Activity: Expression and new information

A difficulty for all levels is recognising what is presented as new information within the clause. New information comes through stress in the Expression stratum and differs from the Theme – Rheme distinction of the clause. Here is a short activity to get learners focusing on new information in a simple dialogue. The dialogues all feature a repetition of the same lexico-grammatical clause but the focus of the new information shifts in each case. Learners could try predicting where the stress might fall and then work with a teacher to discuss why it changes. The dialogues are below (possible stress in bold):

Dialogue 1:

A: What‘s your name?

B: It’s Bob. What’s your name?

A: It’s Jane.

Dialogue 2:

A: How old are you?

B: I’m 24. How old are you?

A: I‘m 25.

Dialogue 3:

A: What do you do?

B: I’m a doctor. What do you do?

A: I‘m a lawyer.

Dialogue 4:

A: Where are you from?

B: I’m from Sydney. Where are you from?

A: I‘m from London.

Activity: I wish I could fly

Here is a quick and simple activity for Elementary or Junior High students that highlights the importance of stress for New information. It followed on from a lesson using “I wish…”.
First, at the top of the whiteboard, write the following three sentences:
1. I wish I could fly.
2. I wish I could fly.
3. I wish I could fly.
The student’s form two lines at the rear of the class. The teacher then says one of the sentences. The front two students run and write the number of the sentence and back. The first student back is the winner. That student then comes out of the line and says the next sentence. The team with all students out of the line is the winner.

Further to this game, another activity that then puts the Expression into the context of a dialogue was to put students into pairs and practise a dialogue such as:

A: I wish I could play the piano!

b: Well, I wish I could play the drums!


I came across this question the other day in an Elementary class:

What are you wearing?

It appears quite straightforward and grammatically of course it is, coming in a textbook unit on present progressive. Usually, that’s as far as it goes. Thinking about it further on an expression plane, however, it struck me that the question can be a lot more complex that it was presented in the textbook (plus, it always seemed like a pretty pointless question – you can see me after all. If not, it’s kind of creepy. I always add the Circumstance to the party). The question does actually have at least three distinct meanings differentiated by expression:

  1. What are you wearing? (focus on clothes in general)
  2. What are you wearing? (that I am not, or compared)
  3. What are you wearing? (tell me the truth)
  4. What are you wearing? (why are you wearing that?)

These meanings are often just put down to ‘nuance’ and seen as unimportant or too subtle/difficult for elementary learners but, personally, I think they are a fundamental part of the ‘meaning’ of the question and, as such, constrain or influence the answer. For question 1. we might just answer factually whereas question 2., with the interpersonal emphasis, might be an indirect request for help in choosing something. Question 4. instead might focus on justifying a choice (why, what’s wrong with it?).

The question for me is whether these differences are, in fact, too difficult for foreign language learners.There seem to be several issues at play. Firstly, with the influence or interference of the L1, do L2 learners construe the expression plane differently and instead use different, lexico-grammatical, resources to express the differing meanings:

  1. what clothes are you wearing?
  2. Are you wearing that? I can’t decide!
  3. Why are you wearing that?

Or is it merely because EFL has not, traditionally, treated the expression plane as a systemic resource for meaning and the students are simply unaware of this?


As well as the grammatical system of THEME, the clause as a message also carries “a unit that is parallel to the clause” (H & M, p.88): the information unit. This is a system of Given and New information, where information “is presented by the speaker as  recoverable (Given) or not recoverable (New) to the listener” (H & M, p.91) and is realised by the tone group. The unmarked form is one that proceeds Given → New:

  • I usually (Given) play tennis (New).

The tone having prominence signals to the listener the information focus:

  • I usually play tennis (Given) on Wednesdays (New).

It is also possible, however, for a marked information focus to signal to the listener that some information is news, often used contrastively:

  • I (New) usually play tennis (Given) but my sister (New) doesn’t (Given).