Example Non Linear Text Essay Contest

This article outlines advances in thematic progression theory in the hope they may be useful to teachers of writing, especially with non-native and non-European students. Thematic progression denotes the strategies available to writers for linking the themes and rhemes in a clause to those of surrounding clauses. It is a key factor in the structuring of information because it acts as a bridge between sentence level and discourse level, coordinating cohesion and coherence. This paper compares the use of thematic progression in essays by students on a course leading to MA studies in journalism, media and communications with that in two leading British newspapers. It considers how assignment writing could be improved generally by teaching the rudiments of progression theory. If students' assignments are to be clear in their development but also varied and interesting for the reader, additional progression skills are required. In particular, this paper recommends certain variations on Daneš' progression types, as well as the use of more breaks (non-participant themes) to mark rhetorical transitions in the text. Familiarisation with the thematic progression in tabloids and broadsheets, respectively, should provide an overview of a range of progression from formal to outspoken, which would raise awareness of what is available, even if not all elements are appropriate for all types of academic writing.

Had a great time talking about reading in the era of Common Core at NSVF Summit on Wednesday. One of the topics I tried to emphasize was the importance of text complexity.  It’s critical that kids read more challenging texts in school, and while the  Common Core’s emphasis on text complexity is a very good thing, the way it currently gets measured–via Lexiles and similar  “quantitative”  tools—is generally not as good. Such methods don’t consider the things that really make text challenging for students.  The Lexile score for the Outsiders is the same as that for Lord of the Flies, for example but there’s no comparison between the books in terms of which is a more challenging read.

In Reading Reconsidered the book I’m writing with Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway, we posit five “Plagues of the Developing Reader”- types of text complexity that students should be exposed to systematically so they learn how to read and response to.  One of them is non-linear time sequence- the idea that time doesn’t move in a steady fashion in a text and that a book sometimes does not provide tags or explanations to show that changes in the direction of time (a flashback) or rate of time elapsing (a narrative slows down suddenly or leaps ahead). This can lead to confusion.

For example consider this brief moment from my daughter’s current favorite , A Bear Called Paddington

In this scene he’s just had a comical bike ride where he got caught up in the Tour de France on his tricycle and went down a huge hill totally out of control.  The mayor of the town in France were he’s been staying speaks about Paddington to the adoring twon:

“We of St. Castille,” he cried, “shall remember for many years to come the day the Tour de France passed through our village.”

There was a great deal of celebrating in the village that evening and everyone applauded when the mayor announced that he was giving Paddington a special prize, with as many buns as he could manage into the bargain.

“Not for the fastest rider through the village,” he said amid cheers and laughter, “but certainly for the fastest down the hill!  We are very proud that someone from our village should have won the prize.”

Paddington felt very pleased with himself as he sat up in bed that night surrounded by buns. Apart from having one paw in a sling, he was beginning to feel stiff after all his pedaling, and there were still traces of flour left on his fur despite several baths.”

There are at least three different time sequences in this passage.  There is (a) the time when the mayor is addressing the crowd,(b)  the more general and less specific time that evening when there was a great deal of celebrating (it’s unclear whether the mayor’s words were in the midst of that time or preceding it) and (c) the time after both when Paddington is sitting in bed enjoying his buns. I suppose you could argue that there is also the time (d) when Paddington was taking a bath which one is supposed to know happened after (a) and (b) but before (c). So to understand the chronology of the story and the causality of the events you have to reconstruct a very complex time sequence that is different from the sequence by which the narrative unfolds.  The text never tells you that time elapses between (a) and (c) and that (b) probably happened around the time of (a).  You have to have experienced the way that texts subtly do this.  Or better you have to have been exposed, deliberately intentionally and systematically to texts that do this by your teachers.   That said it can be particularly challenging to find really good examples of non-linear text at the elementary level so I was really happy to re-read an old favorite, Donald Crews’ Bigmama’s, recently and find that’s not only a great example of non-linear complexity but it’s a great teaching tool for addressing non-linear text.

Here’s the opening , for example:

“Did you see her? Did you see Bigmama?”

We called our Grandma Bigmama. Not that she was big, but she was Mama’s Mama.

Every summer we went to see her-Mama, my sisters, my brother, and me.  Daddy had to work. He’d come later. It took three days and two nights on the train. Now we were nearly there.

“Cottondale. Cottondale. Next station stop, Cottondale,” yelled the conductor to the nearly empty train.  “Don’t leave no babies on this train.” He made the same joke year after year.

As you may have noticed, the narrative subtly switches back and forth here between describing a specific trip to Cottondale and the broader recursive “time” that refers to a series of visits made over the course of years.  In short, Crews shifts back and for th between what happened “every summer” and what happened in the specific summer on which the narrative focuses, even though that year is a bit hard to distinguish.  In fact, in the next paragraph:

My uncle Slank came for us by car. We always hoped he’d come with the horse and wagon, but he never did.

It’s slightly ambiguous whether Slank came every year or whether it’s one specific year we’re hearing about.  As the story progresses the blurring between recursive time and the specific single time  that the narrator is describing is often blurred.  “We stood on tiptoe to watch the bucket go down and fill with water so that we could have a drink from the dipper that hung nearby,” Crews writes at one point, followed by:  “Everything was just the same.” That is, for every story that I tell there were a series of almost exact stories that happened down across the years. And in fact the book, I think, is about the familiarity of the visits- the way each year was an echo of all others and the events of any one visit meld into the events of all others to create a sort of timeless place.  Throughout the book you’re never quite sure whether it’s specific time (one visit one year to Cottondale) or general time (what visits to Cottondale were typically like)

This of course is the kind of shifting that mature texts do all the time and why they are so challenging.  If you don’t “get” the shifting nature of time and times in the book you simply can’t understand what it’s about.   So Bigmama’s is an immensely valuable and immensely difficult book when you reflect on its use of time. And it is written for readers aged 4 to 8!  And even within that range its sentence structure would yield a very low Lexile rating I am sure.  It’s a classic example of why we need to look at text complexity beyond Lexiles AND of why text complexity can be so challenging for students unless we expose them to its various forms intentionally.


Text Complexity; Reading; Bibmama's

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