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The Use of Cohesive Devices in ESL Students’ Writing Research Paper


Introduction

Language has multiple functions in society. It is generally believed that its main function is to “communicate information” (Gee 2014, p. 2). People need language to transfer and receive information. It becomes particularly important when there is a necessity to communicate a foreign language. The scope of foreign language teaching comprises skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. One of the primary concerns of teachers of English as a second language (ESL) is the formation of efficient writing skills among their students.

Teaching writing is probably one of the most complicated tasks because it presupposes not only the knowledge of vocabulary but also the use of grammar. Within the last decades, many studies were dedicated to the issue of the significance of linguistic features in foreign language writing proficiency (Crossley & McNamara 2012). Wall (cited in Rassouli & Abbasvandi 2013, p. 15) claimed that writing skill “ranges from mechanical control to creativity, with good grammar, knowledge of the subject matter, awareness of stylistic convention and various mysterious factors in between.” One of the factors which influence the development of writing skill among ESL students if the use of cohesive devices also called linking words or discourse markers. They are considered the most difficult skills for foreign English learners (Rahman 2013). Current research investigates the issue of the use of cohesive devices in written discourse by ESL students in one of the United Arab Emirates’ school.

Theoretical Framework

Researches dedicated to the discourse-level text features try to analyze the approaches of effective writing teaching. One of the most meaningful discourse theories in ESL writing has been the cohesion theory of Michael Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan (McCarthy 1991). Halliday’s framework “emphasizes the social functions of language and the thematic and informational structure of speech and writing” (McCarthy 1991, p. 6). However, its application to the teaching of reading and writing of English as a second language has been much criticized. Halliday and Hasan’s framework became basic for many types of research about cohesion and coherence in ESL/EFL writing (Jafarpur 1991; Johns 1980; Johnson 1992; Zhang 2000; Hartnett 1989, cited in Ghasemi 2013).

The researches findings were similar and contradictory at the same time. Some studies revealed no significant difference in the application of cohesive devices in good and weak writings (Johnson 1992; Zhang 2000, cited in Ghasemi 2013). Other results proved that there is a distinction in the use of cohesive devices between highly rated essays and low rated ones (Jafarpur 1991, cited in Ghasemi 2013). Some scholars came to the conclusion that “highly scored compositions contain more cohesion than low scored ones” (Jafarpur 1991, cited in Ghasemi 2013, p. 1616). Moreover, it is generally considered that “highly scored essays include more lexical collocations than do low scored ones” (Johns 1980; Zhang 2000, cited in Ghasemi 2013, p. 1616).

Morgan and Sellner (1980, cited in McCarthy 1991) claimed it was too text-oriented and at the same time ignored the importance of schema-theoretical views of text processing as an interactive process between the text and the reader. Carrell (1993, cited in McCarthy 1991) introduces a discussion about the roles of cohesion and coherence in the teaching of reading and writing in English as a second language. However, despite the increase of interest in the issue of cohesion significance to coherence in writing, the existing researches lack a systematic approach to the investigation of cohesion in ESL students’ writing.

Literature Review

The concept of cohesion has been a topic for many contemporary types of research. The use of cohesive devices in teaching writing in English as a second language is a separate aspect of these studies. For example, Ghasemi (2013) investigates the use of cohesive devices in second language writings. The article presents the results of the study of the relationship between the use of cohesive devices and the quality of written works of ESL learners. Particular attention is given to the issue of teaching writing to Arab students and their use of cohesion.

Thus, previous research revealed that Arab students “overused reiteration of the same lexical item as a cohesive device, while they underused other lexical and grammatical CDs” (Khalil 1898, cited in Ghasemi 2013 p. 1617). The author claims that both positive and negative correlations can be traced between the application of cohesive devices and the quality of students’ writing.

An article by Alghamdi (2014) represents the study of discourse markers in ESL personal narrative and argumentative papers. This study provides a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the discourse markers application by undergraduate students in personal narrative and argumentative papers. The sample includes 30 people, 15 native speakers, and 15 non-native speakers. The research focuses attention on the significance of frequency and correctness of discourse markers’ use in the determination of the quality of ESL writings.

