Consider your goals as you write—could coherence get in the way of your goal? Using more ambiguity may actually aid students in understanding concepts more deeply.
“Who is your audience?” This question is asked of every author, researcher, and student as they begin the writing process. It is critical to know your audience in order to know how to best serve them. A second question might be, “What is your goal?” For educational texts, these two questions might need to be considered in tandem to best aid the learner. Different teaching ideologies are based on the concept that comprehension (understanding concepts and being able to recall them) is distinct from active processing (understanding application of concepts). If the goal is to have students truly process and apply concepts, their assigned reading should reflect that.
Research has shown that coherence aids comprehension by connecting ideas. Research by Bruce K. Britton and Sami Gulgoz indicated that revisions clarifying content significantly aided college student’s understanding. Danielle S. McNamara, Eileen Kintsch, Nancy Butler Songer, and Walter Kintsch’s research extended the literature on cohesion, comprehension, and what kind of texts best serve learners. The researchers suggested that too much cohesion may rob learners of the depth of understanding that comes from connecting ideas themselves. McNamara et al. reported their findings in “Are Good Texts Always Better? Interactions of Text Coherence, Background Knowledge, and Levels of Understanding in Learning From Text.”
Their research comprised two experiments. The first experiment tested the value of coherent text for middle school students. The goal was to confirm that coherence also aided this age group’s comprehension. The results of the experiment supported that coherence improved recall of even middle-school age students.
The second experiment investigated the idea that some students may benefit from a less coherent text. A completely coherent text connects all the ideas of a text together; without all of the links explicitly explained, students would have to engage in active processing, which would give them a deeper understanding of the material. Students read one of four texts with different levels of coherence. While all students had improved recall scores with the coherent text, students with a high-background knowledge were better able to complete a test that required situational understanding of the text.
The authors concluded, “The results of the sorting analysis and the inference question data support the hypothesis that a text that requires gap-filling inferences is beneficial for learning, provided the learner has an appropriate knowledge background” (McNamara et al. 1996, 31). In other words, it can be beneficial to not have all connections explicitly stated in the text so that learners can make and remember their own connections.
While we write, especially if we are seeking to teach and not just have learners recall, we might want to consider leaving some connections unsaid. The authors conclude, “What we have demonstrated is that overly explicit writing is not only annoying, but also prevents the audience from actively processing what we have to say” (McNamara et al. 1996, 36)
For educational texts, this might include using less transition words like “therefore” to have students draw the connection between statements. It may also mean posing questions that require students to connect two concepts presented in the text. As an educational author considers the background knowledge of their audience and their goals for the reader, they may need to adjust the levels of cohesion they employ.
To learn more about coherence and active processing, read the full article:
McNamara, Danielle S., Eileen Kintsch, Nancy Butler Songer, and Walter Kintsch. 1996. “Are Good Texts Always Better? Interactions of Text Coherence, Background Knowledge, and Levels of Understanding in Learning From Text.” Cognition and Instruction 4, no. 1: 1–43. https://doi.org/10.1207/s1532690xci1401_1
—Lydia Mercado, Editing Research
FEATURE IMAGE BY TAYLOR FLOWE
Find more research
Learn more about recognizing and creating cohesion in Wolfram Bubitz, Uta Lenk, and Eija Ventola’s (1999) book: Coherence in Spoken and Written Discourse: How to create it and how to describe it. John Benjamins Publishing. https://books.google.com/books?id=SVxCAAAAQBAJ&dq=editing+coherence+linguistics&lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s
Take a look at other research benefiting middle school students in Kate Davis’s article “Should Teachers Read to Your Middle School Students?”