Even though coherence and cohesion makes up 25% of a student’s score for Writing Task 1 and Task 2, it is probably the area that most IELTS test-takers overlook in their preparation. Quite honestly, I am sure that 50% of students aren’t even sure what the two words mean, let alone how they affect their band score! So, in today’s post, I want to look at the 5 most common IELTS Coherence & Cohesion mistakes and show you how to avoid them.
What is Coherence?
Very simply, coherence is how well your essay is organised and how easily it can be understood by the reader. Is your essay divided into clear paragraphs? Do your ideas progress and build upon one another throughout your essay? Could a well-educated native speaker read your essay and understand your sentences easily? Yes? Great – then you have good coherence!
What is Cohesion?
If coherence is how easy an essay is to read, then cohesion is how well your ideas are connected. Do you have clear topic sentences that tell the reader the main idea in each of your paragraphs? Do you use transition signals to show the relationships between your ideas? Do you use referencing and substitution to replace key nouns that are repeated? Yes? Great – then you have great cohesion!
So, if this is what coherence and cohesion are, how do students go wrong in the test? Well, truthfully, in many ways, but here are the 5 that I see most often when I am marking.
1. No clear topic sentence in a paragraph
One of the main criteria in the band descriptors for IELTS Coherence & Cohesion is having a clear central topic in each paragraph. The way to signal to the examiner what the main idea in your paragraph is to start with a sentence that clearly states what you are going to discuss i.e. the topic sentence.
Now, when I was teaching English for Academic Purposes in universities, I would tell students that it didn’t matter where in the paragraph the topic sentence came – it could be at the beginning, the middle, or the end, you just had to have one!
However, for IELTS, I strongly recommend that you always START your paragraph with the topic sentence.
Why? Well, there are two reasons
- If you know what the main topic is going to be before you start writing, you are much more likely to stick to that topic throughout the paragraph.
- IELTS examiners are marking your essay according to the band descriptors. Why make them “hunt” or “search” for your topic, or make them question if you have one? Show them from the beginning what you are going to discuss so that they can relax and get on with assessing the other aspects of your essay.
So, what does a good topic sentence look like? Well, that will depend on the type of essay you are writing.
1. Paragraphs with MORE than one idea
If you are writing a paragraph that contains TWO ideas i.e. a discuss both sides essay, a problem / solution essay, or an advantages / disadvantages essay then you just need a GENERAL topic sentence that lets the examiner know the main idea of the paragraph. That’s because you are giving two ideas that are united by the general purpose. For example:
- On the one hand, it could be argued that sportsmen’s salaries are too high (e.g. this paragraph will contain two reasons why some people think this)
- On the one hand, there are several factors that lead to a person being obese (e.g. this paragraph will contain two causes)
- On the one hand, there are a number of advantages to working from home (e.g. this paragraph will contain two advantages)
2. Paragraphs with ONE idea
However, if you are writing a paragraph that contains ONE main idea i.e. a to what extent essay, or a positive /negative development essay, then we have to express the main argument in the topic sentence:
- First, removing parks from cities would result in an increase in pollution. (e.g. this paragraph will discuss the first reason for my position = pollution)
- The first negative is that private tutors are costly. (e.g. this paragraph will discuss the first negative = cost)
Top Tip for Topic Sentences
Before you write any paragraph, ask yourself the simple question “What is the main topic of this paragraph?” The answer will be your topic sentence.
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2. Poor use of transition signals
Transition signals are words like “in addition” or “however” or “therefore” that are used to show the relationship between the ideas in your essay. I think many students believe that your whole score for coherence and cohesion is decided upon your use of transition signals alone (which we now know is not true), so they develop one of the following problems:
1. Overuse of transition signals
Weaker students often use transition signals between every sentence in their essay (First, Secondly, Moreover, Finally) Often, this is because they are not able to show the relationship between their ideas in other ways like using a complex sentence or referencing.
Also, it can be a sign that a student is not developing their ideas enough (if you are describing each of your arguments in one sentence, you are not expanding and supporting them enough to achieve a high score for Task Response). The best illustration of this is students who use a transition signal directly after their topic sentence:
Firstly, I believe that children should be taught in mixed classes. In addition, this will help them to learn how to socialise with the other sex.
Do you see the problem? The topic sentence has told us the main idea (well done!), so how can you use “in addition” after it? Are you going to add a second main idea?!!!! No! You don’t need any transition here! So, don’t use transition signals mechanically at the start of every sentence!
2. Use of “fake” transition signals
Because weaker students think that these transition signals are the key to achieving a high coherence and cohesion score, they also wrongly think that if they can “invent” some clever, unusual, rarely used transition signal, they will get bonus points from the examiner. They won’t! The fact is that these cohesive devices are standard expressions that have been used for literally centuries.
