The Use of Lexical Cohesion in Reading and Writing

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The Use of Lexical Cohesion
in Reading and Writing
Keiko MUTO
In Japan, the national curriculum standards have been reformed by the
former Ministry of Education known now as MEXT1. MEXT is making an
effort to shift the focus of EFL pedagogy from “correctness and accuracy”
in English to “communicative ability” (MEXT 1998). In response to this,
schools have laid emphasis on students’ ability to express themselves orally
in English as native speakers. This attempt, however, resulted in gram-
mar and lexis being minimised in schools. Conclusively, students enter
universities with insuffi cient knowledge of grammar and lexis. Considering,
however, that “[l]anguage learners will need to develop the full range of
lexical strategies” (Carter & McCarthy 1988: 219) to improve their com-
municative competence, lexical knowledge must be considered essential
to L2 learners.
The aim of this paper is to investigate how a working knowledge of
discourse-organising vocabulary, especially lexical cohesion, can help EFL
students in reading and writing. The subjects in this paper are in Extensive
Reading classes, which are designed to improve the skills of reading fi ction
in English: the aim is to get students used to reading books in English
without the aid of dictionaries and to cultivate their ability to interpret the
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story and understand the structure by reading as many books as possible.
In classes, an emphasis is laid on the practice of guessing unfamiliar word
meanings through the knowledge of discourse-organising vocabulary. An
examination of how such knowledge can help students’ English skills in
reading and writing will be undertaken.
There are three main sections to this paper. After the Literature Review
(Section 1), the Methodology (Section 2) will be introduced. The Discussion
(Section 3) will be divided in two parts; the Functioning of Cohesion in:
(1) Reading and (2) Writing. In order to investigate the degree to which
a knowledge of lexical cohesion infl uences reading/writing, three types of
reading exercises plus one kind of written exercise will be analysed and
discussed. Following the results, recommendations will be made offering
suggestions in the use of lexical cohesion in reading/writing classes at
tertiary level.
1. Literature Review
Lexical competence is a necessary element of communicative competence,
which is the ability to communicate successfully and appropriately. DeCar-
rico (2001) introduces the view held by many researchers that learners should
initially be taught a large productive vocabulary of at least two thousand
high-frequency words. Low-frequency words can be acquired while L2
learners are exposed to reading/listening. That is, low-frequency words can
be learned by practicing guessing new word meanings through clue words
found in discourse (Clarke and Nation 1980). By guessing new word mean-
ings through the knowledge of basic vocabulary, L2 learners can interpret
discourse more precisely. In providing students with an understanding of
organising elements of discourse, I believe it will necessary to teach them
how and where to look for clue items.
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1.1 Discourse Organising Vocabulary
Lexical items can, at times, have a signifi cant structuring role in texts. As
Winter (1977) pointes out, co-ordinating/subordinating conjunctions such
as and, but, because and if, and adverbials such as however, consequently
and therefore can be clue items to understand the lexical relationships in
discourse. In addition to this, reference words such as this, and that can also
be useful clue items. They refer to other words anaphorically/cataphorically,
which provide more information to words/phrases. Halliday & Hasan (1976)
add ‘general noun’ to pronouns, which means “a small set of nouns having
generalized reference within the major noun classes, those such as ‘human
noun,’ ‘place noun,’ ‘fact noun’ and the like” (Halliday & Hasan 1976:
274). For example, people, thing, place, and idea are included in general
nouns. They also refer/replace/summarise other words as pronouns do. In
response to Winter (1977) and Halliday & Hasan (1976), Francis (1994)
categorises referring words, which she terms ‘labels,’ into two groups: an
‘advance label’ which means cataphoric words and a ‘retrospective label’
which means anaphoric words. She states that an advance label allows “the
reader to predict the precise information that will follow” and a retrospective
label indicates to the reader “exactly how that stretch of discourse is to
be interpreted, and this provides the frame of reference within which the
subsequent argument is developed” (Francis 1994: 84–85). However differ-
ent they are, both will help the reader to collect information to understand
the text. As a result, it can be considered that a knowledge of discourse
organising vocabulary might complement L2 learners’ lack of vocabulary
and assist them in text interpretation.
Although discourse organising vocabulary is discussed (see above) in
terms of grammar, it is necessary to consider lexical items semantically.
That is, it is necessary to consider how lexical items are associated in
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terms of meaning in discourse. Considering the relationship between lexi-
cal items in discourse, Halliday & Hasan (1976) categorise lexical items
into two groups: ‘grammatical cohesion,’ which they classify into four
types: reference, substitution, ellipsis, and conjunction, and ‘lexical cohe-
sion,’ which they classify into two types: reiteration and collocation. Even
though they advocate that general nouns exist on the borderline between
two categories, the lexical items discussed above can be considered to be
in grammatical cohesion. The semantic relationship between lexical items
can be considered to be lexical cohesion.
