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Coherence in writing: a new approach

Rosalind Lawe Davies
Graduate School of Education
University of Western Australia



This paper reports, in brief, some of the findings of my PhD research, in which I
looked at differences between coherent and non-coherent tertiary examination essays.
The aim of the study was to discover the properties of text which discriminated
between these groups, looking principally at cataphoric/anaphoric relationships. The
'new' approach to which the title of this paper refers, reflects the finding that
coherence in text was found to relate strongly to the fulfilment or non-fulfilment of
reader expectations raised by cataphoric language functions in the text. This approach
is clearly different from that in which coherence is considered to relate primarily to
anaphoric functions.

In this paper, I shall give a brief background to the study with regard to theory and
methodology, and then describe the cataphoric functions of language found to be
important in discriminating between coherent and non-coherent texts. Similarities and
differences between Native speakers (NS), Non-Native Speakers (NNS) and
International (INT) students will also be indicated.


In this study, it was considered that coherence of text lies in the judgement of the
reader; it is coherent if the reader can readily comprehend its meaning. Like others
before me, I sought to define the forms and functions of language in the text which
could contribute to those judgements. Johns (1986) distinguished two approaches to
the study of coherence;

1. text based properties of cohesion and topic flow, and

2. reader based expectations of form and content.

The first of these approaches relates principally to anaphoric properties of text,

linking back to what has gone before, together with the cataphoric/anaphoric
functions of connectors. The second relates to the reader's previous knowledge and
experience, utilised in comprehending the new text. Both offer important insights into
the nature of text.

I extended the reader-based approach to the study of coherence, by looking beyond

the reader's existing expectations, to those raised specifically by the language of the
text. I considered that, in addition to general expectations, the prompt activates
specific expectations of the text, in terms of lexical repetition, inferential links, sets of
organisers and other characteristics. Next, the text opening raises a further set of
expectations that need to be fulfilled. This approach allowed the analysis to remain
focused on the language of the text, looking at the kinds of reader expectations that
were raised and fulfilled in texts judged by readers to be coherent, and those that were
unfulfilled in texts judged to be non-coherent.

The theoretical bases for the study were those of cognitive Schema theory (Carrell,
1983), Structure Building theory (Gernsbacher, 1990) and Functional Grammar
(Givon, 1993). The concerns of Schema Theory relate to reader expectations of the
form and content of text. These schemata develop from previous knowledge and
experience, and tend to be shared by members of a particular discourse community. In
this framework, judgements of text coherence relate to the degree to which in-coming
information meets the expectations that are based in a pre-existing schema. This
involves 'top down' information processing, in which the reader seeks to confirm
predictions made on the basis of such schemata. The correlate to this is 'bottom up'
processing, which involves the chunk-by-chunk processing of language units in the
text, and the creation of text-specific expectations, as examined in Structure Building
theory (Gernsbacher, 1990).

Structure Building theory is concerned with the reader's task of building a coherent
message. It considers text-specific reader expectations based on particular language
properties of the text, and the ways in which such expectations are fulfilled, and the
consequences if they are not. Specifically, cataphoric language serves to raise
expectations by 'pointing ahead' in the text, and anaphoric items serve to fulfil
expectations. Items which function cataphorically occur at the front of any given unit
of the text: that is, in the prompt or title, the text opening, the beginning of the
development and the front of the paragraph. In those positions, text-specific
expectations may be raised for lexical repetition, semantic inference, a particular set
of organisers or a text pattern.

Functional Grammar (Givon, 1993) is concerned with the ways in which language
serves communicative functions. Within a functional framework, the grammar of a
language is regarded as a "set of strategies that one employs in order to produce
coherent communication" (Givon, 1993, p.1). This approach to language is sensitive
to cognitive considerations such as word order and information order, when studying
the functional implications of syntactic or grammatical choice. Word order and
information order have important implications for the cognitive considerations of
focal attention and memory, which, in turn, impact on the reader's ability to 'follow'
and comprehend a text.


The findings presented here are based on the results of quantitative and qualitative
analyses of 164 examination essays written by 67 students of Dentistry at the
University of Western Australia, in response to five different essay prompts. Students
were Native-Speakers (NS), Non-Native Speaker (NNS) residents of Australia, and
International (INT) students. Each group of essays was rated for coherence by four
raters: two content specialists and two Applied Linguists. Raters were untrained, and
were asked to rate the essays on a scale of 1-5, judging whether the essay was a
"readable, well-structured, logically argued and coherent answer to the question".
Based on these judgements, 17 High-rated essays (H-R) and 22 Low-rated (L-R)
essays were identified for comparison.

