Review of Building Coherence and Cohesion
Date: Wed, 25 May 2005 00:33:58 -0400
From: Michael Busch <Michael.Busch@utoronto.ca>
Subject: Building Coherence and Cohesion: Task-oriented dialogue in
English and Spanish
AUTHOR: Taboada, Maria Teresa
TITLE: Building Coherence and Cohesion
SUBTITLE: Task-oriented dialogue in English and Spanish
SERIES: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 129
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
Michael Busch, Program in Second Language Education, Department of
Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning, Ontario Institute for Studies in
Education of the University of Toronto
Maria Teresa Taboada's "Building Coherence and Cohesion: Task-oriented
dialogue in English and Spanish" is rare empirical study of a oral genre.
Studies of this kind, particularly within the field of systemic functional
linguistics (Butler, 2003; Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004), have been
oddly missing, so much so that it has become a standard aside for
reviewers of genre to acknowledge a lack of research on oral genres
(Hyland, 2002). In practice, within SFL and in other fields, genre has
come to mean either the written mode (Bhatia, 1993; Flowerdew, 2002;
Johns, 2002) or a sociological artefact (Berkenkotter and Huckin, 1995;
Miller, 1994; Russell, 1997). To be sure there do exist some notable
studies of oral genres within a systemic functional tradition--Ventola
(1987), Lemke (1990), Eggins and Slade (1997), Love (2000), Nassaji and
Wells (2000), and now Taboada's work. Her book takes a significant step
forward in understanding the formal aspects of oral genres by examining
the relationship between textual features (Halliday and Hasan, 1976;
Stoddard, 1991) and the generic structure of a "task-oriented dialogue."
In the first chapter, Taboada lays out five research questions:
1. How can we characterize the texture of spoken discourse?
2. Are the tools developed for the analysis of written texts suitable to
the study of spoken discourse?
3. What are the effects of staging and generic structure on texture and
4. Are there significant differences in the realization of texture between
English and Spanish, given a constant genre?
5. How can we best characterize the sequencing regularities found in the
In addition to the research questions, she states that her goal is
to "study connexity and coherence at all levels" (p. 1) by analyzing three
aspects of text: thematic progression, "logical coherence" of
propositions, and cohesion. Her basic analytical approach is driven by
Halliday's textual metafunction, although the study relies on Rhetorical
Structure Theory (Mann and Thompson, 1988) for an analysis of
relationships between propositions. In her introduction Taboada writes
that she has designed a study with a emphasis on how well the "tools" of
written text analysis--thematic progression, rhetorical structure theory,
and cohesive devices--work to identify an oral genre. Eventually, as her
second and third research question ask, she intends to understand how
coherence and cohesion shape and define an oral genre, and this is, in
fact, the major focus of the book.
In the second chapter, "A Framework for the Analysis of Speech Genres,"
she reviews the topic of speech genres, giving an obligatory nod to
Bakhtin's speech genres (1986), explaining the systemic functional concept
of register as comprised of the contextual variables of field, tenor, and
mode, and then discussing how they combine to form a genre. She briefly
reviews the literature concerning generic sequencing or stages, citing
Mitchell's seminal 1957 study of market transactions and Hasan's generic
structure potential (1978; Hasan, Cloran, Butt, and Williams, 1996).
Structure in the form of staging is important for Taboada because she
believes it is a defining characteristic of genre. Moreover, she equates
generic structure most closely with Halliday's textual metafunction, thus
making coherence and cohesion central to her analysis. In order to place
genre in a theory of mind, Taboada quickly drops Bakhtin for cognitive
psychology to explain genre's role in discourse as similar to frames
(Minsky, 1975), scripts (Schank and Abelson, 1977), and schema (Rumelhart,
1980). Genres operate as internalized "knowledge structures" residing in
the mind, representing the external world, providing background knowledge
and serving as information storage. Throughout the book genres are
referred to as memory devices.
In chapter 3, "Data Description," the particulars of the study design are
presented. Data used for the study were taken from a computer translation
project at the University of Pittsburgh/Carnegie Mellon. Sixty dialogues
were selected from the project's corpus of 1380 dialogues. Participants
consisted of English and Spanish speaking adults assigned to work in pairs
with someone of the same language background to complete an activity in
which they needed to schedule an appointment with each other despite
conflicting schedules. The procedure for data collection consisted of
participants performing the task while sitting at a computer terminal.
They were not allowed to face their partner directly and could only be
heard by pressing a keyboard button and speaking into a microphone.
Participants were unable to use gestures or materials, such as a calendar
or other written text.