1.2 Lexical Cohesion
Halliday & Hasan (1976) classify reiteration into four types: the same
word, a synonym/near-synonym, a superordinate, and a general word. For
example, ‘a boy’ can be replaced in the following sentences with ‘the
boy’ (the same word), ‘the lad’ (a synonym/near-synonym), ‘the child’ (a
superordinate), and ‘the idiot’ (a general word) (Halliday & Hasan 1976:
279–80). Meanwhile, they recognise collocation as an important part of
creating cohesion in connected text. Collocation refers to the semantic and
structural relation among words, which native speakers can use subcon-
sciously for comprehension or production of a text. They argue the case
of collocation as follows:
The cohesive effect … depends not so much on any systematic relation-
ship as on their tendency to share the same lexical environment, to occur
in COLLOCATION with one another. In general, any two lexical items
having similar patterns of collocation – that is, tending to appear in similar
context – will generate a cohesive force if they occur in adjacent sentences.
[emphasis Halliday & Hasan]
(Halliday & Hasan 1976: 286)
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A ‘cohesive force’ will produce a ‘cohesive tie,’ which is the relationship
between a cohesive item and the item it presupposed in a text. It other
words, collocational links between lexical items create cohesion.
In response to Halliday & Hasan (1976), other researchers have discussed
lexical cohesion (Gutwinski 1976, Carrell 1984, Hoey 1991, Martin 1992,
Cook 1994). However, cohesion can be concluded as “the means by which
texts are linguistically connected” (Carter 1998: 80). It is signifi cant to
recognise that lexical cohesion cannot exist without sentences. That is,
cohesive words should be discussed not only as the meaning relations which
hold between items, but also as the explicit expression of those meaning
relations within a text. Ultimately, it is necessary to consider cohesion as
“a set of discourse semantic systems” (Martin 2001: 37).
1.3 Lexical Cohesion and Text
Brown & Yule (1983) focus on the relationship between cohesion and text,
and indicate that lexical cohesion is not always necessary for text to produce
semantic relations between sentences, as in the following example:
A: There’s the doorbell.
B: I’m in the bath.
(Brown & Yule 1983: 196)
These sentences have no lexical cohesion, but readers will understand that
the sequence of sentences constitutes a text. This means that text can exist
without lexical cohesion, though lexical cohesion cannot exist without text.
Brown & Yule (1983) explain this case as follows:
[T]he reader may indeed use some of the formal expressions of cohesive
relationships present in the sentences, but he is more likely to try to build
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a coherent picture of the series of events being described and fi t the events
together, rather than work with the verbal connections alone.
(Brown & Yule 1983: 197)
Moreover, an example of the inadequacy of cohesive ties between sentences
has to be considered. Brown & Yule’s quotation from Enkvist (1978) is
shown here:
I bought a Ford. A car in which President Wilson rode down the Champs
Elysées was black. Black English has been widely discussed. The discus-
sions between the presidents ended last week. A week has seven days.
Every day I feed my cat. Cats have hour legs. The cat is on the mat. Mat
has three letters.
(Enkvist 1978: 197)
Even though this text has lexical cohesion, it cannot be called a coherent
text. This means that a text including lexical cohesion cannot always produce
coherence. Here, the text fails to deliver any message to the reader. As
Brown & Yule (1983) advocate, cohesive ties do not always lead readers to
a coherent interpretation of what they have read. Namely, it is signifi cant
to teach L2 learners how to understand the coherence of a text when read-
ing/writing. Cohesion is never necessary nor suffi cient to create coherence,
though most discourse includes cohesion. It is necessary to recognise that
“[c]ohesion is a manifestation of certain aspects of coherence, and a pointer
towards it, rather than its cause or necessary result” (Cook 1994: 34). That
is, cohesive ties have to be considered as a “manifestation of how we are
making sense of the message in the text” (Carter & McCarthy 1988: 204).
This means that it is necessary to understand cohesive ties semantically,
as well as grammatically. Hence, it can be considered that a knowledge of
lexical cohesion might help L2 learners understand discourse.
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As mentioned above (See Introduction), the subjects investigated are in
Extensive Reading classes, which are aimed at getting students used to
reading English books without the aid of dictionaries as well as to cultivate
their ability to interpret the story. They are encouraged to pay attention
not to grammar or individual word meaning, but to coherence of the story.
Therefore, students are supposed to practice guessing new word meanings
and understand the content at discourse level. Hence, this paper will focus
on investigating how the knowledge of discourse organising vocabulary,
especially lexical cohesion, helps students in understanding the text.
2. Methodology
For the purpose of investigating how the knowledge of cohesion helps L2
learners reading and writing in English, three short stories were selected:
“Soapy’s Choice” and “The Memento” from O. Henry’s collection New
Yorkers (1990), which has been adapted for the Graded Readers series
(reading activity) and “Magic Spinach” (2000) by Carol Eron and Fulang
Lo (writing activity). The exercises were given to fi rst year students of
two extensive reading classes, each class consisting of 40 students, at a
university in Nagoya, Japan. All subjects are English majors and are gener-
ally considered to be motivated to learn English.
