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How to Diagram Topical Progressions
Charting Sentential Topics and Discourse Topic
Executing a topical structure analysis involves identifying topics and relating them to previous sentential topics as well as the discourse topic. Witte (1983a: 341 n. 50) identified topic by asking "what is this sentence about?" and moving "from one noun phrase to the next until I found what I thought was a satisfactory answer for each sentence in the context of the whole discourse." Schneider and Connor's study also identified topic by asking what the sentence is about. My analyses below strive to use largely the same approach as that of Schneider and Connor, enabling me to compare my findings with theirs.
The relations of sentential and discourse topics are charted using the three kinds of topical progression detailed above. The first step in the analysis is to identify and underline all the sentence topics in the text. The second step is to construct a diagram corresponding to the topical structure of the essay. The diagram, Connor and Farmer explain, is constructed by placing sentence topics with parallel progression exactly below each other. Sequential topics are indented progressively. A topic with extended parallel progression is lined up under the parallel topic to which it refers. When a chart is made to show the topical structure of a text, the progressive indenting represents topical depth. The following chart of a short newspaper editorial illustrates this method for conducting a topical structure analysis:
1 Federal Election Commission 2 both candidates [ref=Clinton and Dole] 3 both [ref=Clinton and Dole] 4 the party 5 ambiguity 6 explicit language 7 the Democratic ads 8 Mr. Clinton 9 they [the federal election commissioners] 10 the laws
In this chart, the progressive indentation that sets Line 2 off from Line 3 indicates a sequential progression. The vertical alignment of Line 3 with Line 2 indicates that the topic in Line 3 is a parallel progression. Meantime, the vertical alignment of Line 9 with Line 1 indicates an extended parallel progression. For convenience, in Lines 2 and 9 I have included the referents of the topics in brackets.
This paper analyzes the topical structure of accomplished essays and compares it with the topical structure tacitly preferred by assessors in their judgments of student essays. The central aim is to examine whether the same patterns of topical structure that are rewarded by assessors in student writing, as reported by previous studies, are in fact being used by professionals writing within a similar genre. The results of the comparison will help determine the extent to which essays written for such tests as Educational Testing Service's TOEFL Test of Written English, analyzed by Schneider and Connor (1991), are being evaluated in accordance with the unstated norms of topical structure in comparable accomplished prose.
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