These Students Can’t Write: An Examination of Cohesion and Coherence in Essays Written by the University of Botswana ESL Undergraduate Students

Joel Mokuedi Magogwe, Eureka Baneka Mokibelo, Lillian Sethunya Karabo


University lecturers in English as a Second Language (ESL) contexts are generally concerned about their students’ writing incompetence. Similarly, at the University of Botswana (UB) lecturers are usually heard saying that “these students cannot write”. Previous research attributes problems of writing to, among others, students’ lack of mastery of academic writing conventions, inability to analyse topics, and poor sentence skills. These problems undoubtedly contribute to the lack of cohesion and coherence in the students’ written essays. The focus of this study, therefore, was to investigate the cohesion and coherence of the essays written by the UB first year undergraduate Social Sciences students by specifically: a) Investigating the type of cohesive devices used in the essays. b) Identifying the problems of cohesion in the essays. c) Examining the coherence problems in the essays. d) Identifying other writing problems in the students’ essays. The terms cohesion and coherence in the context of this study briefly refer to the linguistic, organizational and semantic connectedness, readability, meaningfulness and relevance of a text or essay as perceived by the authors of this study who are experts in this field. A mixed research design of analyzing the essays and orally interviewing the students was adopted in this study to identify the cohesive devices used in them. The findings of this study were informed by Halliday and Hassan’s (1976) taxonomy of cohesive devices and their framework. The findings revealed that conjunctions and reference were used more frequently than substitution, vocabulary, and ellipsis. Other writing problems identified in the essays include the use of informal language, overlong sentences, redundancy, run-on sentences, fused sentences, comma splices, sentence fragments, awkward and/or meaningless sentences, and use of wrong words.

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International Journal of Higher Education
ISSN 1927-6044 (Print) ISSN 1927-6052 (Online) Email:

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