The research findings proved that there was no meaningful difference in the use of discourse markers. It was determined that both native and non-native students used elaborative, contrastive and reason markers in their writing more often than discourse markers in other categories (Alghamdi 2014). The qualitative analysis of the works of non-native writers revealed an overuse of discourse markers at the sentence-initial position. Besides, it showed an unnecessary use of semantically similar discourse markers within the same sentence. The inappropriate use and the frequency of discourse markers were major signs of ESL writing’s quality. After the research analysis, the author suggests some pedagogical implications which can help to reduce the extensive application of discourse makers and broaden the set of the markers used in students’ writing (Alghamdi 2014).

The effects of explicit instruction of grammatical cohesive devices on intermediate Iranian learners’ writing are investigated by Rassouli and Abbasvandi (2013). The article proves the importance of cohesive devices in writing for linking ideas, clauses, and paragraphs to support the writer’s intentions. Cohesive devices often pose a problem for ESL learners and the research is aimed at the investigation of the efficiency of explicit teaching of cohesive devices on the example of Iranian EFL learners’ application of these means (Rassouli & Abbasvandi 2013).

It is done to contribute to the improvement of the learners’ writing quality. The research is conducted with the introduction of two groups of learners. The experimental group was supposed to take a course on grammatical cohesive devices. At the same time, the control group did not have such an advantage. Pretest and posttest were organized at the beginning and the end of the course (Rassouli & Abbasvandi 2013). The research findings revealed that the instruction can intensify the use of cohesive devices by the learners. However, it did not manage to have a positive influence on the learners’ writing quality (Rassouli & Abbasvandi 2013).

Hamed (2014) investigated the use of conjunctions in argumentative writing of Libyan tertiary students. The sample of the research comprised 16 ESL undergraduate Libyan students specializing in English. The research findings revealed the inappropriate use of conjunctions by Libyan ESL students. The major difficulty was found in the use of adversative, additive, and causal conjunctions (Hamed 2014). It supports the findings of previous researches that ESL students have difficulties in the use of conjunctions in the written English discourse. Among the reasons for these difficulties the researcher names negative transfer from the native (Arabic) language; overgeneralization in the second language (English in this case) and the presentation of the lists of conjunctions in ESL textbooks without a proper explanation of their use and functions (Hamed 2014).

Kwan and Yunus dedicated their research to the problem of cohesive errors in writing among ESL pre-service teachers (2014). They consider writing a complex skill in ESL learning which is difficult to improve. The researchers supposed that weak writing skills of a teacher may hurt the students. Thus, there is a necessity for determining the writing weaknesses of pre-service teachers and improve the situation. The study presents a mixed-methods error analysis. Its goal is to investigate the cohesive errors in the ESL writing of pre-service teachers of Medium and High-level language proficiency (Kwan & Yunus 2014).

The study of thirty students’ narrative essays revealed that the Medium-level pre-service teachers had more errors in lexical cohesion, reference, and conjunction cohesion than in other categories. Nevertheless, High-level pre-service teachers had more mistakes in lexical cohesion, ellipsis, and reference (Kwan & Yunus 2014). The research proved that one of the most difficult forms of cohesion for both groups under research was collocation. Thus, the research proved the necessity to improve the cohesive devices’ competence among ESL pre-service teachers and control their readiness for teaching cohesive writing to ESL students.

Another research on the use of cohesive devices in descriptive writing by Omani student-teachers was conducted by Rahman (2013). The investigation studies the ability to use cohesive devices by college-level Arabic learners. It compares the peculiarities in the use of cohesive devices by Omani student-teachers of English and native English speakers. The written works of the two research groups were analyzed with the use of qualitative research methodology. The results of the study revealed a significant difference between the natives’ and the students’ application of cohesive devices. The major differences were revealed in frequency, variety, and control of the use of cohesive devices (Rahman 2013).

One more study touching the equality of writing is dedicated to the development and use of cohesive devices in ESL writing (Crossley, Kyle & McNamara 2016). The research is mainly focused on local and text cohesion. This investigation is dedicated to the study of the development of local, global, and text cohesion among university students. It aims to determine the influence of cohesion types on the evaluation of ESL writings quality. The research showed an increase in the use of several locals, global, and text cohesive features in the conditions of English for Academic Purposes course (Crossley, Kyle & McNamara 2016).

The research also showed the dependence of the writing quality on the time it was written (at the beginning of the end of the semester). Moreover, the use of local, global, and text cohesive features influences the general judgment of writing quality (Crossley, Kyle & McNamara 2016). Finally, the research findings are significant for the development of new methods of second language acquisition and teaching writing.