Two types of analysis were conducted; quantitative and qualitative. The quantitative
analysis compared the frequency of pre-selected language items that might be
predicted to discriminate between the two groups. The qualitative analysis defined
differences that related to the fulfilment or non-fulfilment of cataphoric language
functions, as well as other obvious differences associated with reader judgements of

The qualitative analysis revealed a considerable number of differences between the

high- and low-rated groups. However, it was apparent that all low-rated essays
displayed 'problems' of comprehensibility (eg language error), unity (eg dot/dash
points) and length (too short/long), which might be deemed to account for judgements
of 'non-coherence'. In order to control these factors, and validate the findings
regarding cataphoric language functions, a selected group of mid-rated (M-R) texts
were analysed. It was found that these essays, also deemed to be 'non-coherent'
because they were not high-rated, displayed the same features as low-rated essays in
terms of unfulfilled reader expectations.


The quantitative analysis revealed only two differences: low-rated essays were
significantly shorter than high-rated essays, and low-rated essays had a higher number
of Discourse-New (Prince, 1992) sentence subjects. Items that did not differ between
the groups were the frequency of items of coreference, logical connectors (Halliday
and Hasan, 1976), units of local coherence, and sentence-initial Inter-Clausal
Connectors (Givon, 1993).

In the qualitative analysis, a distinction was made between general schema

expectations (form, content and length) and text-specific expectations based on
cataphoric language use in the text. It was found that high-rated texts fulfilled both
general and text-specific expectations, with the first being a necessary, but not
sufficient condition for coherence.

The findings with regard to 'top down' expectations of textual form were that an
'appropriate' genre took the form of a text opening, development and conclusion, in
which a global list of numbered, headed paragraphs was acceptable. In some high-
rated essays, the lack of a conclusion was accepted by readers where this co-occurred
with fulfilled metatextual deixis (eg In this essay I will...). Forms that were not
acceptable included multiple lists and list/sub-list organisation, including the use of
dot or dash points. The issue of text content was addressed in text-specific terms,
relating to lexical repetition of key items in the prompt.

The findings with regard to 'bottom up', text-specific expectations showed that high-
and low-/mid-rated texts could be clearly differentiated on the basis of
fulfilled/unfulfilled expectations based on cataphoric language functions at the front
of textual units. On the basis of these differences, seven text-specific expectations
could be defined. In each case, high-rated essays fulfilled these expectations, and
many low- and mid-rated essays did not.

1. Expectations of exact lexical repetition.

The first mention of a noun phrase in the prompt or title is cataphorically important.
Exact lexical repetition of that noun phrase is expected, at least once in the body of
the text. Where exact lexical repetition did not occur, the text was not high-rated.

How does saliva contribute to the maintenance of health of the teeth and oral soft

Exact repetition in high-rated essays: saliva; maintenance; teeth.

Omissions in low and mid-rated essays: maintenance; teeth.

2. Expectations of lexical/derivational repetition

The first mention of a noun phrase in the text opening is cataphorically important.
High-rated essays fulfilled cataphoric functions by providing lexical/derivational
repetition, in the development, of a noun phrase first mentioned in the opening. Many
low- and mid-rated texts had 'misleading' text openings in which noun phrases
mentioned in the opening were not referred to again.

It should be noted that, unlike expectations based in the prompt, repetition of words
first mentioned in the opening did not need to be exact, but could be found in
relationships such as maintenance/maintains, growth/grows, lubrication/lubricant. The
following examples illustrate this finding.

High-rated Essay

How does saliva contribute to the maintenance of health of

the teeth and oral soft tissues?
Saliva is mainly composed of water, proteins and inorganic
substances such as NA+, K+, bicarbonate ions, and so on.
Opening: It has several functions including protection, mechanical
washing of the mouth, buffering, digesting, taste, the
maintenance of tooth integrity, lubrication and so on.
The function of protection is.......... and the constant
mechanical washing is.......
Phosphate and bicarbonate ions are responsible for the
buffering capacity....
The function of digestion is....
The acuity of taste is....
Maintenance of tooth integrity is....
Saliva also acts as a lubricant. (NNS 58)

Low-Rated essay: 'Misleading' opening

Discuss the growth and development of the human
mandible from birth to adulthood
The growth & development of mandible is by Cartilage &
Surface Activity
No reference to either 'Cartilage activity' or 'Surface
activity'. (NNS 55)

3. Expectations of salient lexical cohesion

The first mention of a semantic field in the text opening or the prompt is
cataphorically important, and raises expectations of cohesion by semantic inference.
Both high-rated and low-rated texts fulfilled predictions of semantic inference; the
difference between the two groups lay in the salience of the linking item. In high-
rated texts, the inferred nominal links were placed at the front of the paragraph. In
low-rated texts, the inferentially linked noun phrase was in a position of lesser
salience, such as in the predicate of the paragraph-initial sentence.