Taboada reports the first of three major analyses in Chapter 4, "The
Thematic Structure of Dialogue." The chapter begins by reviewing theme in
systemic functional linguistics (textual, interpersonal, and ideational)
and then contrasting theme with the notion of topic, going to great
lengths to explain why theme and topic are not necessarily the same. Next,
English and Spanish are compared concerning general placement and
frequency of theme. Taboada explains that English has relatively fixed
word order while in Spanish it is possible to drop the subject (ellipsis)
or use a verb-subject word order. The Spanish use of ellipsis later
becomes an issue in coding for theme when she tries to determine marked
and unmarked themes. Analysis of the data showed that English themes
tended to be participant or circumstance subjects, but for Spanish there
was a preference for processes in the subject position followed by
circumstances and participants. Taboada notes a large number of
circumstance themes in subject position due to the nature of the task,
which required extensive talk about times and dates. In the latter
sections of Chapter 4 she describes her method for determining thematic
progression and presents the results as frequency counts of various types
of progression based on a classification developed by Dubois (1987). One
unexpected finding was the use of new themes in the dialogues. Taboada
attributes this to the use of finites as themes in Spanish and a
methodological problem in the way the language "encodes person and number"
(pp. 98-99) in the finite form. Unlike English, Spanish participants did
not use a pronoun subject. In the chapter summary she also attributes new
themes to "a lack of planning inherent to spoken language" (p. 102).
Perhaps the most significant results of her analysis of thematic
progression was not finding a relationship with genre. Applying Fries
(1995) hypotheses about the experiential content of themes, Taboada
concludes, based on her data, that because of the occurrence of new
themes, there was no correlation between generic sequencing, experiential
content, and thematic progression.
Mann and Thompson's (1988) rhetorical structure theory (RST)
(http://www.sfu.ca/rst/) forms the basis of analysis for Chapter 5, "
Rhetorical Relations in Dialogue." The focus of the chapter is on what
Taboada calls "coherence relations," defined as the "underlying relations
among the propositions in a text" (p. 106). After a literature review of
coherence relations, RST is explained in detail. For those not familiar
with RST, her treatment of it is clear enough to understand her
methodology. The originators of RST claim that it is a descriptive theory
of text organization in which propositions are classified according to the
writer or speaker's intentions to create some effect in the reader or
hearer. Analysis involves coding and grouping of propositions according to
nuclei and satellites, and then tying them together into increasingly
larger units of text span, schema, and structures. Taboada discusses the
pros and cons of using RST for spoken discourse, such as the ability to
handle both extended monologic and dialogic text and the difficulty in
applying RST categories of relations to interpersonal forms of
communication. The frequency of RST relations for English and Spanish were
roughly equal overall based on two separate analyses at the level of
individual turns (each turn coded for relation) and the dialogues taken
holistically with the coder identifying relations (regardless of turns).
Chapter 5 ends with a listing of the discourse markers found in the
dialogues and how they interact with RST relations. The number of
discourse markers appearing within each relation is presented. Taboada
concludes from her data that no difference between languages occurred and
that relying on discourse markers to identify discourse relations will not
work because discourse markers do not always indicate a relation.
Chapter 6, "Cohesion in Dialogue" starts with an explanation of cohesion
and a brief overview of the various types. Taboada discusses grammatical
and lexical cohesion and how they form cohesive chains within text. While
she analysed the various cohesive resources for both languages, her main
focus is cohesive chains, chain interaction, and cohesive harmony.
Cohesive chains are defined as two cohesive ties mediated by a third
intervening tie. Chain interaction refers to relationships between
separate chains running through the text, usually in regard to grammatical
elements. Cohesive harmony is the result of separate cohesive chains in a
relationship of reference of some kind (e.g., extension) to each other.
Cohesive harmony is measured as either high or low depending on the degree
of similarity among the token elements. Results showed that the ratio of
cohesive elements to words were equal in English and Spanish. Both
languages employed similar types of cohesion with lexical cohesion being
most frequent. This is attributed to the repetition of dates and times in
the scheduling task. The average number of cohesive chains per dialogue
for both languages was about four and there was little interaction between
them. The chains seemed to appear and disappear with new ones having
little or no link to others, thus creating low cohesive harmony.
The topics of theme, clause relations, and cohesion in Chapters 4, 5, and
6 are the major analyses of the book, but Taboada offers one final
extensive study, which examines generic staging in the form of speech
acts. Taboada proceeds by dividing her texts into three generic stages,
opening, task performance, and closing, and the smaller sub-stages of date
proposal, place proposal, acceptance, rejection, and reason. Analysis of
the data showed a generic formula for the scheduling dialogues as (p. 188):
(Opening) ^ Proposal ^ [(Rejection ^ New Proposal)]n ^ Acceptance ^ (Place
Proposal) ^ Closing
Following the segmenting of her texts into generic stages, she identifies
23 speech act categories based on "generalizations extracted from the
corpus" (p. 189) and then assigns one or more of these acts to one or more
utterances (defined as "semantic dialogue units) found in the text.
Frequencies of speech acts for English and Spanish are reported along with
a brief description of sequences of speech acts occurring within each
stage. Subsequent sections of the chapter discuss the relationship between
generic staging and the three pillars of the book: thematic structure,
rhetorical relations, and cohesion. Taboada presents the types of themes
occurring in each stage and explains how thematic progression appeared
only in the task-performance stage, usually as new progression patterns.
As for rhetorical relations, there were not many to be found in the
opening stages of the dialogues. Most appeared in the task performance
stage with non-volitional causes, results, solutionhood, and evaluation
being most common. No information is given about where these fit into the
various substages (date-proposal, place proposal, acceptance, etc.).
