What is Coherence?
In every day living, we usually hear this word associated with people who are so drunk that you can’t understand them. These people are described as incoherent, the opposite of coherent (adj). Getting so drunk that you cannot be understood is not generally a good idea. We can’t understand these drunkards because their intelligibility reduces and they repeat themselves. In fact, some students have asked me over the years if they should have a drink of alcohol before their speaking tests. My advice is a clear NO. Funnily enough, in my first ever speaking test for the Cambridge FCE test more than 10 years ago there was a candidate who had had a drink. My examining partner could smell the alcohol. He was the only student who got less than a 3 (fail) that day. Although he might have felt more confident, what he produced was not coherent enough.
Anyway, in all English Proficiency tests, coherence is rated. In fact, it is scored in both speaking and writing and in IELTS, for example, it makes up 25% of your writing and speaking scores. So, it’s a good idea to understand what it is and try to ensure that you are coherent. It is also linked to cohesion, which we will explore in another blog post.
The dictionary says ‘Linguistics. the property of unity in a written text or a segment of spoken discourse that stems from the links among its underlying ideas and from the logical organization and development of its thematic content’.
This means it’s about unity, exploring one idea. So, the idea comes from writing your position at the beginning and then supporting that idea with your ideas throughout the essay in a way that is logically sequenced. Also, the ideas are presented and supported at paragraph level. This can be challenging as some cultures present spoken and written information in a different way. Indians, for instance, start their discussions with some general information. To native English speakers, this is unusual and unnecessary.
Coherence in Speaking
As mentioned above in the example of the person whose speaking performance was negatively affected by alcohol, repetition is a sign of poor coherence. You know this when you are talking to someone whose speaking performance has decreased. If you have communicated with someone with dementia, you will know what I mean. So, don’t repeat yourself! Someone out there in the IELTS YouTube universe has told people to talk as much as possible in the IELTS test. This is terrible advice because when people do so, they repeat themselves and lose marks on coherence – bad advice indeed!
Hesitation affects coherence scores, too. Everybody hesitates, though. The point is whether you are hesitating for grammar and words or for ideas. Native speakers hesitate for ideas and this is not penalised as it is quite natural to hesitate if you are asked a difficult question. Assessors know the difference. My advice to avoid hesitation is to communicate your stream of consciousness, which means say whatever you are thinking, which could be, “That’s a difficult question; I have never thought about that before.” Do not sacrifice your coherence for accuracy. Many students try to be so accurate that they become too hesitant. This is a bad idea.
Equally, self-correction negatively affects coherence. If you start a sentence, realise you made an error and correct it, that affects your fluency and coherence. Similarly, a false start is when you start a sentence, realise you made an error and then start again. The basic advice is to just keep going. In fact in speaking, we all make errors or slips, but we don’t worry too much about them. So, you can make more errors in speaking than in writing.
Coherence in Writing
Back to the idea of unity, you have a position/ some ideas and in the essay you are going to present those and support them. You need to present and sequence your ideas so that they make sense and are coherent. The IELTS public band descriptors for a band 7 in CC talk about a ‘clear progression’, which means that the response moves towards a conclusion.
What is essential to get a good coherence score in any English Proficiency test is that you have good ideas to begin with. So, first you get some ideas that answer the question, and then you organise them logically. If you have ideas and put them into a plan, you can have a clear progression.
Once your ideas are in a plan, then you can put them into paragraphs. So if it is a discussion essay, you will have one paragraph with 2 ideas for and another paragraph with 2 ideas against the thesis or idea in the question. A paragraph for an IELTS essay, for example, should have a thesis statement that tells you what the paragraph is about and then present your idea followed by some support in the form of an example and/ or a result. Then, you need another idea with an example. These 2 ideas should be connected with a transitional adverb (however, furthermore etc.) that shows the relationships between the ideas. Ideas must connect! A word of warning – there are only 2 instances when you can write a one-sentence paragraph. The first one is the conclusion and the second one is a paragraph that transitions from one contrasting idea to another. Basically, though, never risk writing a one-sentence paragraph as you will be penalised.
The above-mentioned ideas are what make writing easy to read. In fact for a band 8 and above it says the ‘message can be followed with ease’. So, when coherence and cohesion are effective, it makes the writing easy to read.
Coherence in Reading
Everything written above will also help you in a reading test. Once you can understand the overall meaning of a text, the meaning on paragraph level and how sentences and ideas are connected, then you can understand the written word more effectively and adapt your style of reading to suit different kinds of texts.