High-Rated essay: linking items in fronted headings.

How does saliva contribute to the maintenance of health of the

teeth and oral soft tissues?
The main function of saliva is the protection and maintenance
of the oral mucosa and its associated structures. Its
Opening: composition is thus very important in its fulfilment of this
function which can be divided into some of the several specific
functions of saliva.
The Pellicle
Lysozymes and Lactoferrin
Mechanical Washing
Ion Exchange
Clotting Factors
Water Balance (NS 40)

Low-Rated Essay: linking items in the predicate.

How does saliva contribute to the maintenance of health of

the teeth and oral soft tissues?
Saliva contain water, protein and enzyme in function to
maintain health of teeth and oral soft tissue.
Development: Saliva have protection function.
Saliva contains bicarbonate and phosphate ion mostly as
buffering agent.....
In digestion of food,.....
Saliva have important role on maintaining tooth integrity by
ion exchange....
Saliva contribute to oral washing and cleansing
mechanism...... (NNS 52)

4. Expectations of a global lexical set of dividing organisers

The definition of 'organisers' is derived from the cognitive approach of Harold (1995).
Organisers occur in paragraph-initial positions and serve to both group and divide
text. In this study a distinction was made between dividing organisers which indicate
topic change, and unifying organisers, which maintain the existing topic. It was found
that dividing organisers occur in sets (temporal, enumerative, sequential,
predicted/predictable noun phrases, headings), with a minimum number of two in the
set. In a minimal set, the organisers spanned the whole text, that is, the first dividing
organiser was placed near the front of the development, and the second towards the
end of the text.

The first item of a set of organisers is cataphorically important. It raises an

expectation that other members of the set will mark successive units in the text. High-
rated essays had at least one complete lexical set of dividing organisers. Low-rated
essays had either no set of dividing organisers, an incomplete or inconsistent set
(unfulfilled cataphora), or a set of numbers only.

High-rated essay
eg. enumerative set:

• Firstly, saliva acts as a buffer...

• Secondly, saliva aids in digestion.
• Thirdly, for taste to occur, ...
• Fourthly, the saliva contains antimicrobial agents...
• Fifthly, the saliva forms a protective barrier,...
• Sixthly, the saliva acts to heal wounds....
• Finally, the saliva is important in maintaining the integrity of the teeth.

Low-rated essays

a) no global lexical set of dividing organisers

Discuss the growth and development of the human

mandible from birth to adulthood.
Growth of the mandible from birth to adulthood occurs in
two ways

1. Endochondral replacement: replacement of

cartilage by bone

2. Direct apposition: direct deposition of bone onto

free surfaces.
Development: The body of the mandible grow [sic] & changes shape....

i. Resorption of the anterior of the ramus occurs....

ii. Bone is resorbed from the medial of the body ...
Growth of the mandible at the condyles & coronoid
process ....
Growth of the mandible occurs as a result of...
Also the development & eruption & replacement of

(NS 40)

b) incomplete/inconsistent set.

Discuss the growth and development of the human mandible

from birth to adulthood.
Para 2. Initially, the mandible...
Last para. - at this time the Merkels cartilage...(NNS 65)

c) numbers only

iii. Saliva protects the oral cavity...

iv. Saliva perform [sic] minor digestive role....
v. Buffering capacity of saliva....
vi. Saliva protect [sic] us because we can recognise noxious substance by
tasting. (INT1)

5. Expectations of clear cataphora in the text opening.

High-rated texts had a brief text opening in which cataphoric language

functions were clear and unambiguous. Many low-rated essays had confusing,
long, or unpredictable text openings on the basis of which clear expectations
were difficult to form.

