March 2018
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Wei Zhang, University of Akron, Akron, Ohio, USA

Content literacy has a direct impact on student academic achievement. It is required of all students in the Common Core State Standards. It is not an automatic development stemming from the learning of content knowledge for all students. English learners (ELs), in particular, need additional support to build up the content literacy skills necessary for their academic success.

It has been well recognized that literacy instruction for ELs should go beyond the level of academic vocabulary. Being able to recognize and identify how a text is organized is pivotal for reading content texts with understanding (Fang & Schleppegrell, 2008; Williams, 2003) as well as writing academic discourse with clarity. This article offers an approach to text structure instruction based on Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), a semantic-functional approach to text analysis. I first explain the main tenets of an SFL analysis of text structure with illustrative examples drawn from K–12 textbooks and teaching materials, and then I provide a set of instructional strategies to teach text structure to ELs to support their content literacy development.

Systemic Functional Linguistics Analysis of Text Structure

SFL has been used to identify the meaning-making linguistic features of spoken and written texts of different genres for the purpose of teaching students to read more efficiently. SFL takes the clause as a base unit for analysis. Through an analysis of clauses in a text, it looks for three meaning-making mechanisms that work simultaneously in a text: textual meaning (how the text is organized), experiential meaning (what the text is about), and interpersonal meaning (what the author’s perspective is and how it is expressed; Fang & Schleppegrell, 2008). An understanding of how a text is organized contributes to an understanding of the key ideas of a text and how details are put together to support the key ideas.

To reveal the textual meaning of a text, SFL divides a clause into two meaning-making parts: theme and rheme. Theme is “a particular departure point” of a clause, and rheme is what has been presented as “something new” (Fang & Schleppegrell, 2008, p. 11). As illustrated in Table 1, a theme can be the subject, and a rheme can be the predicate, but theyare not to be taken as synonymous with the more familiar terms of subject and predicate.

Table 1. Theme-Rheme Analysis of Clauses in Content Texts

Content Area





In the water cycle,

water moves between land, living things, bodies of water on Earth’s surface, and the atmosphere.

Hart (2005)


White settlers

had come into conflict with Native Americans

Buckley, Miller, Padilla, Thornton, & Wysession (2014)

A text is then organized around the theme and rheme of clauses. Much like a weaver weaving a pattern with a shuttle and threads, the thememoves a text from beginning to end and the rheme supplies the exact information. Different texts, of course, adopt different theme-rheme systems. For instance, a chronicling history text is typically marked by themes of prepositional phrases and adverbs of time, place, and manner, such as “in 1776, in Boston,” and “in this way.” Science texts, however, tend to use the reiteration of themes and the zig-zagging pattern of themes and rhemes to provide information and convey complex ideas. Such theme-rheme patterning creates a coherent and cohesive text, as illustrated in Figure 1, where the reiteration of themes is marked by the curved arrows and the zig-zag patterning by the straight arrows.


Figure 1. Theme-rheme patterning in a science text.
Click to enlarge.

Of particular interest is that the zig-zagging patterning of theme and rheme in different content texts serves different text functions. For instance, when the pattern is used in science texts, it often offers further explanation or details of a phenomenon. As illustrated in the first two sentences in Figure 1, the ending phrase of the first sentence, “the water cycle,” becomes the theme of the second sentence, which gives a definition of what the water cycle is in its rheme, “is the continuous process by which water moves from Earth’s surface to the atmosphere and back, driven by energy from the sun and gravity.”

The theme-rheme pattern in a history text may be used to explain the cause-and-effect of a historic event rather than offering further explanation or details. An example is shown in Figure 2 with a passage from Hart (2005) that explains how the American Indian Reservations came about.

Figure 2. Zig-zagging patterning in a history text.
Click to enlarge.

Though not as commonly found, the zig-zagging theme-rheme pattern is also used in poems as threads of thoughts. An intriguing example is shown in the nursery rhyme “Ten Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed,” where the zig-zagging pattern signals the development of the story with implied rhemes, as annotated in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Zig-zagging patterning in a nursery rhyme.
Click to enlarge.

The content text examples and their theme-rheme analysis in this section demonstrates that understanding the theme-rheme structure of a text is key to understanding how the organization of clauses in a text makes a text meaningful. It offers a vantage point and the big picture of a text for students to seek more information and meaning. As text cohesion-building tools, theme and rheme are worthy access points for in-depth comprehension of content texts.

Strategies to Teach Text Structure

Explicit instruction of text structure requires mindful planning and strategic delivery. An instructional model that works well with students is the Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR)model, which specifies four instructional steps:

1) I do it

2) We do it together

3) You do it together

4) You do it on your own (Fisher & Frey, 2013)

To teach the theme-rheme structure of texts, a teacher should choose passages from the textbook or required readings that are similar in complexity and organization to typical content-area texts. A full-fledged lesson will use three passages (a model passage, a practice passage, and a target passage) with instruction delivered following an adapted GRR model that is recursive, as outlined in the Table 2. A teacher, however, should be flexible in deciding whether to deliver all steps in one class or spread them out into small sections through the duration of teaching a particular content text. A teacher can also relabel the technical terms of Theme and Rheme with beginning ideas and ending ideas should the teacher feel that students would be more receptive to the relabeled terms.

Table 2. Theme-Rheme Structure Instruction Following the GRR Model

GRR Model

Theme-Rheme Structure Instruction

I Do It

Demonstrate dividing at least three clauses from the model passage into theme and rheme.

We Do It Together

Together, divide the remaining clauses in the model passage into theme and rheme.

You Do It Together

Ask students to work in pairs or small groups to read the target passage first and then divide the practice passage into theme and rheme.

I Do It


We Do It Together

Go back to the model passage and mark the relationship between each theme and rheme using arrows as illustrated in Figures 1 and 2 or similar marking systems, verbally pointing out how meaning connects from one clause to another and inviting students to join in the think aloud by asking questions or spot checking.

You Do It Together

Ask students to mark the relationship between each theme and rheme in the practice passage and verbally point out the meaning relationships from one clause to another before sharing the teacher’s own marking of the practice passage.

You Do It on Your Own

Give students the target passage to practice and check comprehension with questions at the end.

As an ending thought, teachers should be aware that skill building is a process that takes more than one practice and more than the effort of a single teacher. The optimal scenario is for teachers of ELs to collaborate in the planning and delivering of instruction of content literacy to ensure consistency and strength of literacy instruction. SFL might be a nontraditional approach to literacy instruction, but given its strength in genre analysis and its linguistic focus, it could offer an effective instruction solution to teachers of both ELs and non-ELs who need additional support in developing the necessary literacy skills to succeed academically.


Fang, Z., & Schleppegrell, M. J. ( 2008). Reading in secondary content areas: A language-based pedagogy. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2013). Better learning through structured teaching: A framework for the graduate release of responsibility (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Hart, D. (2005). History alive: The United States through industrialism. Palo Alto, CA: Teachers’ Curriculum Institute.

Buckley, D., Miller, Z., Padilla, M. J., Thornton, K., & Wysession, M. E. (2014). Interactive science: Science and technology. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Williams, J. P. (2003). Teaching text structure to improve reading comprehension. In H. L. Swanson, K. R. Harris, & S. Graham (Eds.), Handbook of learning disabilities (pp. 293–305). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Wei Zhang, PhD, is associate professor of linguistics and TESOL at the University of Akron. Her research focuses on English learners’ disciplinary literacy development, TESOL teacher training, and TESOL program design.

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