Understanding Coherence and Cohesion

As we get better at reading, we read more challenging texts. These texts not only include advanced vocabulary, but also increasingly complex syntax. Understanding these elements helps us to make sense of textual cohesion and coherence. The better our understanding of cohesion and coherence, the more likely we are to comprehend what we read.

Cohesion refers to the individual parts of text—vocabulary and syntax—and the ways in which they work together to give it meaning.

Pronouns can help us understand the concept of cohesion. Remember, a pronoun is a word that can be used in place of a noun. Take the sentence, “I love it,” for example. That sentence only makes sense—it’s only cohesive—if it’s preceded by another sentence that tells us what “it” means, as in the example dialogue below.

  • “Do you like ice cream?”
  • “I love it!”

This is a cohesive device known as substitution. It refers to instances where repeated words are replaced with other, usually simpler, substitutes. If we couldn’t use the word “it,” the response would need to read, “I love ice cream!” Of course, there are many other cohesive devices as well. An ellipsis, for example, refers to instances where repeated words are omitted entirely.

Coherence, in contrast, refers to a text as a whole. If all of a text’s parts fit together logically, that text is coherent. Coherent texts include sentences that join together to form each coherent paragraph. They also have paragraphs that join together to form a coherent article or chapter.

Imagine you’re reading an essay. The first paragraph talks about the writer’s love for vanilla ice cream. The next paragraph gives a short biography of Thomas Jefferson. The paragraphs make sense individually. They use appropriate vocabulary and syntax. They’re cohesive! But the essay is not coherent. As a reader, we don’t understand the sudden jump from ice cream to Thomas Jefferson! If, however, the essay had another paragraph between those two paragraphs—a paragraph explaining that Thomas Jefferson travelled to France and brought a recipe for vanilla ice cream back to the United States—the essay would make a lot more sense. It would be coherent.

The components of written language—vocabulary, syntax, and textual features and structure—all contribute to a text’s coherence and cohesion. Teaching these individual elements helps to improve understanding of coherence and cohesion, but coherence and cohesion can also be taught separately.