. Reading also involves making connections between the material of a text and one’s own world experience.


Look again at the four types of cohesive tie, and at their subdivisions. Choose a year group of children and decide on a programme of texts that will help them to identify the different types of cohesion as they further their study of text structure and organisation. You may find it helpful to discuss this aspect with teacher colleagues and with an experienced subject leader for Literacy.


Anderson, E. (1992) Reading the Changes. Buckingham: Open University Press. An overview of research and development in the literacy field with a good section on the implications of cohesion theory.

Chapman, J. (1987) Reading From 5-11 Years. Buckingham: Open University Press. A useful review of research into developing reading, with a substantial section on the implications of cohesion.

DfE (2013) Teachers’ Standards. London: DfE. (

Halliday, M.A.K. and Hasan, R. (1989) Language, Context and Text Aspects of Language in a social-semiotic perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Liu, C. and Rawl, S. (2012) ’Effects of Text Cohesion on Comprehension and Retention of Colorectal Cancer Screening Information: A Preliminary Study’. Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives, 17: sup. 3, 222—40.