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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Longman dictionary of language teaching and applied linguistics Richards & Schmidt Routledge; 4 edition (2010)
- A Short Analysis of Discourse Coherence Wang & Guo Journal of Language Teaching and Research, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 460-465, March 2014
- An introduction to functional grammar Halliday Routledge
- Thematic progression in the writing of students and professionals Hawes Ampersand 2 2015 93-100
- Theme and Rheme in the Thematic Organization of Text: Implications for Teaching Academic Writing Wang Asian EFL Journal, Volume 9, Number 1 2007
- 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