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One of the key skills governing exposition is the ability to detect whether the text meets key standards such as coherence and unity of ideas, since these features control how easily a text will be understood. As concepts governing the evaluation of writing quality, coherence and unity go back to 19th century composition theory, such as the work of Alexander Bain (1890) or manuals such as that by Pearson and Bates (1901). As Pearson and Bates explained the concept of unity, “The theme must be about one thing. Many thoughts will naturally be included in the theme, but they must all belong to a single subject. That one subject represents the reason why the theme is written” (p. 15). They defined coherence as “the natural and logical steps by which [the writer] may advance until he has presented his leading thought in a clear and comprehensible form” (p. 26). Both concepts have a similar quality: being easier to recognize than to define.

Unity can be connected to such features as the presence of a thesis statement, topic sentences, and transition sentences, but can hardly be reduced to them; similarly, coherence can be connected to such features as the presence of a variety of cohesive devices (Halliday & Hasan, 1985), but cannot be equated with cohesion (Carrell, 1982; Giora, 1985; Witte & Faigley, 1981). Both unity and coherence have obvious connections to the concept of relevance. A text lacks unity if the reader cannot reconstruct how its parts are mutually relevant, and thus work together to serve a single purpose. A text lacks coherence if there are unbridgeable gaps where the relevance of one part to the next is not obvious (Graesser, McNamara, & Louwerse, 2002). Thus, for an author to be able to recognize (let alone to consistently achieve) unity and coherence in a text, he or she will have to be able to model the reader’s sense of relevance and be able to monitor text production to maintain an acceptable standard of coherence (Schraw & Dennison, 1994; van den Broek, Risden, & Husebye-Hartman, 1995).

The skills needed to maintain unity and coherence in a text have clear antecedents in the ability to maintain focus and coherence in conversation and other forms of oral discourse. In particular, the skills that correspond to the maintenance of textual unity correspond to the constructs needed to account for the unity, or global coherence of a discourse, which can be explicated in terms of speech act planning and interpretation. Much of the literature on speech act planning has been elaborated in computational approaches to pragmatics (Allen & Perrault, 1980; Cohen & Perrault, 1979; Gorniak & Roy, 2005; Jurafsky, 2006; Litman & Allen, 1987; Perrault & Allen, 1980), in which it is assumed that speakers know the preconditions that must be satisfied for a speech act to be successful, plan their contributions to accomplish a speech act or its preconditions, and expect their listeners to perceive their contributions as relevant to the extent that they can infer their plan from mutual knowledge (Gordon & Lakoff, 1971; Searle, 1975).

While the interpretative process may involve the interpretation of cues to speaker intentions rather than a strict logical process as assumed in the classic speech act literature (Jurafsky, 2006; Jurafsky & Martin, 2000), the underlying assumptions of speech act theory still apply, though generalized to include a broader class of actions, sometimes called dialogue acts (Bunt, 1994) or conversational moves (Power, 1979). Models of discourse structure posit that the overall coherence of a conversation depends upon the participants having conversational goals, developing plans to accomplish those goals, and being sensitive to other participants’ ability to reconstruct their intentions and interpret their contributions accordingly (Grosz & Kraus, 1996; Grosz & Sidner, 1986; Poesio & Traum, 1997).

The application to writing is straightforward, as outlined by Bazerman (2004). The purpose of a piece of writing is definable by the speech act it is intended to perform (including both illocutionary and perlocutionary acts, and the textual equivalent of conversational moves). To carry out this purpose effectively, the writer must develop a plan that fulfills the preconditions for success, which can entail a hierarchical structure of goals in which subordinate goals are set to satisfy the preconditions for hierarchically superordinate goals. For instance, to write a letter setting forth a request, the author will need to guarantee that various subordinate goals are satisfied, such as: What is being requested? Does the author need what is requested? Is the recipient able to grant the request? Does the recipient have sufficient motivation to grant the request? Viewed in this way, the unity of a text is organic, depending on the writer having followed, and the reader being able to reconstruct, a hierarchy of goals satisfying a particular rhetorical rhetorical purpose. In this view, formal organization, following some specific characteristic structure, is simply one way to communicate the author’s (probably implicit) plan, and the unity of a document can then be viewed in terms of the ease with which the reader can reconstruct a consistent plan to which all parts of the text make sensible contributions.

