Coherence part 2: what does the literature tell us?

In the last post Neil Allison started looking into coherence and now he presents part 2 of a 3 part investigation to uncover more about the problems of poor coherence in student writing, particularly East Asian writers. This post highlights some of the theory of coherence from a linguistics perspective and some research into issues for English language learners.

Plan, act, observe, reflect – a process in action research that would be as close to a system as I’ve been using with my students. The aim was to experiment on them to find out why coherence is often a problem with East Asian writers. Consequently, the literature review was part of reflection rather than done before planning, but I’m now presenting it before I describe the research (in part 3). I think that’s necessary so that you and I are sharing a frame of reference.

“John Smith just got promoted to General”.

That’s the kind of opening gambit I might get from my mother. It’s not coherent. It’s not coherent because she’s made an assumption about our shared ballpark and focus and I’m on a different ballpark never mind focus. No offence to my mum. We are all guilty of such chat. So we negotiate an understanding:

“Who’s John Smith?”

“You went to secondary school with him”

“Don’t remember him.”

“He was in the Scouts with you.”

“Oh, I think I remember. So is he in the army?”

“Yes, he joined officer training after Uni.”

“Oh, I see, so he’s done really well and now he’s a General, but bad time to be in the army what with all these wars, so that gets me onto the UK Government…”

You get the idea, and also notice my clever way of providing a coherent link to my new topic – politics.

A couple of weeks ago I posted some questions on coherence. The above example shows what we do when speaking. In writing we have to be a bit more cognisant of contextualising and anticipate what our audience knows. How is this connected to coherence?

“In written texts coherence refers to the way a text makes sense to the readers through the organization of its content, and the relevance and clarity of its concepts and ideas.”1


“a text must be consistent with context in which it is created, [and]… a text must have cohesion, that is, all parts in a text must be connected by cohesive devices.”2

 One framework for understanding more about the organisation, relationships, context, and connections is that created by Halliday3  and the labels theme and rheme, where theme is like the point of departure (“John Smith in my mum’s utterance”) and rheme is the development of the theme (“promoted to general”). In addition, paragraphs, as many of us take for granted, have topic sentences, which set the theme of the paragraph. If we start with a theme (paragraph or sentence) that isn’t linked to a common understanding, we are disorientated.

Theme and rheme are actually pretty detailed in the literature and labelled in many sub categories but my interest in this short post is whether knowing about theme, and theme to rheme progression (called thematic progression) improves clarity of students’ writing.

We’ll deal first, very briefly, with theme via topic sentences. Although there is debate about positioning of topic sentences, for the sake of argument let’s say that in terms of writing coherently, it’s a pretty decent idea to make your topic and purpose clear from the first sentence or two. Let’s also assume we’re looking at the body (not introduction or conclusion) of an essay (not another genre). Now let’s move on to the trickier subject of theme and rheme partly because in my own experience of academic writing books, it is much less prevalent (almost invisible?) than topic sentences. Also, some research has claimed that English writing is graded higher when that writing demonstrates certain patterns of thematic progression while Chinese and some other East Asian language students make poor thematic choices (see below).

Here are three types of progression

  1. Constant progression: where the same subject starts each ‘unit’

The man took his dog for a walk. The man used his pooper scooper. He then washed his hands.

  1. Linear: where the later or final idea becomes the next unit’s subject.

The man took his dog for a walk. The dog did a poo, which the man scooped. He then washed his hands.

  1. Derived: where thematically linked themes start the unit:

The man took his dog for a walk.  Barking happily, the canine did a poo. The pooper scooper the man was carrying proved useful to avoid getting a fine.

These are all acceptable i.e. coherent although preference may depend on discipline and indeed there is a suggestion longer texts benefit from derived progression where thematically linked themes start the units.4

What influences approaches to theme and coherence?

From what I had time to glean from the literature, most compelling research and perhaps the majority say that choice that damage coherence relate to grammatical resources or writers’ confidence with them. As English proficiency improves, so does coherence. However, there have been observations that East Asian writers produce writing lacking any theme – rheme connection between clauses or sentences or use a circular progression i.e. delaying the theme for longer, partly as a means of cultural attitude to politeness.

Are East Asians at a particular disadvantage? This I’m less clear about. Chinglish may give us an insight. Think of the classic Chinglish – long time no see compared with I haven’t seen you for a long time. The order of ideas in the two versions is quite different and it’s not big leap to imagine a series of such statements leading to confusing development. English speakers’ basic starting point is subject – predicate – object – adverbial. Chinese can be analysed subject – adverbial – predicate – object. Chinese speakers reputedly have a tendency to back end their units i.e. the most important information comes later (as already mentioned as a way of indirect communication), whether in units at sentence level or even paragraph level. In addition, Chinese favours short sentences rather than complex sentences so when attempting to write in complex style there is a disorientation.6


In my final post on coherence, I’ll explain what I did in the classroom the flush out for myself what issues there were with coherence while experimenting with different ideas to improve coherence, but before then, if you’ve got any experience with East Asian writers yourself and have noticed particular tendencies in their English writing, do let me know.