High-rated essay (and see above High-rated examples)

Metatextual deixis:
This question will be answered by considering the functions of
and thereby deciding how the removal of these functions will affect the oral cavity.
(NS 28)

Low-rated essays

a) confusing opening:

o The human mandible developes [sic] from Meckle's cartilage.

o The mandible does not undergo endochondral ossification, but rather intra-
membranous ossification. An exception is the mandibular condyles which do
undergo endochondral ossification. (NS39)

b) unpredictable opening:
Discuss the growth and development of the human mandible
from birth to adulthood
Mandible is the first bone that begins to ossify. The ossification is
different from the maxillae. (INT 37)

c) Long opening

How does saliva contribute to the maintenance of health of the

teeth and oral soft tissues?
Composition of saliva is mainly water, in fact more than 90% of
saliva composition is water. Protein also contribute to this,
proetin [sic] found in saliva are:

 protein that are found in serum

o gamma globulins,
o albumin and
o blood clotting factors IX, VII, VIII

Opening:  mucoproteins and glycoproteins

 blood substance group
 enzymes eg amylase and lysozymes
 hormones such as nerve growth factors and parotin

Other composition is inorganic materials such as Na+,

phosphate, chloride, potassium, bicarbonate and so on. All this
that are listed above contribute to the function of saliva to
maintain the health of the teeth and oral soft tissue. Saliva has
several function [sic] to maintain the health of the teeth and oral
soft tissue. (INT 37)

6. Expectations of completed pattern.

Repetition of lexical/grammatical items in paragraph-initial position, at the

beginning of the development is cataphoric of a global pattern (Hasan, 1985).
The reader expects the pattern to be continued throughout the text. It was
found that where a pattern was incomplete, the text was not be judged to be

High-Rated essay: completed pattern

o The calcified mandible is formed........

o Meckel's cartilage is formed........
Development o As mentioned before
o As bone is formed,
o As the mandible grows
o As the mandible grows
o As the teeth erupt in the mandible
o In conclusion

(NNS 66)

Low-Rated essay: incomplete pattern

Any factor that will give damage to ' the dentine will result
in pulpal response.
o In restorative dentistry, the procedure....
o In biomechanical perspective, damage to
the pulp....
o The mechanical, chemical and thermal
insult will stimulate C and SA fibre....
o In order to reduce the damage to the
dentino-pulpal complex is
1. Use a lot of water
2. Use light pressure
3. stop the procedure...
4. In deep cavity, calcium...
5. Increase blood flow...

(INT 3)

7. Expectations of predicted/predictable noun phrases in paragraph-initial


This feature of text marked occasions where the noun phrase at the front of the
paragraph-initial sentence was not predicted, that is, there was no cataphoric
expectation raised in the previous text. In high-rated essays, the paragraph-
initial noun phrase was always predicted in terms of either previous mention in
the text opening, or predictable in terms of previous expectation by semantic
inference. In low-rated essays, writers often opened a paragraph with a totally
unpredicted noun phrase.

Low-rated essay: unpredictable headings

Reversible and irreversible damage to the dentino-pulpal

This phenomena are common in restorative dentistry, resulting
from various procedures.
Their occurrence are avoidable and unavoidable.

o A Biological consideration..............................
o B. Mechanical
o C Chemical consideration.......................
o D Technical consideration....................

(INT 2)
In addition to the above differences between coherent and non-coherent texts,
the results of the qualitative analysis showed that NS, NNS and INT writers
displayed similar problems in failing to fulfil general schema expectations and
text-based expectations raised by cataphoric language functions. It seemed that
they shared a common problem in failing to appreciate the important,
predictive functions of language placed at the front of textual units. Some
differences between the groups were apparent, but in the context of this study,
it is the similarities that are most interesting, for they suggest that all student
writers could benefit from tuition in this regard.

Differences were:

i. INT writers were over-represented in the low-rated category.

ii. INT and some NNS writers had problems of comprehensibility
(language error)
iii. INT writers were more likely to have a misleading, confusing,
unpredictable or long text opening.
iv. NNS writers were more likely to meet expectations of appropriate
v. NS writers had greater language resources for dividing organisation.
vi. NS writers were more effective in making links of semantic inference


The findings need to be tested in other texts and in other situations, but it
seems clear that this is an approach to the study of coherence that could impact
on the teaching of writing, where students could be taught to appreciate the
cataphoric functions of language placed at the front of textual units. The
reader invests those units with a 'meaning' beyond that of knowledge telling;
they are promises of what is to come, and where those promises are not kept,
the reader appears to have difficulty in forming a coherent message from the


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