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Cohesion and the teaching of efl reading

Reading is an interactive process of communication. The interaction between the writer and the reader is made possible via the text. It is through the text that the writer encodes his message, and it is also through the text that the reader gets the meaning of the message by decoding it.

What is a text? A text may be spoken or written, prose or verse, dialogue or monologue. It may be anything from a single proverb to a whole play, from a momentary cry for help to an all-day discussion on a committee. Most texts extend well beyond the confines of a single sentence.

A text is distinguished from a nontext by its texture. The texture is primarily provided by cohesion, which is a semantic concept, which “refers to relations of meaning that exist within the text, and that define it as a text. Cohesion occurs where the interpretation of some element in the discourse is dependent on that of another. The one presupposes the other, in the sense that it cannot be effectively decoded except by recourse to it. Since the speaker or writer uses cohesion to signal texture, the listener or reader has to react to it in order to interpret it”

Cohesion holds segments of a text together, making it a semantic edifice, just as mortar does bricks or stones in a building. The importance of cohesion lies in the continuity it expresses between one part of the text and another. This continuity is necessary for the interpretation of text.

Cohesion provides the main thread of a text by showing that some entity or circumstance, some relevant feature or argument persists from one moment to another in the semantic process as the meanings unfold.

Different readers get different amounts of meaning from the same text. An efficient reader reads faster and gets more of the message, whereas a poor reader reads slowly and gets less information.

The major task of an EFL reading course is to cultivate efficient readers. One of the ways that the teacher can help her students is to teach them how to use cohesive devices as signposts, because these devices are textual markers indicating what they should pay attention to, and key words important for the minimum use of visual information. This makes it possible for cohesive patterns to play an indispensable role in the processing of text by a listener or reader. It is therefore necessary to help our students identify different kinds of cohesive chains, which form the backbones of different types of text, because those chains signal organizational patterns of different types of text.

This section demonstrates how we can help our students identify different organizational patterns by analyzing four types of cohesive chains, namely, the referential chain, the chain of ellipsis and substitution, the conjunctive chain, and the lexical chain.

  1. The referential chain. It is produced by a combination of reference and lexical cohesion (repetition and synonymy). It can be divided into three types: the participant chain, the circumstantial chain, and the process chain. The participant chain is formed with participants-or anything, such as objects and institution that can have a participant role in a transitivity structure. The circumstantial chain is formed with circumstantial events; and the process chain, the process itself. The referential chain provides the main thread of a text by identifying the participants, the circumstances, and the processes. It is typical of narratives.
  2. The chain of ellipsis and substitution. This type of chain is more characteristically found in dialogues, where the typical sequence is based on pairs or triads or longer structures that are related by interpersonal meaning. The major difference between this type and the first lies in that the first type shows the persistence of identical referents, but this type shows the constant shifting in the role relationships among the interlocutors, the sort of “same but different” semantic relation. Besides, in the other types of chain all the links of the chains can be found in the text, whereas in this type they are missing, and the reader has to supply them in order to interpret the text.
  3. The conjunctive chain. Conjunctive relations are essentially relations between messages or between larger complexes constructed out of messages. This type of chain generally expresses a range of meanings in three domains: elaboration, extension, and enhancement. It is typical of description, exposition, and argumentation. Different conjunctive chains, together with other cohesive chains, form different organizational patterns of different types of text.
  4. The Spatial Chain: A spatial chain is generally composed of words of location and direction. It is typical of description of the location of places, objects, and people in space. It is also used to describe movement through space.
  5. The Temporal Chain: A temporal chain may express chronological order or sequence of events, steps, etc. It is generally composed of words indicating time or sequence. It is typical of description of the history of a person or an event, or the development of a machine or an idea.
  6. The Cause-Effect Chain: This type of chain generally consists of words indicating causes, effects, and reasons. It is typical of exposition and argumentation. It is most often used in the sciences and the social sciences.
  7. The Chain of Analysis: This type of chain is also composed of words indicating order or sequence, but it expresses the pattern of thesis-example in making an analysis. It is typical of exposition and argumentation.
  8. 4. The lexical chain. Lexical cohesion has three major forms: repetition, synonymy, and collocation. A lexical chain can therefore be formed with these cohesive devices. Lexical chains may be used to indicate different organizational patterns.
  9. Comparison-Contrast: This kind of pattern generally consists of words indicating similarity or difference. It is typical of exposition that compares and contrasts people, places, objects, or events.
  10. Definition: This kind of pattern is typical of exposition, most often used in the sciences and the social sciences.
  11. Generalization: This type of pattern is composed of words indicating frequency, probability, and quantity. It is typical of exposition in which different levels of generality are use.

In this paper the importance of cohesion in the interpretation of text is discussed and is demonstrated how we can help our students improve their EFL reading by analyzing cohesive chains and using cohesive devices as signposts. From our discussion and analysis we can conclude that cohesion has an important role to implement in EFL reading. However, for more systematic application of the theory to the teaching of EFL reading, more research is needed in order to identify the overall relationship between different cohesive chains and different organizational patterns.


  1. Baudoin, E. Margaret et al. 1977. Reader’s choice. Ann Arbor, Mich.: The University of Michigan Press.
  2. Fowler, W. S. 1976. Proficiency English II: Reading comprehension. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons.
  3. Sonka, Amy L. 1981. Skillful reading: A text and workbook for students of English as a second language. Englwood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

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