2.1 Reading Activity
Two short stories were mainly used for the exercises: “Soapy’s Choice”
and “The Memento.” In fi ction, generally speaking, readers cannot expect
authors to provide all the information needed to understand the story di-
rectly and clearly. It often happens that authors make subtle references
to it in the text and readers have to fi nd words and phrases that signal
information. That is, readers are required to gather essential information
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in understanding the story from key words/phrases in the text. The reading
activities given students were designed to encourage them to collect the
necessary information in a text to understand the story more accurately
by paying attention to lexical cohesion. In the fi rst class, lexical cohe-
sion was explained to students when they read “Soapy’s Choice.” In the
second class, students practiced applying the knowledge of cohesion to
understanding “The Memento” with the aid of the teacher. In each class,
the same exercises were given to students: requiring them to fi nd clues
related to: (1) place of story, (2) time, and (3) character traits. The three
exercises were expected to indicate the degree to which students could use
the knowledge of cohesion for the interpretation of stories.
2.2 Writing Activity
This activity is designed to investigate how much students make use of
cohesion in their writing. After reading “Magic Spinach,” students were
requested to write a sequel to the story. This writing activity was given
after the reading activity had been completed. Students were permitted to
view the text and use a dictionary while writing. Before commencing to
write, students were provided with the same exercises as in the Reading
Activity, determining place, time, main character’s traits, as well as any
other collocational links with the aid of the knowledge of cohesion. This was
done in order to help students design a plot to the sequel of the story.
3. Discussion: Analysis and Results
3.1 Reading Activity
3.1.1 Exercise 1: Understanding the Place

This exercise was designed to introduce students to the knowledge of the
relationship among words/phrases in the text. In the class reading “Soapy’s
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Choice,” students were requested to select words delivering the necessary
information concerning ‘place’ in the fi rst page. It clearly shows that the
place is New York, and students had no trouble in locating the clue words
and answering correctly. Students, however, should have been expected to
fi nd other words to determine the more accurate location. ‘Madison Square’
and ‘Broadway’ are recognised as lexical items that are being collocation-
ally linked to ‘New York,’ and they can more clearly determine the place
in New York. Three students out of 80 chose ‘Broadway’ as another key
word but none chose ‘Madison Square.’ This shows the fact that students
could not fi nd the collocational link among ‘New York,’ ‘Broadway,’ and
‘Madison Square.’ The same exercise was given to students in the next
class reading “The Memento.” That is, they were requested to determine
the place of this story by fi nding clue words.
The fi rst page of “The Memento” does not mention that the place is
New York, but all students could fi nd the clue word ‘Broadway’ and de-
termine that the main character is in New York. This means that in the
fi rst class students had understood that ‘Broadway’ has a collocational tie
with ‘New York’. Hence, it can be considered that the knowledge lexical
cohesion could help students catching the place in this story. Moreover,
this result shows that students had learned in the fi rst class, not only the
lexical cohesion between the clue items, but also the cultural knowledge
that Broadway is in New York. Collocation should be identifi ed by the
meaning of words, as well as by potential meaning which is shared by
native speakers generally. Therefore, understanding relationships among
words/phrases depend on:
Individual responses to the presence of lexical associations and evaluative
elements in a text as well as on the kinds of knowledge of a fi eld of
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discourse or topic needed for lexical set construction.
(Carter 1998: 83)
This can explain why none of the students chose ‘Madison Square’ in the
fi rst class of “Soapy’s Choice.” The reason was that the words ‘Madison
square’ were new to students. In fact, 78 students had had no idea what/
where Madison Square was. The lack of background knowledge neither
enabled students to fi nd ‘Madison Square’ through “the presence of lexical
associations” with New York, nor to make the “lexical set construction.”
That is, a lack of cultural knowledge prevented them from determining
lexical cohesion.
The importance of cultural knowledge for lexical cohesion was also
shown in an extra reading class, “A Walk in Amnesia,2” which was held
after the second class. Here students practiced choosing collocational words
mentioning the place and determining where the main character was from.
The correct answer ‘from Denver, Colorado’ is clearly mentioned in the
text, though he is in New York now. 49 students could fi nd clue words
and answer correctly. On the other hand, 31 students answered incor-
rectly. 19 cases out of 31 resulted in the entire misunderstanding of the
story, when they mistook one man for the other. The remaining 12 cases
involve students’ confusion of cultural knowledge. Here are samples of
three students chosen at random, which show clue items that they had
listed and the place which they determined.
Key Words
Denver, NY,
Denver in New York
New York, Kansas, Missouri,
Denver, USA
Manhattan, Denver
New York, Denver
New York City in Denver
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