What are Cohesive Devices and how do they affect comprehension?
I was recently developing some PowerPoints and activities for a comprehension training session about the role that text structure plays in reading comprehension. One of the related topics that is unfamiliar to many teachers was Cohesive Devices (sometimes called Cohesive Ties, and also known as anaphors). I thought I’d devote this post to explaining cohesive ties and how they might affect reading comprehension, especially for younger students or English language learners.
Cohesive devices are words or phrases used to connect ideas between different parts of text. There are three main types of cohesive devices:
- Pronouns that refer back to a previously mentioned noun.
- Example: Jim went out to the playground. He played on the swings.
- Substitution of a synonym for a previously mentioned noun.
- Example: There was a lot of food, but she only ate the bread.
- Transition words and inter-clausal connectors such as so or because
- Example: Jim played on the swings. Later, Jim played ball.
- Example: Mary was late, so she took the bus. Mary was late because she took the bus.
Cohesive devices affect comprehension because they help readers integrate information between sentences in a text. The pronoun, synonym, or transition word is tied to a previous word, phrase or clause (the antecedent). Many students, even skilled readers, never consciously think about authors’ use of cohesive devices. It is helpful for teachers to draw attention to this kind of text structure, especially for students who have difficulty comprehending a series of sentences that include cohesive ties. Children with poor reading comprehension make more errors on questions that can only be answered if a pronoun has been correctly resolved. They are less likely to supply the appropriate anaphor in a cloze task. For example, “Steve gave his umbrella to Andrea in the park because ___ wanted to keep dry.” (Carlisle & Rice, 2002; Cain & Oakhill, 2007) Also, poor comprehenders’ difficulties are particularly pronounced when there is intervening text between the anaphor and it’s antecedent.
Look at the two examples below. The cohesive ties are linked to their antecedents with arrows. Notice how there can be multiple cohesive ties within a single paragraph!
As a means of drawing students’ attention to cohesion, have them identify all the words that “stand for” other words, phrases, or a clause in a short, familiar passage from material students are reading. For young children, many of the read aloud texts that teachers use to develop vocabulary and comprehension include examples where the author has used pronouns, synonyms, and transitions to connect sentences. For good readers, an activity such as this may be all that is necessary to encourage greater attention to the connections between sentences. The following are some recommendations for students who have difficulty understanding cohesion (Maria, 1990):
- Have students match the cohesive tie with its antecedent. There are several ways to do this. Students may draw arrows from the cohesive ties to the words they replace, write the antecedent above the cohesive tie, or write the same number over words that are linked. Some students may benefit from applying one of these techniques as they read.
- Have children read a passage and answer questions that require comprehension of cohesive ties.
- Delete pronouns from a passage, and have students fill in the blanks.
- Give students a passage in which names and other sentence components have been unnecessarily repeated. Ask them to substitute cohesive ties for the repetitious information.
- At times, the antecedent of a pronoun may be somewhat ambiguous. Some children may need to be taught how to use “clues” such as number and gender to figure out what pronouns stand for.
- Example: Joe and Laura went to the beach. He played in the water while she looked for shells. Afterwards, they had a picnic lunch.
In other instances, children may need to draw on background knowledge and reasoning skills to determine the most probable antecedent of a pronoun. In the following example, it more likely refers to the mall than to the bank since John was able to conduct his business at the bank: John went to the mall after he deposited some money in his account at the bank. It was closed.
Cain, K. & Oakhill, J. (2007). Reading comprehension difficulties: Correlates, causes, and consequences. In K. Cain & J. Oakhill (Eds.) Children’s comprehension problems in oral and written language. New York: Guilford Press. pp. 48-49
Carlisle, J.F. & Rice, M. S. (2002). Improving reading comprehension: Research-based principles and practices. Baltimore, MD: York Press. pp. 129-130