Developing the Sub-skill of Identifying Reference in Reading

Developing the Sub-skill of Identifying Reference in Reading

By Daniel Tse

Second-language learners in Cambridge Exam Preparation classes will encounter reading task questions that assess their sub-skill of identifying reference in a text. From B1 Preliminary onwards, such questions usually appear in multiple-choice comprehension tasks and gapped texts with missing sentences or paragraphs. How can teachers help their students to develop this reading sub-skill? Before we explore some practical ideas, let us turn our attention to how the reference system works in written texts.

Cohesion through reference

A written text, as opposed to a random string of sentences, is said to contain features that promote its ‘unity’ and ‘connectedness’ (Celce-Murcia and Olshtain 2000: 126); one such feature is cohesion. A text is considered cohesive when there is connection between various elements on a surface level. More specifically, cohesion concerns the textual links within and across clauses or sentences. The example below demonstrates an inter-clausal link between it and the Met Office:

The Met Office says dry weather is likely to arrive in the UK at the end of August, although it is not expecting the kind of prolonged heat that we saw last year.

(Adapted from BBC News, 1st August 2023)

Having established the definition of cohesion, we can consider how it is achieved by linguistic means. According to Halliday and Hasan (1976), there are five categories of grammatical and lexical systems that contribute to cohesion in a text. One of them is reference, a grammatical system of formal and semantic relationships between two textual elements. In the above example, both it and the Met Office are in the singular form. While the subject pronoun, it, would otherwise be meaningless without a proper context, it corresponds to the Met Office semantically in this instance. Students of English need to be aware of this correspondence, and to be able to recognise it when they see it in a text.

Although cohesion can be realised by the reference system, the reverse is not found to be true. In other words, certain aspects of reference do not interact with cohesion and thus fall beyond the scope of this article.


As mentioned above, the reference system is related to the surface connection between two textual elements. In the previous example, the subject pronoun it is a reference device and the Met Office is the referent. In addition to pronouns, there are other reference devices, as you can see from the list below.

Possessive adjectives: my, our, your, his, her, its and their;
Possessive pronouns: mine, ours, yours, his, hers, its and theirs;
Demonstratives: this, that, these, and those;
Definite article: the.

(Based on Flowerdew 2013: 34)

Flowerdew (2013: 35) states that the relation between reference devices and their referents operate in three directions. When the referent precedes the reference device, as shown in the example reproduced below, the type of reference is anaphoric. The pronoun, it, refers back to the Met Office.

The Met Office says dry weather is likely to arrive in the UK at the end of August, although it is not expecting the kind of prolonged heat that we saw last year.

(Adapted from BBC News, 1st August 2023)

Reference can also occur in a forward direction, which we call cataphoric reference. Flowerdew (ibid.), however, notes that this type of reference is less frequently used in both spoken and written English. In the following example, the first possessive adjective, his, refers to Daniel, which appears subsequently in the text.

To his pleasant surprise, Daniel was able to hold a conversation with his neighbours entirely in Italian. This had never happened to him.

(Own example)

On a related note, referents can sometimes comprise textual elements as substantial as an entire sentence. In the same example, the demonstrative, this, refers anaphorically to the fictitious event that constitutes the whole clause: If only Daniel had been able to hold a conversation with his neighbours entirely in Italian.

Furthermore, the definite article, the, is worth mentioning as it straddles two areas: cohesion and reference. As a cohesive device, the is used anaphorically to refer to a person or thing already mentioned in a text. In other cases, the definite article can refer to elements outside a text, such as a collective class of items (Flowerdew 2013: 36). This type of reference, which does not contribute to cohesion, is exophoric. In the example below, the refers generically to the group of bassoons, rather than a specific one.

The bassoon is a musical instrument that belongs to the woodwind family.

(Own example)

It has been suggested that the reference system exists in almost all languages (Frajzyngier 2023). Depending on their first language, learners may be familiar with reference devices different to those in English. When reading in a second or foreign language, learners may tend to process texts by considering individual words and therefore fail to notice reference links across different parts of a text. In order to extend learners’ sub-skill of identifying reference in reading, teachers can use the classroom ideas outlined below.