  1. Longman dictionary of language teaching and applied linguistics Richards & Schmidt Routledge; 4 edition (2010)
  2. A Short Analysis of Discourse Coherence Wang & Guo Journal of Language Teaching and Research, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 460-465, March 2014
  3. An introduction to functional grammar Halliday Routledge
  4. Thematic progression in the writing of students and professionals Hawes Ampersand 2 2015 93-100
  5. Theme and Rheme in the Thematic Organization of Text: Implications for Teaching Academic Writing Wang Asian EFL Journal, Volume 9, Number 1 2007
  6. Quite a number of articles on this that I’ve skimmed through, but of particular value might be Causes of and Remedies for Chinglish in Chinese College Students’ Writings Wang & Wang Open Journal of Modern Linguistics 2012. Vol.2, No.2, 71-78

4 thoughts on “Coherence part 2: what does the literature tell us?

  1. Matthew Forrester

    Neil, thank you so much for raising this issue. My experience has been similar to yours: slowly realizing over many years that the structuring of information is one of the key problems for East Asian writers of academic EAP, followed by the sudden discovery in the last 12 months that theme-rheme writing is an important way to assist them. I have the zeal of a convert right now! I’d like to develop your thoughts in three areas: drawing attention to more relevant literature, discussing the nature of your sources, and providing a better analysis of the L1 influence from Mandarin.

    Although Hawes (2015) and Wang (2007) suggest that the theoretical foundations of theme-rheme analysis have been around since at least Halliday, its utility in classroom teaching only seems to have been fully appreciated recently. It is emphasized (perhaps not taught at all) in current textbooks from the mainstream educational publishers (e.g. Cambridge Academic English, Oxford EAP, Q:Skills for Success). However, Garnet has published an outstanding book for teaching training, EAP Essentials (Alexander, Argent, and Spencer 2008), which places theme-rheme analysis at the centre of the EAP agenda, as well as a textbook based on these ideas (Argent and Alexander 2010). Mansfield (2012) won the BALEAP dissertation prize for a description of how theme-rheme teaching could be implemented in a London university, which was the perfect inspiration for my context. They might be better resources for colleagues seeking an overview of theme-rheme pedagogy than Hawes and Wang; they are certainly more accessible.

    Teachers might also question Wang (2007) because the ‘Asian EFL Journal’ is not peer-reviewed. In this case, however, it seems that the journal has served its function, because it has published a well-written piece that enabled us to hear the voice of colleagues cut off from the Oxbridge publishing powerhouses, to the benefit of learners in both Glasgow and Greenwich. And it would hardly be appropriate for a comment on a blog to imply that everything outside a paywall is worthless! Unfortunately, Wang and Wang (2012) shows a less happy side of the story for two reasons. Firstly, the ‘Open Journal of Modern Linguistics’ is published by one of Beall (2016)’s “predatory publishers”, which means that Wang & Wang have probably paid top dollar for poor service. Secondly, peer review helps all of us to avoid errors. For example, the example of linear progression given here seems flawed: surely the theme of the second sentence is not “the man” but “the dog”, which is in the rheme of the first sentence? The example of derived theme might also perhaps be better characterized as linear (dog > *the* canine, poo > *the* pooper scooper), given the use of definite articles.

    Wang and Wang may also have lead astray your understanding of the influence from Chinese L1. Their contrasts between “Chinese” and “English” writing ignore everything that EAP research has taught us about the importance of genre and context. “Long time no see” is a word-for-word rendering of “好久不见” (haojiu bujian), and both phrases are always used as unalterable chunks as greetings; “I haven’t seen you for a long time” would be used in a different context with a different intention. Many of Wang and Wang’s examples are similarly flawed. More seriously, they have lead you to think that Chinese favours short sentences compared to English. Actually their argument (p.72 especially Table 1) is that Chinese favours “simple *clauses*” compared to the “complex *sentences*” of English. Their example supports this, and they move on to argue that Chinese sentences are “more diffusive” (p.73) because of their multiple simple clauses. However, this ought to be an advantage for Chinese students in UK universities, because EAP prefers short sentences with simple grammatical structures. Nor is the problem caused by Chinese writers’ tendency to delay the theme (p.74); my anecdotal (!) experience of Chinese texts is that this pattern primarily operates in larger discourse units than the sentence. The real difficulty for our Chinese students may be the different syntactic structures within the sentence, particularly the use in Mandarin of topic-comment structures to fix the theme across multiple clauses without the additional markers (articles, transitions and shell nouns) required in English, but the relationship of theme/topic and subject is a very controversial area in Chinese grammatical studies and a skim-read of Kirkpatrick and Xu (2012) suggests there is much more to learn here.

