Is this Coherent, or, how to think like an English person

Neil Allison has been looking into issues of structure in writing, particularly East Asian writers and particularly at sentence and paragraph level. What makes students’ writing incoherent? This is part 1 of a series of posts considering what causes poor coherence and what can improve it.

“It must at times seem to teachers that we are repeatedly admonishing students for their poor essay structure, yet we are not providing them with the basic knowledge necessary to resolve the problem” (Hawes, 2015).

Have you ever had a student say to you: I think I need to think like an English person? If so, you like me, may have wondered initially if that meant they wanted to know more about cricket, Morris dancing, and whether Shakespeare wore a bowler hat, but then thought, hmmm, maybe they actually mean that they want to organise their thoughts in a more English languagey way (occasionally articulated as a ‘Western’ way).

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This post is intended to be the first of two or three posts on the theme (and rheme) of coherence (English languagey thinking). In particular, how do East Asian students of B1-B2 level become more coherent in writing?

In terms of context, and inspiration, I’d say that 5 years of academic English writing courses dominated by Chinese students (50-90%) in classes has deepened and deepened the mystery of, rather than shed light on, why I struggle to follow the ‘logic’ of what they’re writing about.  This becomes more marked on complex topics. For example, I teach a law pre-masters course at a College and students’ efforts to explain complex topics such as “Is International law law” often melt the mind painfully despite perfectly acceptable sentences in terms of grammar and vocabulary. I probably worked out some time ago that structuring of information was the problem but I’ve struggled to solve this problem. This has led me to carrying out a series of experiments with my latest cohort of guinea pigs students. In my next post I’ll provide a mini literature review on coherence, but for now, I’d really appreciate answers to the following questions, which I may be able to shed light on myself in posts number 2 or 3, based on the outcomes of the literature review and labouratory experiments.

  1. What is coherence?
  2. Can L1 negatively influence coherence in English? If so, which L1s have the biggest negative interference? Why?
  3. What, other than L1 interference, might cause coherence damage?
  4. What can be taught, or what strategies can be used, to improve coherence?

I’m sure I’m not the only one to have had problems with how to get my keen, earnest  students to get the ‘logic’ (as they often call it) in addition to the more traditional linguistic items like linkers and relative clauses, and skills such as planning.

Neil’s bio: 

neilNeil Allison teaches English for Academic Study and has done so at Glasgow University since 2010. He started out in legal practice, moved into legal publishing, then moved into English teaching.


Hawes, T. (2015) Thematic Progression in the writing of students and professionals. Ampersand 2 (2015) 93-100.

Image source: William Shakespeare by tonynetone under CC Licence


5 thoughts on “Is this Coherent, or, how to think like an English person

  1. Bill Guariento

    Neil, your ‘series of experiments with my latest cohort….’ builds quite nicely on Clare’s theme of using the classroom as a springboard for critical reflection. An interesting progression, planned or otherwise, and I look forward to hearing how this develops.


  2. Douglas Graham

    Question 1 Cohesion is easy to define, coherence not so easy. For years EAS has offered learners a range of essay patterns (cause and effect, compare and contrast, etc): maybe the principle of coherence is what these have in common? It’s a guarantee to the reader that there is an underlying order in your text; or, that it IS a text, not just a bunch of sentences. Learners can often imitate a restricted model like one of the above quite accurately, but have difficulty in finding their own way of giving coherence to their ideas.

    Question 2 Maybe. Here are a couple of quotes.
    “…eurocentrism naturalizes the logic of European thinking and assigns it the status of “natural” characteristic of thinking, similar to the colour of eyes or hair. In fact, formal logic is just a cultural-historical invention, that is, it is set by the culture rather than granted to us…it would be reasonable to assume the possibility of invention and existence of other logics…” (Asmolov, 1998, Vygotsky Today: on the Verge of Non-Classical Psychology, p.8)

    To compare Chinese and Western logic, means to look upon them as independent phenomena, each determined by its own culture. If we take into account their respective cultural backgrounds, we can still observe many of their congruities;but we must also pay attention to the large number of elements which constitute their decisive differences. Only on this basis will we be able to discern common features as well as the specific characteristics of particular traditional formsof logic. Comparing means searching for joint properties but, even moreimportantly, it means being able to distinguish the basic differences whichunderlie such conformities. Only by acknowledging differences can we compre-
    hend the manifold nature of logic, its history and the laws of
    its development.
    Rosker (2009) “Traditional Chinese thought: philosophy or religion?” Asian Philosophy, 19/3, 225-37

    Question 3 Not really understanding your subject matter??


  3. Hi Douglas and Bill.

    Firstly, Bill, you’ll hopefully find out in my third post on this about how I researched this in the classroom so keep your eyes peeled.

    Douglas – very useful and I’m sitting with those two articles open in other tabs (I’ll hopefully get round to reading them 🙂 ) Post 2 on this will hopefully shed a bit of light on what other observers have come up with in terms of the coherence and structuring approach preferred by Chinese essay writers. What do they understand by a topic sentence? Do they think it’s good style to explicitly link sentences or do they prefer that the sense is created by the reader? Answers to these questions and more!


  4. Pingback: Coherence part 2: what does the literature tell us? – English for Academic Study @ Glasgow

  5. Pingback: Coherence part 3: what did the students tell us? – English for Academic Study @ Glasgow

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