Teaching, not testing

The following gapped text, titled ‘Digging into the past’, is an extract from an exam trainer book for Cambridge B1 Preliminary for Schools:

Reading Part 4


‘One day, when I was digging away, I found a stone with a strange shape. [(20) A] Someone had obviously made it hundreds of years ago, which meant it was really important.’


A It turned out to be a small figure of a horse.

(Adapted from B1 Preliminary for Schools Trainer Book 1, 2nd ed., pp. 22-23)

In the above extract, the subject pronoun, it, in gap number 20 (option A) refers anaphorically to a stone in the previous sentence. One may also define the referent as a stone with a strange shape; the prepositional phrase with a strange shape post-modifies, or adds information about, the stone.

The difference between teaching and testing lies in the way in which the above task is used in the classroom. If the learners relish the opportunity to tackle this task from the outset, each of them can attempt it immediately. In the post-task feedback, the teacher discovers any gap in the learners’ sub-skill by analysing their incorrect answers and giving them the necessary support. This procedure has the effect of testing how well the learners can deploy the target sub-skill. If, however, the learners are new to gapped texts, teachers can provide scaffolding prior to the task rather than wait until the feedback stage. To teach this sub-skill, teachers use the first task question as an example and do it with the whole class. Once the learners have the correct answer, they have to justify it by checking the reference links between the gapped sentence and the surrounding text.

In order to identify reference links successfully, teachers should first guide the learners in recognising the reference device, it, in the gapped sentence. Subsequently, the learners highlight or underline the referents in the previous sentence. To this end, Grellet (1981: 46) suggests a similar idea that involves drawing arrows to visualise reference links. When the learners demonstrate that they are able to use the target sub-skill autonomously, teachers can set the remaining questions of the gapped text as an individual task. In the post-task feedback, learners can work in pairs or groups to compare their answers and highlighted referents.

In addition, Nation and Newton (2009: 44-45) mention a variant of the above procedure akin to asking direct comprehension questions in the Cambridge B2 First exam. According to their idea, the teacher writes a list of reference devices along with the corresponding line number of the text on the whiteboard. An example is ‘it (line 12)’ for the question ‘What does it refer to in line 12?’ Consequently, the learners are not required to recognise the reference devices by themselves before they locate the referents.

In my experience, most learners will become confident once they have been able to identify two appropriate referents consecutively. The crucial initial step to their success is the ability to recognise reference devices in the first place. Nevertheless, teachers should exercise care with certain devices. Due to the multiple uses of the demonstrative pronouns and it, learners may erroneously regard these words as having a referential function in a text. For instance, the pronoun it, is a dummy subject in the sentence ‘it usually rains a lot in the winter’; this word serves a purely grammatical purpose but does not refer to anything at all.


Although the discussion of the sub-skill of identifying reference orientates itself towards Exam Preparation classes, teachers can apply the classroom ideas in this article to other learning contexts, including General English and Business English. This system is in use in all written texts irrespective of their genre, be they informal text messages or formal business reports. By developing learners’ reading sub-skill of identifying reference, teachers can help them to negotiate a wide range of text types and achieve comprehension with complete confidence.


Celce-Murcia, M. and Olshtain, E. Discourse and Content in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2000).
Grellet, F. Developing Reading Skills. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1981).
Flowerdew, J. Discourse in English Language Education. New York: Routledge (2013).
Frajzyngier, Z. A Typology of Reference Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2023).
Nation, I.S.P. and Newton, J. Teaching ESL/EFL Reading and Writing. New York: Routledge (2009).

UK Weather: When will it stop raining and the summer improve? <> (accessed on 2 August 2023)

B1 Preliminary for Schools Trainer Book 1, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2019).

Author Biography

Daniel Tse went into ELT in 2019 and started teaching at IH Milan and San Donato, Italy in the same year. He works with Young Learners, teens, and adults across the full range of CEFR levels. An early-career teacher, he is currently on his journey through the DELTA. He mainly teaches Cambridge/IELTS Exam Preparation and Business English courses. He has also spoken at conferences in Milan and Barcelona.