The flow of themes and rhemes

Clip from a slideshow explaining Theme and Rheme by Adip Arifin

I’m not sure if theming and rheming are actual terms but they make a catchy title. In this week’s session of our  PETAA ‘Grammar and Teaching’ course presented by Jo Rossbridge, we spent a great deal of time learning about themes and rhemes.

This grammatical ‘theme’ is not to be confused with a literary ‘theme’, which is generally the main or underlying idea of a piece of literature. Jo taught us that a grammatical theme is the beginning focus of a clause, the bit before the verb, and that it tends to be a noun group. It is there at the beginning for a reason and it’s worth noting.The verb and the rest of the clause is the rheme. Apparently, this is an  organisational feature of Western literature to put what is most important, the theme, up front.  Something to note when teaching our EAL/D students who are literate in their first language.

Do you remember in where I talked about field,tenor and mode? Well, this theme/rheme structure is related to the mode – how it all hangs together.

Just to look at isolated examples of themes as an intellectual challenge doesn’t really mean anything. We need to look at the theme patterns across the text to see how they help the cohesion. The types of themes differ according to the text.

If we look at the figure below from the PETAA publication, Grammar and Meaning by Humphrey, Droga and Feez, we can see that there are three types of themes;
-the experiential theme which foregrounds the participants, the processes or the circumstances. In the examples below these are occurring in informative, procedural or recounting texts.

-the interpersonal theme which foregrounds a viewpoint, which you would find in text like a report or review.

– the textual theme which use conjunctions or connectives, and there is more than one part before the verb, a part that doesn’t need to be there – a part which is known as a marker.



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From ‘Grammar and Meaning’ by Humphrey, Droga, Feez Figure 5.2 page 134 Different types of theme

Again we need to ask ‘why’ do our students need to know this? How does the knowledge of themes help them? This strategical understanding of the patterns of themes and rhemes will help them to organise their thoughts and their writing. They can write down their main points and make these their sentence openers; a scaffold on which to hang their writing so that it moves logically from one point to the next. If our students use clear patterns of themes and a flow of clauses through their writing or public speaking, it helps their audience to follow the main points that they are making and to better understand the arguments or examples that they are using to expand on their ideas. Hopefully, as our students become familiar with the idea of using themes as openers for texts or paragraphs they will learn to skim and scan when researching and taking notes.

Jo says, “Grammar is not hard, we’re just letting our students in on the secret” – the secret of how it all works together to help us make ‘meaning’ so we can communicate well with others.

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Following the pattern of theme choices from ‘Grammar and Meaning’ by Humphrey, Droga and Feez PETAA publication Fig. 5.4 page 137


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This week I will use these stems of sentences with a cross stage 2/3 class to teach linear, chronological and zigzag theme pattern. They can work in pairs and we can jointly construct using their ideas.





3 thoughts on “The flow of themes and rhemes

  1. I not sure about this one. I think encouraging a love of reading and writing without getting too caught up in the intricacies is the way to go. Most of us won’t ever need this information. Those who have a feel, or a gift, for language will feel it almost intuitively. This will only bamboozle those who don’t. I’d say, leave it for those who need to know and have enough knowledge to know if they need to know it or not. Let’s make literacy live for our learners.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hear what you are saying though perhaps I didn’t explain it very well, which shows that I have not yet practised this set of skills.
      I have been shown how to use themes and rhemes before by an EAL/D teacher who uses this with her Stage 3 class and says its quite effective. She taught them to go through an article and highlight the themes (key words) to teach them to skim. I haven’t tried this myself but will ‘have a go’ and let you know how it runs. This week there is more on teaching cohesion.
      Thanks again for reading .

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Part of the difference may be that my focus has always been in the early years, primarily year one. I think work like this may be helpful to EAL adult students. I’m still not sure of the benefits in general. I look forward to hearing about your trial and your impression. It is great to be able to discuss some of these issues and come to a better understanding. Thank you for your openness and patience. Have a good week.

        Liked by 1 person

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