The research by Crossley and McNamara (2012) suggests an opportunity to predict a second language writing proficiency. It can be done with the application of cohesion and linguistic sophistication. The results of this investigation revealed the fact that five variables such as lexical diversity, word frequency, word meaningfulness, aspect repetition, and word familiarity can be applied to predict ESL writing proficiency with great probability (Crossley & McNamara 2012). The research findings demonstrate that ESL writers described as highly proficient do not create more cohesive essays. However, they generate texts that are more linguistically sophisticated (Crossley & McNamara 2012). These findings can be used for the development of ESL writing competence and teaching English as a second language in general.

Then investigation of Yang and Sun (2012) provides comparative differences and similarities in the application of cohesive devices by Chinese students who learn English as a foreign language. The participants of this research were selected among the second-year and fourth-year undergraduate Chinese EFL learners. The material for the investigation included argumentative writings. The study considered both quantitative and qualitative data. Thus, it allowed the authors to determine the patterns of variation in participants’ application of cohesive devices and differentiate some peculiarities of their use by EFL learners of higher and lower proficiency.

Another outcome of this research was the determination of the use of cohesive devices as indicators of student’s writing quality. The results of the research revealed the fact that EFL students at different proficiency levels demonstrate meaningful differences in the application of cohesive devices. Thus, EFL students of general higher proficiency proved the ability to apprehend and manipulate various discourse markers which are also one of the indicators of their developed written discourse competence. At the same time, research results demonstrate the mutual dependence of the proper use of cohesive devices and the general quality of students’ writing. The study also suggests some implications for the development of ESL/EFL writing theory and teaching writing.

Methodology

The current study aims to research the use of cohesive devices among students of the 7th grade ASP stream in the United Arab Emirates. The research will use qualitative and quantitative research to discover the use of cohesive devices. The research is going to answer the following questions:

  1. Which kinds of cohesive devices are used the most frequently by ESL students in the UAE?
  2. Which kinds of cohesive devices are the most difficult for ESL students?

These questions will help to reveal the existing problems in the use of cohesive devices by ESL students. A thorough analysis will provide grounds for suggestions on solutions to the problems in the use of cohesive devices and the improvement of the existing programs of teaching writing in English as the second language. To answer these questions, an analysis of students’ written works will be provided.

Participants

The sample of the research includes twelve students of the 7 grade. They are the representatives of ASP Elite Stream which is one of the variants of school placement in the United Arab Emirates schools. The peculiarity of this type of placement is that students have more freedom to choose elective courses in the field which interests them most of all. The written works under analysis are mostly examples of descriptive essays. Some samples include personal narration. However, due to the diverse level of English, not all samples can be clearly defined as belonging to a particular genre. Students described their personal experiences, the country they live in, the places they have visited, or themselves.

Research Procedures

One of the possible approaches to the investigation of cohesive devices is Fraser’s taxonomy of discourse markers. It was applied for the research of discourse markers in ESL personal narrative and argumentative papers by Alghamdi (2014). According to Rahimi (cited in Alghamdi 2014, p. 297), this taxonomy “is mainly used for the classification of written discourse and seems to be the most comprehensive classification in written discourse.” The current study will analyze the use of four types of discourse markers (DMs) or cohesive devices, which are taken from Fraser’s taxonomy, and two types suggested by Martínez (2004, cited in Alghamdi 2014, p. 298):

  1. Contrastive DMs: however, although, but, yet, in contrast, on the other hand.
  2. Elaborative DMs: also, also, and, besides, furthermore.
  3. Inferential DMs: accordingly, as a result, because of, therefore, thus.
  4. Reason DMs: after all, because, for this/that reason, since.
  5. Conclusive DMs: in conclusion, in short, to sum up, in sum.
  6. Exemplifiers: for example, such as, for instance, e.g.

The students’ works will be analyzed for the use of cohesive devices. These devices will be selected and divided into groups according to their type. Thus, it will allow determining the types which are used more or less frequently, and reveal misuse of cohesive devices, if any.

Analysis and Evaluation

Twelve students’ written works were analyzed in this research. It is worth providing some statistics to understand the situation with the use of cohesive devices better. Thus, the average size of a student’s essays was 103 words. The longest essay was 245 words and the shortest one – only 57 words. The studied samples are attached in the Appendix to this paper. All students used some cohesive devices. The quantitative characteristics of cohesive devices’ application can be traced better in table 1.

