It is the beginning of a new beginning.
My New Years Eve decorations still hang above my head. The burnt remains of sparklers lie outside on the porch. The champagne bottle sits empty in the bin.
It is somewhat significant that I write this post at the beginning of a new year. Beginnings are so precious. You only get one. The beginning of a year, the beginning of a song, a movie, a painting. The beginning of a holiday, the beginning of a university degree, the beginning of a new job, the beginning of a relationship. Beginnings seem finite to me. There can only be one.
We are told at the start of a year (or maybe throughout the year if you like your motivational quotes) that you only have one life so “make it count”. It’s a bit like that with beginnings. There is only one so we must make it count.
Before you think I’m getting gushy and you are about to tune out for fear of me posting images of kittens with inspirational sayings, I am talking about grammar.
Beginnings matter in English but so do endings. In functional grammar the beginning of a clause is called the Theme and what follows in the Rheme.
Just like the Theme of a song or movie the Theme of a clause is what that clause is about. It prepares the reader for the message that is about to follow.
The Theme often does not contain new information. The Theme will guide the reader in gently to the message and then BAM! The Rheme will follow with new information.
OK, so maybe not as dramatically as that but you get the idea.
Here is the other reason I love exploring Theme and Rheme with my class, it helps students clearly communicate a message. It’s as simple and difficult as that. How many stories have you seen that start with “Once upon a time”? Would you agree that it is a tad over used? Sure, sometimes that is fitting but often the circumstance is not the theme, it is not the most important thing in the upcoming story. Perhaps instead, the participant or process could be placed at the start (these technical terms for the parts of the clause can be found in my post here). A simple change to the beginning of a story, report or other piece of writing can completely transform it.
This concept is so easy to explain because everyone knows beginnings are important. Even those clever clogs in ACARA who explain that this knowledge needs to be focused on in Year 5 when students:
Ready? Here is the mind blowing part. Theme and Rheme aren’t just useful in Year 5. Theme and Rheme are useful whenever students need to predict information, which is an outcome at every year level and a life skill!
Please tell me I am not the only teacher who has taught prediction and had students way off track. Take the dialogue below for example;
After reading the first page of Possum Magic, “What do you think might happen next?”
“The possums will go to space!”
“They will all blow up!”
“A giraffe will steal their food.”
Great, so top points for creativity but not really what I was after.
You see Theme and Rheme, when used systematically, creates cohesive texts at the sentence level. This means that the new information shared in the Rheme is picked up in the following Theme. The Theme is the answer to “What is this text about?” The Rheme can hint to what is coming next. By explaining these two parts of the sentence, prediction becomes less of a “guessing game” and more about understanding meaning cues.
I often use the spread of the first few pages of Rex by Ursula Dubosarsky to illustrate this. This is a great picture book that is also a very cohesive text. Below is a video of me reading it and explaining how it can be used to demonstrate the patterning of Theme and Rheme.
After all of that I just wanted to say “Happy New Year to all!”. Also, don’t worry if the Theme of your year wasn’t great, there is always new things to be found in the Rheme of your year. Now that should be a motivational poster!