Writing Fluid Prose: Sentence to Sentence Transitions Through Theme/Rheme Analsysis

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SWBAT identify how an author builds an argument and creates a flow of ideas through a theme/rheme analysis, and be able to utilize this tool to revise their own writing.

Big Idea

Complex and compelling arguments are built through conscious attention of how ideas flow and are refined from one clause to the next.

Defining Theme and Rheme and their Function

15 minutes

To start, I will do some direct instruction by explaining what it means to identify the theme and rheme of sentences (as part of this, I will also explain how to do this from clause to clause, which is a bit more complex simply because identifying clauses is sometimes tricky, and something students are not as adept at).  I will first define these two terms, explaining that the theme of the sentence is what comes before the verb, and refers to old information, and the rheme is the verb and everything else (the predicate in grammatical terms), and provides new information about the topic.  To demonstrate this, I will show students an example and diagram written by colleagues at the University of Massachusetts from an explanation of a science concept.  The themes make obvious references to information from the previous rheme, so it should work well for an introduction to identifying the theme and rheme, and most importantly how each part functions in a text to present a flow of information, and how paying attention to this creates a cohesive link between clauses.  After I show this, I will have students practice identifying the rest of the themes and rhemes in the passage, and ask them how the flow of information from rheme to theme occurs before moving on to practice with more complex texts. (the entire set of slides I am using are in a PDF here:  Theme rheme presentation.pdf)


Practice Analysis

25 minutes

To practice identifying theme and rheme, and also to demonstrate how this type of analysis can be helpful for comprehending complex texts and understanding vocabulary in context, I will hand students a packet of excerpts from science, social studies, and non-fiction arguments to study how these patterns and cohesive moves change in different genres of writing (theme rheme analysis practice texts.docx).  This will not only teach them how to use this tool for revision for arguments, but also how to use this type of analysis for reading complex texts in any content area.   We will practice first with a social studies text to demonstrate how themes rename ideas for fluidity and also expand and specify a topic in a historical account based on information from the previous rheme(s).  In this particular piece about the French Revolution, I will highlight how the themes rename people and ideas to build a more complete and specific account of events, and also how cohesive words and phrases work to provide a sense of time and place—context for the historical events.  This works as a next step in analyzing the function of themes in different types of texts, as this gets more complex as we move into arguments (I did an analysis of my students’ arguments versus the model from the textbook and other expert arguments and noticed that my students generally don’t redefine or refine ideas from their argument in the themes in the same way that expert texts do.  In not redefining ideas, their argument gets stalled, and they have trouble building complex ideas.  With this knowledge, I decided to focus on the function of themes—the first parts of these sentences, in our work today). 

After discussing the history account as a class, we will then continue our study with a more complex excerpt from Karl Marx, and ask them to work with a partner to highlight the themes of sentences with yellow, and rhemes with green (I will tell them that if they are really up for the challenge, they can do this with clauses rather than sentences).  After they have highlighted parts, we will then take a close look and talk through as a class how the themes of clauses are defined through the previous rheme, and more specifically how Marx redefines his ideas in the themes, building a more complex argument through this process.  Because the Karl Marx piece is a more complex text, I will also introduce the idea of lexical chains (a chain of renamed nouns/ideas), and how utilizing this as a tool can create more sophisticated arguments in writing, as well as help in reading comprehension.  Additionally, I will ask the class how doing this kind of analysis can help when reading complex material, with the goal of showing that they know where to look to figure out what words mean in context (I will look at the word “despotism” toward the end of the piece, and note that since it is in the theme of the clause, what it means is based on the clause or clauses before it), and also more generally knowing where to look to map the ideas a writer is presenting. (The resource here theme rheme analysis practice texts.docx also includes highlighted versions of the history texts that I used to show students what is happening with the flow of information).

Comparing Student and Expert Texts

25 minutes

After all of the examples and building knowledge of the concept of a theme/rheme analysis, and particularly the role themes of clauses play in creating a flow of information and building a central idea, students will apply this knowledge to their own writing.  I will ask students to work in pairs or groups of three so they are more compelled to verbalize what they are working on and work through issues together, and have them first identify the themes in an excerpt from our model essay in The Language of Composition 2e textbook and the themes in two student samples from class (I asked the students for permission to do this with their pieces first; I chose these two because they are two of the strongest pieces, and also show two different revision possibilities based on theme analysis: Student Samples for print.docx).  After they have done this, the students will compare the themes of each—what they see visually, and also patterns in the word choices and lexical chains.  What will be obvious to them, and what we will note (I have the themes of each highlighted in texts, too, which I will show on the SmartBoard: student theme rheme sample.docx), is that the themes in the model are often longer and more complex, and use cohesive words and phrases more often (I will have students look at the cohesion reference sheet I gave them (Table of cohesive devises .pdf) to note the different ways these little words and phrases function to guide the reader as to where the argument is going).  After asking them to share their thoughts and establishing the above differences, I will demonstrate how this analysis can lead to revising, such as, in the first student sample, defining “this” in the second sentence to more specifically state their argument rather than just refer to the whole previous generalized statement.  In the second example, I will note that the lexical chains are full of references to “women” or the pronoun “I”—that even though the rhemes have some strong argument, each new sentence stalls because there isn’t any redefining of ideas to build the argument.

Free Write: Applications for Revision

10 minutes

 At this point we will transition to a formative assessment free-write where I ask students to respond to the question “how can a theme/rheme analysis be valuable for revising essays, or writing ‘one-off’ essays on standardized tests, or reading complex texts?”  I want them to write so they all have a chance to process what we’ve been working on;  we will have covered a lot of new information, so writing gives them all a chance to process what they have learned so far.  After they’ve written for five minutes or so, I will ask them to turn to a partner and share what they’ve written, both to learn from each other and to all engage in vocalizing what they know, and therefore deepening retention.  I will then ask for a couple responses if we have time before they hand this in at the end of class so I can get a sense of what they understood of the lesson, and what parts I should revisit tomorrow before they begin their revisions.

Next steps:  Students will go through their own pieces, highlighting the theme and rheme for tomorrow, and making notes in the margins of changes they might want to make.