Table 1. The use of cohesive devices by students of the 7th grade

Type of device Number of use
Contrastive DMs 10
Elaborative DMs 61
Inferential DMs 2
Reason DMs 8
Conclusive DMs 0
Exemplifiers 0

On the whole, students used 81 cohesive devices in twelve works which are approximately five per every hundred words. Students demonstrated the most extensive use of elaborative discourse markers. The word and was used 59 times and it is possible to speak of the overuse of this particular device. Another device of this type used by the students is also. Contrastive devices come next in the frequency of application. There were recorded 10 entries of this type in the essays. This type was mainly represented by the word but; although was used only once. The third position belongs to reason discourse markers. They were represented by eight uses of the word because. Inferential discourse markers make the least numerous type used by students of the 7th grade and are represented by the word so. Conclusive discourse markers and exemplifiers were not used by the selected students in their works.

The research findings suggest the answers to the research questions. Thus, as for the first question on the frequency of use of different kinds of cohesive devices by ESL students the following conclusions can be made. Students tend to use the devices which are the easiest and most understandable for them. These devices include elaborative type which is used six times and that is more often than, for example, contrastive ones. Moreover, within this research, contrastive and reason cohesive devices can be considered as frequently used. The second research question on the kinds of cohesive devices that are the most difficult for ESL students can be answered in the following way. Since students do not use exemplifiers or conclusive discourse markers, it can be concluded that their proper application makes problems to students and they avoid using those markers to prevent more mistakes in their essays.

Discussion

The situation with the use of cohesive devices by ESL students is a complex issue. In general, teaching writing is a part of language learning which provokes most problems. It is particularly true about teaching a second foreign language which is different in structure. The current research with Arab students learning English as a second language is a good example of challenges faced by both a teacher and the students.

The analysis of essay samples resulted in conclusions similar to those of the research by Alghamdi (2014). Thus, there are two major problems in the use of cohesive devices by ESL students. First of all, it is the extensive application of cohesive devices in a sentence-initial position which is not considered a proper use. For example, students tend to use but, and, and because at the beginning of the sentence. Consider the following examples from the essays which were analyzed within the current study:

  1. But the travel blog when they go to other nice countries […]
  2. And maybe this blog helps me for my future […]
  3. Because their life was simple they can travel without money […]
  4. And if I had the chance […], etc.

About 40 percent of students in this research used these devices in the initial position. Alghamdi claims that such use is characteristic of the written discourse of most ESL students and Asian students in particular (2014, p. 302). Previous researches on ESL written discourse suggested some possible reasons for this phenomenon.

Thus, Narita, Sato, and Sugiura (2004, cited in Alghamdi 2014, p. 302) singled out two causes of this tendency. Firstly, putting cohesive devices at the beginning of a sentence can be the easiest and the most obvious way for ESL students to use discourse markers to link together different parts of the sentence. Secondly, ESL students may not be aware of differences between adverbial connectors and discourse markers and thus use them similarly to connectors by mistake at the sentence-initial position.

The second common mistake is the overuse of elaborative discourse marker and. It is excessively used in sentences that could be divided into two parts or united into one without the mentioned connector. There is also a possibility to link some parts of the sentences with the use of other devices. Consider some examples of the sentences where the use of and could be avoided and thus the sentence would sound better:

  1. My mum speaks Arabic, English, a little bit Indian, Spanish, and Maori, and my Dad speaks Arabic, English, and Turkish. >>> My mum speaks Arabic, English, little bit Indian, Spanish and Maori. My Dad speaks Arabic, English, and Turkish
  2. I saw a lot of historic things and they were very interesting. >>> I saw a lot of historic things which were very interesting.
  3. I’ve been in a play and the play was about a father that ordered two maids that they should open the chocolate bar and find the golden ticket for his daughter. >>> I’ve been in a play. It was about a father that ordered two maids that they should open the chocolate bar and find the golden ticket for his daughter.

Also, punctuation mistakes are frequent. It was not part of this research but should be considered by ESL teachers. Another tendency in the analyzed samples is the repeated use of the same discourse marker throughout the essay. For example, one of the students uses five times within six sentences of the essay. One of the possible reasons for such a situation can be the lack of writing skills and little experience of using cohesive devices. On the whole, the level of English of ESL students whose essays were analyzed is not high. Apart from the misuse of cohesive devices, their written works contain many other mistakes.

The main findings of the research can be summarized as follows:

  1. ESL students of the 7th grade demonstrate the general ability to use cohesive devices.
  2. The analyzed essays revealed unequal use of different types of cohesive devices.
  3. ESL students tend to use familiar cohesive devices in the easiest possible way.
  4. ESL students do not always use cohesive devices correctly.
  5. Grade 7 ESL students demonstrate a lack of general writing skills.