Similarly, the concept of discourse coherence deals with exactly the same set of issues. That is, discourse coherence depends upon the perception of relevance and is present when the participants are able to make appropriate inferences about why the other person said something, and how it connects to the preceding discourse (Blakemore, 2001). That is, participants who make coherent contributions to discourse must be able to shape their own contribution to invite inferences consistent with their communicative intent. This ability depends, in turn, on the ability to monitor what inferences other participants are likely to draw. In this view, text is coherent, to the extent that appropriate pragmatic connections can be drawn between successive portions of the text (Blakemore, 2001; Green, 1989; Widdowson, 1978).

Much of the literature on discourse interpretation focuses on the identification of relationships that establish local coherence, such as such as sentence sequencing, explanation, exemplification, and restatement (Mann & Thompson, 1987, 1988). Blakemore argued that such coherence relations can best be explained in terms of inferential processes driven by pragmatic principles, in particular, relevance theory, a view that Sperber and Wilson (1986) originated and also apply to coherence in texts. Essentially, they attempt to define relevance, and hence text coherence, in terms of information processing at a very abstract level: in their view, relevance is defined by the balance between the information gain of an inference and the cost of processing it.

Giora (1985, 1995) presented a contrasting theory, which argues that relevance, and hence discourse organization, must presuppose an organization in terms of information structure, involving the notion of discourse topic, which she defines as attentional activation of a discourse topic by a set of propositions active in working memory. See Wilson (1998), however, for a discussion of the technical issues with regard to relevance and an argument that these kinds of information processing concerns are part of a reasonable definition of relevance, since they constitute part of the definition of processing cost, and hence of relevance as Sperber and Wilson (1986) defined it.

“Be relevant” is, of course, one of the Gricean maxims, and coherence arguably may involve more than following just that one maxim. Some evidence suggests that judgments of writing quality, in particular judgments of coherence, are at least loosely related to the writer’s conformance to Gricean norms. In particular, Özhan (2004) conducted a study of second language writing in which student writing was scored both for violations of Gricean maxims and for overall coherence and demonstrated significant correlations (p < .01) of about -.6 for violations of the maxim of quantity, about -.4 for violations of quality, about -.35 for violations of the maxim of relevance, and -.21 for violations of the maxim of manner. Given the exploratory nature of the study, these results are only suggestive. There is, however, reasonable evidence, given the literature discussed above, to adopt the more general assumption that unity and coherence are ultimately pragmatic phenomena, governed by writers’ abilities to produce text that clearly conveys their communicative purposes to the reader.

The literature does not contain separate studies on the development of unity and coherence in writing as children mature, though these properties are likely to be strongly related to overall writing quality. One way to estimate how their development proceeds is to consider just how strong a connection there is between reading and writing. Parodi (2007) found an overall correlation of .72 between reading and writing, with 51.8% commonalty between the two variables. Parodi’s study collected subscore information on microstructural features (coreference, ellipsis, bridging inference), macrostructural features (main and section topics), and superstructure (thesis, argumentation, conclusion), and found that the correlation between reading and writing increased systematically as the tasks measured became more global and abstract. A correlation of .57 between reading and writing for microstructural features increased to .68 for macrostructural skills and topped out at .79 for superstructural skills. The overall pattern of difficulty showed two consistent trends, as shown in Literature Note Table 2:
  • Writing tasks, which required explicit production of appropriate features, were somewhat easier than reading tasks, which required implicit recognition of comparable information.
  • Microstructural skills were easier than macrostructural skills, which were easier than superstructural skills.

These results suggest that development of the ability to produce texts with unity and coherence will closely track the ability to perform the comparable interpretive activities.

Literature Note Table 2. Correlations Between Reading and Writing by Structural Features

Construct
Microstructure
Macrostructure
Superstructure
Reading
73%
63%
54%
Writing
78%
48%
38%
Note. Data adapted from “Reading-Writing Connections: Discourse-Oriented Research,” by G. Parodi, 2007, Reading and Writing, 20, pp. 225-250. Copyright 2007 by Springer Publishing.


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