How to teach paragraph-level cohesion?





Date Published

07 June 2021

Coherence and cohesion is one of the four criteria assessed on the Writing section of IELTS. According to the public version of IELTS Writing Band Descriptors to achieve a 7 for coherence and cohesion, the test taker needs to logically organize information and ideas, have a clear progression throughout, use a range of cohesive devices appropriately although there may be some under-/over-use, and present a clear central topic within each paragraph.

When English language learners begin writing essays, they often rely on simple transition words, such as “first,” “second,” and “finally” to transition between paragraphs. This can result in choppy writing that lacks a logical flow of ideas. To encourage my students to improve the flow of their ideas between paragraphs, I have them first reflect on the cohesion of someone else’s writing piece before turning their attention to their own. In this blog post, I will take you through a “cut-up” activity I use with advanced English language learners (B2+). This activity could also be used for advanced learners preparing for IELTS.

Prepare ahead of time

Find a short writing piece, rearrange the paragraphs, mark each paragraph with a separate letter and then cut the writing piece up, separating each paragraph. Any writing piece with some successful transitions will work. My go-to for this activity is Roger Ebert’s film review of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, mainly because I love any excuse to introduce students to a John Hughes movie! When I use this film review, we usually watch the trailer and briefly discuss the plot. You can also go with a more traditional essay, but I like using “real-world” writing samples when I can.

Step #1:

Separate students into pairs and give each pair one cut-up writing piece. Then have them work together to decide the correct order. When I use the film review linked to above, there usually is at least one or two pairs that get it right. Once each pair thinks they know the correct order, ask them to write it up on the board (e.g., B, D, C, E, F, A).

Step #2:

Begin by telling them which paragraph goes first. Then have them re-evaluate (if needed) the order of the others and tell which one they think comes next and why. Continue doing this throughout till everyone knows the correct order.

Step #3:

Now that each pair knows the correct order, give them a couple of minutes to look at the last sentence and first sentence between each paragraph to make some observations of how the writer transitioned between paragraphs. Call on a few pairs to share their observations with the class.

Step #4:

Give a mini lesson on cohesive devices. If you use a flipped learning model, you may want to move this direct instruction outside the class. (Learn more about Flipped teaching in my previous blog post.) Since I don’t spend too much time on this, I usually cover this in class by providing a handout that highlights cohesive devices. There are so many handouts to choose from online, but one handout I have used before was created by Bellevue College. I like that it goes beyond just a list of transition words. After you go through some common cohesive devices, ask students to determine, with their partner, what kind of cohesive devices the writer used in the film review. You could extend this activity by having them improve the transitions, or rewrite a few sentences to use a different cohesive device.

Step #5:

Next, it’s time for students to work on their own drafts. I usually assign drafts of an essay they are working on to be turned in on this day cut up between paragraphs. They then trade papers with their partner. (I always have an essay ready for those who forgot to bring it in so that everyone gets to practice.) Once students trade papers with their partner, they do the same thing as before, rearrange the paragraphs as they think it should go and then tell their partner why they thought that order was correct. Be sure to point out that if the only reason they knew the order was because the paragraphs began with “first” and “second,” they have some more work to do.

Step #6:

With their partner’s feedback, give students some time to reflect on the organization of their papers and some time to rewrite transitions. At this point you could either ask them to take their essays home and improve on the transitions for homework, or have them tape their cut-up essay onto a sheet of paper and write some improved transitions.

Ferris Bueller film review exercise

My students always have a lot of fun with this activity, and, more importantly, they learn how to go beyond transition words to connect the old information in a previous paragraph with new information in the following. How do you help students improve cohesion in their writing?

  • Do you have an activity relating to transitioning between paragraphs you would like to share? We’d love to hear about it on our LinkedIn page.

About the author

Based in Savannah, Georgia, Misty Wilson is an experienced English as a Second Language instructor.