    In the meantime, teachers have to teach, and my own experiments suggest that a focus on the concept of the main verb helps Asian students to notice and make use of theme-rheme analysis. However, I will save those observations for a comment on part 3, which I hope will arrive in time for me to steal some ideas for pre-sessional courses! Thank you once again for two stimulating posts.

    Matthew Forrester, University of Greenwich Language Centre

    Alexander, O., Argent, S., and Spencer, J. (2008) EAP Essentials. Reading: Garnet Publications.
    Argent, S. and Alexander, O. (2010) Access EAP: Foundations Course Book. Reading: Garnet Publications.
    Beall, J. (2016) Beall’s List: Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers. Available at: Accessed: 18 May 2016.
    Kirkpatrick, A. and Xu, Z. (2012) Chinese Rhetoric and Writing: An introduction for language teachers. Fort Collins, CO/Anderson, SC: The WAC Clearinghouse/Parlor Press. Available at: Accessed: 17 May 2016.
    Mansfield, K. (2012) The development, implementation and evaluation of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) materials for a London University. MA thesis. Available at: Accessed: 2 December 2015.


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

  3. Hi Matt

    Thanks for your dedication. Very much appreciated your response (and hopefully appreciated by a wider audience than just me because I think there’s a lot to take forward; in fact you’re showing the value of this blog as a non-stuffy forum for discussion – a blog which over time will hopefully develop a wider audience). I’ll just make a couple of points in response to your points:

    Firstly, regarding ‘delaying the theme… larger discourse units’, I think you may be onto something. My latest post, although a bit haphazard, has led me to more questions and concerns about exactly this point at paragraph level e.g. perceptions of topic sentence and its position.

    Secondly, I’d be interested in knowing what you meant about EAP favouring short sentences with simple grammatical structures. Do you mean the published course books have a preference for that/encourage it?

    And, as a by the way, I just had an interesting chat with a Chinese student who had just done her very first home essay task (a 700 word essay, using a couple of sources for support) and we were discussing poor coherence; she didn’t seem too surprised when we looked at two particular sections of text as examples. She explained: 1. She used google translate; 2. She took that sentence from a source and just changed a handful of words but not the order of information.


    1. Matthew Forrester

      Hi Neil,

      Yhank you so much for taking the time to continue the debate. I will pick up your first point in a comment on part 3.

      Your second point rightly questions my rather odd claim. My comment about EAP favouring short sentences was very misleading because there was no comparator. The EAP written genres have longer sentences and more complex grammatical structures than many non-EAP genres. However, EAP is shorter and simpler than the interlanguage produced by many of my Chinese (and other) students, where 40-word one-sentence paragraphs are a regular occurrence. I think of this as ‘IELTS mode’, because IELTS preparation sometimes emphasizes the need to use a variety of language forms, with more complex forms demonstrating greater competence. Among Chinese students, this is intertwined with the misuse of linking adverbials identified and explained by Leedham and Cai (2013). I borrowed the shorthand of ‘EAP is short and simple’ from a lesson plan that tries to challenge students to reconsider the relative rewards of complexity and clarity. A long, grammatically complex sentence full of pre-packaged content may be a good gambit for increase your IELTS score, but a university tutor might prefer several short, simple sentences that engage with the material or question that they have set. In particular, I have asked students to interpret a version of Table 2 from Leedham and Cai to help them wave goodbye to some “lexical teddybears” before we move on theme-rheme analysis.

      Thank you for sharing the insight into the (grim?!) reality of student composition practices. I’ve also noticed increased use of Google Translate in the last year (we seem to be past the period where Chinese students object to using Google) and I think your comment is the tipping point that will push me into revising my aged handout on dictionary use. For a long time, this has been about the wonders of corpus-based dictionaries (Oxford Advanced Learners, COBUILD, etc.) and the evils of Kingsoft products ( The use and misuse of Google Translate needs to be addressed at the start of the course. However, this raises the thorny issue of whether to encourage good online dictionaries in the classroom or not. One of my tasks last week was to haul our resource centre’s paper dictionaries into deep storage, because they are never used. Why should students trek across a rainy courtyard when they can get OALD for free on their phones? However, Payne-Carter et al (2016) seems to demonstrate conclusively that using devices in the classroom hurts students in the long run, so I’m in a quandary. Perhaps “we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts…”!

      Leedham, M and Cai, G. (2013) ‘Besides … on the other hand: Using a corpus approach to explore the influence of teaching materials on Chinese students’ use of linking adverbials’, Journal of Second Language Writing, 22, pp.374-389.
      Payne Carter, S., Greenberg, K., and Walker, M. (2016) The Impact of Computer Usage on Academic Performance: Evidence from a Randomized Trial at the United States Military Academy. Cambridge MA: MIT/NBER. SEII Working Paper #2016.02.


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