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).
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.
- What is coherence?
- Can L1 negatively influence coherence in English? If so, which L1s have the biggest negative interference? Why?
- What, other than L1 interference, might cause coherence damage?
- 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.
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