While some slang may come and go, transition signals never change, and trying to use a “new” one will only damage your score not increase it. Here are some of my “favourite” fake transitions (and to be clear, when I say “favourite”, I mean the absolute worst!).
Top Tip for Transition Signals – Don’t use any of these phrases!
To embark with, / To commence with,
On the one side / On the flip side
To recapitulate / By way of a conclusion
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3. Poor progression in a paragraph
Having progression in an essay is massively important for your coherence and cohesion score. But, what is progression? Well, very simply it means that your essay should feel like it is always moving forward. Every paragraph should tell me something new and be logically sequenced.
It’s interesting to me that almost every IELTS forum is full of questions about how to “organise the paragraphs” in an essay, but never about how to organise the sentences in a paragraph. Nobody seems to care that their sentences progress, even though this is much harder than learning a simple “template of an essay”. So, let me show you what progression is by showing you a paragraph that has almost none:
A paragraph with NO progression
Firstly, the biggest down side to eating fast food is that it causes obesity. People who eat fast food for lunch and dinner are often overweight. For example, recent research shows that 90% of people who eat fast food every day have more weight than is healthy. This clearly shows that fast food is bad for our health.
Can you see the problem? Read the first sentence of that paragraph. What does it tell us? Fast food causes obesity. Now read the rest of the paragraph. Does it tell us anything new? NO!!!! All it does is give me the same information again and again in different words!!!
This is a paragraph that does not progress.
When you write your essay, every sentence should add something new or more convincing to your argument. This is an extreme example, but it is a problem I see time and time again. Compare that paragraph with this one that DOES progress.
A paragraph with GOOD progression
Firstly, the biggest down side to eating fast food is that it causes obesity. Most fast food contains a high amount of saturated fat, salt and sugar, all of which can cause people to put on weight. Worse, many of these damaging ingredients are hidden inside food that might seem relatively healthy at first glance . For example, it is often the salads on a menu that contain the most calories as they are covered in high-calorie dressings. As a result, even people who think they are making healthy choices when they eat out are actually consuming ingredients which will lead them to put on weight.
Can you see the difference? Every sentence here added something more to my argument – this is progression! This is also why learning a “template” is not a good idea!!! Most templates rely heavily on repeating one idea again and again – examiners are well-trained and spot this repetition.
Top Tip for Progression
Every time you start a sentence ask yourself if you are adding to your argument or simply repeating. If you are adding, great. If you are repeating, stop and think of a new way to develop your idea.
4. Unclear referencing
Students with good cohesion are able to use referencing to avoid repeating words. They do this by using pronouns like “they” and “it”, or determiners like “this” and “these” to replace words that have previously appeared in the sentence. Referencing is a key academic writing skill and if you don’t use it, it will be hard for you to achieve more than a 6.0 for Task Response. However, the problem I see most often is not students not using referencing at all, but students using referencing poorly.
Every time you use a pronoun to replace a word, it must be 100% clear which word you are referring back to.
However, even very high-level students can have problems here. Take this sentence for example
What is more, these antibiotic resistant crops are fed to cows and are, therefore, indirectly consumed by humans, which in turn makes them resistant to the effects,
Can you see the problem? Read it again. Tell me, who does “them” refer to here? The crops, the cows or the humans??? It is NOT clear and so this is faulty referencing! If the reader of your essay cannot tell immediately what your pronoun or determiner refers to, you need to write your sentence again to make it clearer!
Learn how to referencing in your IELTS writing to get a 7.0+!
5. Parts of the essay cannot be understood
This is the most basic requirement of coherence. The examiner needs to understand your essay with ease if you want to achieve a 7.0 or higher. So, you would imagine that most students would do everything they could to make sure that their sentences are clear and easy to read, right? Wrong! They do the opposite!!!
I’m serious. Almost every student who comes to me for help is so obsessed with using “high-level vocabulary” that they end up writing sentences I can’t read because they are full of such strange synonyms and weird paraphrasing.
My advice here is simple – use the word that best conveys your message. Don’t think of that word and then look in a thesaurus for the longest possible synonym.
Trust me, examiners love essays that are easy to read!
Top 5 IELTS Coherence & Cohesion mistakes Summary:
- No clear topic sentences – tell the examiner what the main idea in your paragraph will be in the first sentence
- Poor use of transition signals – don’t use them between every sentence in a paragraph
- No progression – every sentence in your essay should add something more to your argument
- Poor referencing – it is great to reference, but it should always be clear what a pronoun refers to
- Parts of the essay cannot be understood – don’t let bad paraphrasing destroy your C&C score!
We have lessons on every part of coherence and cohesion in all of our IELTS Writing Packages – Trust me – our video library is the most detailed available (and the most fun!) 🚀