Based on the research findings, some pedagogical implications can be suggested. Thus, ESL students need help in mastering their application of cohesive devices in written works. First of all, it is necessary to address the problem of overuse and repetition of the same devices while ignoring other types throughout the piece of writing.

ESL teachers should provide students with examples of various types of cohesive devices and contexts for their use. It is preferable to suggest English samples and teach students to think in English during the preparation of an essay rather than students’ native language. It is particularly important for Arab students since Arabic and English have different structures and simple translation of ideas can lead to more mistakes. To improve the use of cohesive devices, teaching writing should be preceded by reading native English texts with the search for those devices and the following use of discourse markers in speech.

Another aspect of problems with the use of cohesive devices by ESL students can be connected with the teaching methods. The limited choice of such devices and their inappropriate use can be caused by the lack of effective practice in writing. Good writing skills can be formed through multiple repetitions and extensive training of various written genres. Such training is not possible during classes due to the lack of time. Thus, ESL teachers should provide students with enough information to allow them to complete written tasks at home. With written home tasks, teacher’s feedback is crucial. It should not only include marking mistakes but also suggest ways of improvement.

Finally, it is important to present various types of cohesive devices to students together with the examples of their application. However, each type should not be presented in isolation from the others because it will not have any positive impact on the use of various cohesive devices. For example, certain types of cohesive devices can be taught as related to specific genres of essays.

Conclusion

In general, teaching writing is one of the most complicated aspects of English as the second language for both, teachers and learners. It demands knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and punctuation. Various devices, such as cohesive, for example, are useful in written discourse. They help to link the ideas and make the text more comprehensible. The variety of discourse markers in English makes their application difficult not only for ESL learners but also for native speakers. Every genre of written discourse needs particular devices. That is why their proper training is necessary to provide the development of students’ skills in writing.

Moreover, the correct application of cohesive devices in students’ writing is one of the indicators of their proficiency. On the whole, the problem of cohesive device misuse can be addressed with the help of proper teaching approaches and methods. The choice of these methods should be individual for every group of learners. The current study determined the existence of drawbacks in teaching writing to ESL learners. However, further research is necessary to identify the reasons for the lack of practice of cohesive devices application. Moreover, the pedagogical implications need an introduction and their results should be checked.

Reference List

Alghamdi, E.A. (2014). Discourse markers in ESL personal narrative and argumentative papers: a qualitative and quantitative analysis. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, vol. 4 (4), pp. 294-305.

Crossley, S.A. & McNamara, D.S. (2012). Predicting second language writing proficiency: the roles of cohesion and linguistic sophistication. Journal of Research in Reading, vol. 35 (2), pp. 115-135.

Crossley, S.A., Kyle, K. & McNamara, D.S. (2016). The development and use of cohesive devices in L2 writing and their relations to judgements of essay quality. Journal of Second Language Writing, vol. 32, pp. 1-16.

Gee, J.P. (2014). An introduction to discourse analysis: theory and method. 4th ed. London: Routledge.

Ghasemi, M. (2013). An investigation into the use of cohesive devices in second language writings. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 3 (9), pp. 1615-1623.

Hamed, M. (2014). Conjunctions in argumentative writing of Libyan tertiary students. English Language Teaching, vol. 7 (3), pp. 108-120.

Kwan, L.S.L. & Yunus, M.M. (2014). Cohesive errors in writing among ESL pre-service teachers. English Language Teaching, vol. 7 (11), pp. 130-150.

McCarthy, M. (1991). Discourse analysis for language teachers. Cambridge: CUP.

Rahman, Z.A. (2013). The use of cohesive devices in descriptive writing by Omani student-teachers. SAGE Open, pp. 1-10.

Rassouli, M. & Abbasvandi, M. (2013). The effects of explicit instruction of grammatical cohesive devices on intermediate Iranian learners’ writing. European Open Journal of Natural and Social Sciences, vol. 2 (2), pp. 15-22.

Yang, W. & Sun, Y. (2012). The use of cohesive devices in argumentative writing by Chinese EFL learners at different proficiency levels. Linguistics and Education, vol. 23, pp. 31-48.

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IvyPanda. (2020, September 6). The Use of Cohesive Devices in ESL Students' Writing. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-use-of-cohesive-devices-in-esl-students-writing/

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