IELTS Writing: Cohesive Devices

Writing on the IELTS test is arguably the most difficult of the four sections. Not only does it require high level vocabulary and grammar, but also the ability to think and express oneself in a structured, logical manner. Cohesive devices, sometimes called discourse markers or linking words, provide the language for this framework.

Simply put, cohesive devices are words or phrases that signal to the reader (or listener) that something important is about to happen. Perhaps it’s indicating the start of a list of reasons (e.g. ‘to begin with’, ‘the first thing is that’) or demonstrating contrast (e.g. ‘on the other hand’). Cohesive devices are the nuts and bolts that hold the content together. The start of this very paragraph uses a cohesive device (‘simply put’) to show that a summary is coming.

IELTS writing cohesive devices
Click on the picture for a free PDF.

 

Students struggle with them!

Cohesive devices are probably the most difficult expressions, other than idioms, to incorporate naturally into a response. If students aren’t misusing them, they’re almost certainly overusing them.

Let’s look at a cohesive device horror script:

For example, to begin with, I don’t know how many ways cohesive devices can be misused, although it’s quite a bit. On the other hand, if you use them well, they’ll boost your band score although it’s debatable by how much. However, you should try to use them for two reasons: first, because it’s an important part of the band score, and second, it helps the reader understand your intentions whereas no cohesive devices makes for an unstructured mess. Finally, I think cohesive devices are really important.

Yikes.

Students need to know that even if they use cohesive devices in a grammatically correct way, that doesn’t mean they’re being used properly. The sample text above is a classic example of students trying to shove square pegs into round holes. The language jumps out at you in a bad way, and not just because it’s underlined. That being said…

Cohesive devices are important.

Coherence and cohesion are 25% of the total writing band score, so their importance can’t be understated. Here are the public band descriptors for them:

bandsIELTS coherence and cohesion

Look at Band 5:

  1. Is there an overall progression? Think of a story. There must be a beginning, middle and an end, and each part should connect to the next, otherwise you end up with a jumbled, disjointed mess.
  2. Inadequate, inaccurate or over-use of cohesive devices. The sample paragraph above clearly falls under this description. It was cohesive device overkill.
  3. May be repetitive because of lack of referencing and substitution. Here’s a nightmare of a paragraph:
    • “There are two reasons why we should use cohesive devices. The first reason we should use cohesive devices is that they help the reader understand the organisation of our response. The second reason we should use cohesive devices is that they’re an important part of the band score.”
  4. Let’s try that again using proper referencing and substitution:
    • “There are two reasons why we should use cohesive devices. The first is that they help the reader to understand the organisation of our response, and second, they’re an important part of the band score.”

Band 7

  1. Logically organises ideas. Clear progression throughout. To achieve band 7, the overall organisation must be tight. There’s no room for a misplaced or disconnected idea. However…
  2.  …uses cohesive devices appropriately although there may be some under/over use. Even Band 7 allows for some misuse of the language, some being the operative word.

Bands 8 and 9

  1. …manages all aspects of cohesion well…attracts no attention… I think the key takeaway here is that when used properly, the reader shouldn’t even be aware of the cohesive devices used. Employing them seamlessly is the goal.

 

A sample IELTS Writing Task 1 :

The charts below show the reasons why people travel to work by bicycle or by car. Summarise the information by selecting and reporting the main features, and make comparisons where relevant. Write at least 150 words.

IELTS Writing Task 1 Pie Chart

Here’s a sample response:

The first chart shows the reasons why some people in the UK prefer to cycle to work. Conversely, the second chart gives reasons for those who choose to go to work by car.

The highest percentage of those who favour cycling say that this is because riding a bicycle to work is healthier than driving. 30% of them gave this as a reason. The same amount of people, 30% say that they cycle to work because it causes less pollution. 13% of people cycle to work because it is cheaper than driving. Surprisingly, a similar amount of people said that they cycled to work because it is faster than travelling by car.

In contrast to this, the percentage who prefer to travel by car because it is more comfortable is 40%. The two least important reasons for going to work by car, with 14% and 11% respectively, is that people need to carry things to work and that it is safer than cycling to work. Finally, 16% say they prefer driving because it is faster than cycling. This contrasts with the cyclists who ride to work because it is faster than driving.

In general, it seems that the majority of people who cycle to work do this for health and environmental reasons. By contrast, those who travel by car want to have a more comfortable journey over longer distances.

Forget about the other scoring rubrics and look at the response in terms of coherence and cohesion. It starts with a clear introduction of the charts and what they show. The first body paragraph addresses the ‘cycling’ chart, the second describes the ‘driving’ chart. The contrasts are presented appropriately with cohesive devices (e.g. ‘In contrast to this…’, ‘by contrast’). The all important overview comes as a conclusion at the end introduced with a cohesive device (‘in general’).

Practicing Cohesive Devices

It’s not enough just to give students a list of words and phrases and tell them to start practicing, yet this is often the approach of teachers and students alike. Each cohesive device has nuances in meaning and usage so that memorizing a list would be pointless.

Look at ‘because’ and ‘because of’. ‘Because’ is typically followed by a subject + verb while ‘because of’ is followed by a noun or noun phrase. Students typically can use ‘because’ quite easily but ‘because of’ can cause problems if not practiced.

Focus on one skill at a time, whether it’s comparing or contrasting or giving reasons. Choose one or two of the cohesive devices and practice them until you’re certain they’re being used correctly. In my experience it’s better not to use a cohesive device if you’re not sure it’s being used correctly.

Language Frames

One of the best ways to practice these devices is using ‘language frames’. If practicing Task 1, give students a chart or graph, or an essay topic for Task 2. Then choose a skill (e.g. comparing) and get students using it about that topic.

Comparisons

Likewise,

Similarly,

Along the same lines,

In the same way,

1. _______ and ___________ both show ________________

2. _______ and _____________ are like in that they both ____________.

3.  __________ and _____________ all show _____________.

4. Likewise, both are __________________

5. Similarly, ___________ and __________ are __________________

6. In the same way, _______ and __________ are __________________.

 

 

Improving

  1. The surest way to get better at using cohesive devices well is to analyze IELTS writing answers. Find examples of high scoring sample responses and break them down. How does one paragraph connect to the next? How are the sentences connected? Now find lower scoring responses and do the same. Try to find out exactly what went wrong.
  2. Read. Read and read and read. Every good writer, whether of blogs, novels, magazines or instruction manuals, is a prolific reader. Read critically, looking for how paragraphs are connected, how contrast is shown, how information is relayed in a logical way.
  3. Write. If you’re not writing an IELTS Task 1 or 2 per week, you’re not going to improve, at least not as quickly as you’d like. Find a topic online and write a response, then compare your answer to the sample response. Find a friend or a generous teacher to mark your writings. Beg if you have to. Just not me.

 

One thought

Leave a Reply