In this episode, we discuss why coherence and coherence are worth 25% of your IELTS score.
When you’re writing, the important things are your grammar and the vocabulary you use. That’s what language is anyway: Grammar and vocabulary. If you can write sentences that are free from grammatical errors, or as free as possible, and If your range of vocabulary is such that you have more than enough words, both general, everyday ones and some specialist vocabulary, then what else do you want? You can communicate in writing and that’s it, surely.
Well, no. That’s not really it. Let’s get straight to the point here. IELTS Writing, and it’s Task 2 I’m concentrating on today although the same could also be said about Task 1, is just a very specific test where the candidate has to read the question, understand what it means, know how to approach it, plan the answer to it, write the answer by fulfilling the requirements of the question at all times and, because it’s all in English, respect the rules and customs of the language both syntactically and semantically.
Only the writing part in terms of the actual construction of sequences of sentences and choosing words to go in them, refer pretty much exclusively to the Lexical Resource and Grammatical Range and Accuracy features described in the exam descriptors.
The rest, from that first encounter with the task itself, to the planning stage and ensuring that the final draft fulfils the particular task requirements, falls under the domain of Task Achievement and Coherence and Cohesion. Two parts. 50%.
And, and this is really big AND, at that interpreting the question, planning stage, we are already thinking about which keywords and expressions we should include in the essay and probably thinking too perhaps about sentence construction.
So, when we look over the writing task descriptors and find in the Coherence and Cohesion section it mentions “ideas and information” and arranging this information and these ideas “clearly” and/or “logically” as well as organising them into paragraphs, it’s telling us we should be thinking and planning, giving shape to our eventual written product from the very beginning; making connections, seeing how the pieces fit together to make a whole, yes, a coherent whole.
What is Coherence in IELTS?
It is the essay as the end product of what was in your mind when you started planning your answer. There are many who call coherence a building, a finished structure and yes, I can see that too. It’s something that just looks right, it’s consistent, it’s what many call logical and I guess it’s when something is not coherent is the time when we understand better the meaning of coherence itself. When something in there looks out of place. It just doesn’t feel right. It’s incoherent. Our writing should follow a logical order.
What is Cohesion in IELTS?
Now if we have the plan and structure of our essay all worked out, we need to make sure that all the bits and pieces are linked together appropriately and effectively. This is where cohesion comes in. The architects and builders will tell us that if coherence is the building, then cohesion is the bricks and mortar.
The task 2 descriptors mention that if our cohesion is really good, then we (that is, the reader) won’t even be aware of its perfection. That’s if you’re going for a Band 9 by the way. For us mortals, with our 7s and 8s, then we must cover all aspects of cohesion well (Band 8) or at least have a good range of cohesive devices at our disposal even if we might sometimes over or under use some of them. But beware of the Band 6 who may use these devices mechanically or incorrectly.
Devices and their ranges suggest something we can identify, something a lot more tangible perhaps than “it just feels right”. Cohesion is objectively identifiable. That means we can learn it. And learn from our mistakes.
Sample Cohesive and Coherent Task 2 answer
So, let’s have a look at an example of how cohesion and coherence work together.
I’m going to give you an IELTS task 2 topic but, rather than the entire 250 plus word essay which would be too much, just a part, the opening paragraph.
Actually, my topic is one I have adopted and adapted from Ieltspodcast.com on Task 2 writing topics. It goes like this:
There are those that believe that people should not be allowed to continue working after their official retirement age.
To what extent do you agree with this?
I’ve spent a few minutes thinking about this topic and I’ve decided that I don’t entirely agree with the statement. I have a position and I need to defend it. I´ve made some notes. I have 3 pretty good arguments, I hope, against the idea that retirement should be obligatory and I have 2 or 3 points that could be used in favour of compulsory retirement. I’m thinking of the classic 4 paragraph task 2 essay with 2 main or body paragraphs in between the introduction and conclusion. More of that later, perhaps not today but in the next time we talk.
Well, here’s my first paragraph.
Some people are of the opinion that when a person becomes eligible for a state pension, then he or she must necessarily stop working and enjoy what many like to call a few “golden years” in peaceful retirement. Although there may be some arguments in favour of this, I do not agree that retirement based solely on age should be mandatory.
Types of Cohesion
The identifiable elements of cohesion we see here are of two main types; namely, lexical cohesion and grammatical cohesion.
Lexical cohesion is the way we create links between words of similar meaning (synonyms), words that have opposite or dissimilar meanings (antonyms) and words that belong together in the same area or what we call “lexical field”.
So in my attempt to paraphrase the question I wrote “some people are of the opinion” which connects to “There are those that believe” in the question statement. That’s not the only example, right?
Take “should not be allowed to continue working after their official retirement age” which then reads as “becomes eligible for a state pension, then he or she must necessarily stop working”.
Later, in my second sentence, I go back to the “must necessarily stop working” and phrase it as “retirement …should be mandatory” (although I of course am saying I disagree with this)
We can also see how I try to contrast the working years of a person with “retirement” so that you can “enjoy” those famous “golden years”.
In that short introductory paragraph then we can see how connections have been created between words and that, I hope, it all fits together.
But, there’s also what we’re calling grammatical cohesion. The simplest way to look at that is through pronouns to refer back to something already mentioned. These back-references are known as “anaphoric” references. The most common way to do this is through pronouns like it, they, them, he, she, and relative pronouns such as this, that, these, and those.
In my short paragraph, we see the use of he or she to avoid repeating “someone” and the use of this in “in favour of this” which it refers back to the opinion on forced retirement expressed in the first sentence.
Finally, I have one genuine “cohesive device”, the linking word “although” which I use to introduce my viewpoint contrasting possible arguments in favour of compulsory retirement with the fact that on the whole, I am against it.
Of course, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about my short text. It’s normal, typical. All of us would be naturally setting up those links between ideas expressed in words.
Cohesion is everywhere and when our writing is cohesive it may also be perfectly coherent too It may read perfectly well
Of course, we can have cohesion without coherence. All the bits join up grammatically but the connections are odd and don’t seem to make sense. If I wrote, for example, I do not agree that retirement based solely on gender should be mandatory”, then you’d be wondering why I changed the subject in mid-sentence.
Now, going back to the planning stage and the notes I made, my entire essay, beginning with that first short paragraph, is simply a fuller version if you like, of those thoughts and notes. It gave me a path to follow, the links (cohesion) between the parts were there from the very start, from the moment I had finished reading the question.
You can download or listen to the audio version here: