This paper is about an important aspect of discourse competence in advanced learners of English. It reports the first results of an ICLE-based study of how Spanish and Dutch learners of English construct the theme zone of their sentences, defined as the complex of constituents up to and including the subject and its non-restrictive postmodifiers in the first declarative main clause of the sentence. The theme zone is interesting for discourse-oriented learner research since thematic material links up with the previous content, gives an orientational frame for the message to come, and adds background information for understanding the upcoming message. Dutch and Spanish are interesting in terms of their basic clause patterns: with regard to the beginning of the clause, they differ from each other and they also differ from English. The results show that there is a large degree of similarity in how the two groups construct their sentences, but the Dutch group exhibits both a higher degree of grammatical competence and a richer development of discourse competence.