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Using an understanding of theme and rheme in improving student discussions

In the academic year of 2007-2008, I was invited to join the course, Language and Literacy: Classroom Applications of Functional Grammar provided by the EDB-operated project, Improving Language and Learning in Public-sector Schools (ILLIPS) and to be trained as a tutor to run workshops to train my colleagues. In taking the course and delivering it, both my colleagues and I have learned a great deal and we are now looking at the English language afresh. One particular aspect of the course is the concept of Theme and Rheme. According to the course manual Theme refers to what is foregrounded in a clause, which focuses the listener/reader on how the text is unfolding. The theme of a clause includes all textual and interpersonal elements up to, and including, the first experiential element, for example: # # Luckily, we avoided further strife.' The liquid was added gradually.

The words in bold type are the Theme and whatever is not theme is called Rheme and is defined as that part of the clause in which the theme is developed by providing new information. Oscar Wilde, a master of the genre of prose writing, frequently used the patterns in Theme and Rheme to drive his narrative forward. For example, from The Selfish Giant, we can see how Wilde introduces the word tree as new information in one sentence and then immediately picks it up and uses it as Theme in the following sentence. .the Giant stole up behind him and took him gently in his hand, and put him up into the tree. And the tree broke at once into blossom. Here are some more examples from Wilde, where one element of the Rheme of one clause is used as the Theme of the subsequent clause or sentence - these appear in bold type. i. ii. For on the palms of the childs hands were the prints of two nails, and the prints of two nails were on the little feet. The eyes of the Happy Prince were filled with tears, and tears were
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running down his golden cheeks. iii. iv. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all. The praise of folly, as he went on, soared into a philosophy, and Philosophy herself became young.

Wilde deliberately uses one idea to suggest another and adds information for the reader. He also amplifies the effect by not using pronouns. Compare the following: i. ii. The eyes of the Happy Prince were filled with tears, and tears were running down his golden cheeks. The eyes of the Happy Prince were filled with tears, and they were running down his golden cheeks.

It is clear that (i) is emphasizing much more than (ii) in the choice that Wilde has made. How is this of use to our students when they speak? I have observed that the weaker students of English are weaker partly because they fail to add to information already given them by their more confident counterparts in the genre of spoken discourse. In a four person exam-type discussion, where typically the candidates are of varied ability, the less confident students will wait for the others to introduce and define the topic, listen carefully to their suggestions and choices, and then, when prodded into making a contribution, offer only an unconvincing comment such as, Yes, I agree with you! then look down and away. This usually results in a few seconds of dead air and a lost opportunity to add information, while the other members are left to think of something to say and pick up the flagging discussion. How can we train these less confident students to add information to the discussion in such a way that they can keep the topic alive and also gain extra points for themselves? Naturally, one answer comes from what I illustrated above in the writings of Wilde and also from our knowledge of Theme/Rheme patterns of discourse propounded by Functional Grammar. If the weaker students can listen carefully to the ideas suggested by their seemingly more capable and fluent peers, they can learn that by adding information to these ideas, they can fulfill the objectives of the discussion more readily and successfully. Instead of listening to one student say something such as, I suggest we hold the Christmas party in the school hall because it is big and we can play a lot of games there, and then a weaker student replying shyly, Yes, I agree with you!, he can

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strengthen his contribution by elaborating on items (in bold) which appear in the Rhemes of the stronger students suggestion. For example, he can add information about the school hall, saying that he thinks it would be a great place to decorate with a large Christmas tree, balloons and lights. He might pick up on the idea of playing games to give concrete examples of fun games to be played such as rope-skipping games and hand-clapping games. Thus, it is by having the students identify the information already given them, and encouraging them to construct their contribution around it that we can improve their performance. Functional Grammar, in this way, can aid students with their spoken language by providing a convenient framework in which they can build up their confidence and improve their language competence. Terence Stephen Mulrooney Teacher-tutor CCC Fong Yun Wah Secondary School

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