Cohesion is analysed in terms of cohesive chains, which coincide with
staging, particularly within the substages of task performance where new
chains begin. In addition, non-interacting chains indicate a transition
The final chapter, "Conclusions and Consequences" is a brief summary of
the work presented and discussion of possible implications for theoretical
linguistics, second language learning, and computational linguistics.
Taboada suggests that her findings may contribute to more insight
into "how people solve tasks and the linguistic structures they use" (p.
210), help second language learners and task designers identify register
variation in learning activities in the hopes of more accurate production,
and provide support for applications in computational linguistics
concerning ambiguity resolution, text generation of genres, and
In her last chapter, Taboada actually understates the significance of her
work. It is an important addition to the study of genre, being one of only
a handful of comprehensive empirical studies that examines the formal
aspects of an oral genre. Her study fulfills a need for a closer
examination of current genre theory as it concerns assumptions about
spoken discourse and in a way that takes into account dialogic text. One
theoretical assumption challenged by Taboada, perhaps the most significant
finding of her work, is that each generic stage has its own unique
register. Taboada found "no correlation between stage of the conversation
and experiential content or thematic progression" (p. 101). Her findings
also draw attention to a method of determining generic stages advocated by
Eggins and Slade (1997) in which the analyst identifies each stage first
without any prior analyses of register variables. Taboada found that
generic stages may be predicted based on the appearance of new cohesive
chains, thus offering one potential method for determining sequencing
without resorting to simply sizing up of the text and marking off stages
based on intuition. While her method is not yet proven, it at least offers
a direction for future research.
Taboada has also incidentally stumbled into areas of weakness of genre
theory that seem to go unnoticed. One of these is her inability to account
for data involving interpersonal relationships among the participants.
Because she was intent on studying what she perceived as a strictly
instrumentalist task, any communication that was social in nature (e.g.,
small talk, jokes, greetings, or what she refers to as non-sequiturs),
was, in her own words, "discarded" from analysis. RST analysis, in
particular, could not handle such talk and should have been suspected as
flawed. To her credit she does list methodological problems with RST. It
is worth keeping in mind McCarthy's (2000) criticism of systemic
functional linguistics: "Genre models based predominantly on transactional
achievements... cannot account for participants' commitment to relational
talk even when such talk may appear to be unmotivated" (p. 84).
Another weakness in genre theory emerges in how the dialogues are
described as consisting of three stages: opening, task performance, and
closing. Taboada states "This tripartite organization has been found in
most instances of spoken interaction" (p. 181). She goes on to cite others
(e.g., Stenström, 1994; Schegloff and Sacks, 1973; Clark, 1996) who have
come to the same conclusion. The problem of a claim of tripartite
organization is its lack of explanatory power. To say that an oral genre
has a beginning, middle, and an end tells us nothing about its generic
structure. Consideration of her own formula for what she has called a task-
oriented dialogue should have brought her to ignore such a simplistic
scheme. Notions like tripartite organization is exactly why there is a
need for more in depth research on oral genres, particularly those that
are complex and naturally occurring.
As with any study there were limitations to Taboada's design. First, data
was collected under conditions that were experimental rather than
naturally occurring. The constraints imposed on the participants in having
them not face each other and only being able to communicate through a
keyboard button and microphone created an activity in which interpersonal
talk was discouraged. Second, participants were not allowed to use
mediating objects such as calendars, date books, or other literature that
would normally be used in a scheduling activity. Use of a mediating object
would have surely influenced the production of themes and cohesive
elements. Third, Taboada did not measure interrater reliability of her
coding for cohesion or RST categories, although she is certainly not alone
in ignoring what in educational research is standard practice.
A final criticism of the study is Taboada perpetuates a common perception
in cognitive psychology that genres reside in the minds of the
participants rather than "out there" in the task itself and in the social
environment. As already mentioned, Taboada sees genre as a kind of memory
device that one calls upon when the situation arises. She does not
consider the possibility that genre is a tool used to mediate cognition
(Wells, 1999). If genre is seen as a tool, then it implies that the task
itself has inherent qualities influencing the outcome (path of sequences)
of the activity as well as the language produced. Is it the participants
who determine the generic stages through interaction or are the stages
inherent in the activity itself? The fact that she found English and
Spanish speakers produced nearly identical textual features except where
contrasting language differences existed show that the task demands were
stable regardless of participants or language background. Another issue is
the influence of cultural differences in interaction, but Taboada did not
entertain this potential effect on genre production.
In closing, the value of Taboada's study can be found in its extensive
review of the literature on genre, coherence, and cohesion, its methods of
text analysis for determining thematic progression and cohesion, and its
results concerning cohesive chains and generic sequences. Her study will
no doubt influence the direction of genre research in the future because
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Michael Busch is a doctoral candidate at the Ontario Institute of Studies
in Education of the University of Toronto where he is writing a thesis on
the role of oral genres in second language group work. His academic areas
of interest are discourse analysis, sociocultural theory, and systemic