Gist is the general meaning or purpose of a text, either written or spoken. Reading a text for gist is known as skimming.
The gist the point or substance of an argument, speech, etc. (from Anglo-French, as in cest action gist en this action consists in, literally: lies in, from Old French gésir to lie, from Latin jacere, from jacere to throw) (Dictionary).
Before answering detailed comprehension questions on a short story, learners read it quickly for gist, and then match the text to a picture that summaries what happens in the story.
In the classroom
Readers employ a variety of reading skills including prediction, reading for gist, scanning and intensive reading. Learners need to be shown these and taught how to use them to find their own effective strategies.
Why is reading for gist important?
Skimming and scanning are reading skills most learners use extensively in their mother tongue. We might therefore expect the skills to be transferable ones – and indeed they are. Nevertheless, teachers of English can help learners improve their abilities in these areas.
Reading for gist is not an end in itself. It’s a preparatory stage, a threshold. This is not to undermine its importance. In fact, this initial step is particularly useful and defines whether this or that part of a text deserves our attention.
Apart from other techniques and strategies, establishing the gist of each paragraph can save time and ultimately lead to a better result.
Why is reading for gist challenging for learners?
In the safe classroom environment, we prepare our learners for reading by activating their schematic knowledge – the background knowledge about the topic that can help them understand the text – as well as pre-teaching vocabulary and using visuals to set the topic. But in the real world – at university, say – teachers aren’t there to prepare learners each time they have to read a text.
How can teachers help learners read for gist? A few ideas…
- As we’ve seen, skimming a text means reading it quickly for the main ideas, but the disadvantage of speed is increased ambiguity. If you’ve ever set a short time limit for learners to skim the whole text, and what they did instead was read the first paragraph in detail, then this is because they are reluctant to tolerate ambiguity. In other words, they feel they need more time to achieve a deeper understanding.
A way to take control of the learners’ reading pace and get them to focus on the general idea is to use a text-prompter, which scrolls the text at a given speed forcing the reader to move from one sentence to the next. If you have internet access and a projector or iPads, then type or copy and paste your text into the prompter and let your learners read on the board or the iPads.
- Another fun activity, tech-free this time, is one called “Of course, I have”. It’s a role play in which learners work in pairs and pretend to have read a text or watched a movie. It focuses on skimming and scanning. Here’s the set-up:
Choose a topic and find two texts about it. I came up with two reviews on two different art exhibitions. Then, you ask learners to pretend they are arts experts who follow all the developments in the art world.
Each reads one text. Provide enough time for them to reflect, underline, highlight and prepare. In a moment, they need to chat about it with their partner who, for the purposes of the role play, is a very arrogant and ‘know-it-all’ colleague.
As soon as they’re ready, students swap texts and put them face-down on the table. The task is to outsmart their partner and answer their tricky questions in order to convince them that they have, indeed, been to the exhibition they’re being asked about. While doing so, they rely on the second text which they now have at hand, but they are only allowed to glimpse at the text. Otherwise their pauses will give their lie away.
- Highlighting particular words or discourse features in a text is a practical way to direct learners’ attention to where core meaning is to be found. As a rule, nouns, adjectives, adverbs and main verbs carry meaning, but we may want to focus on specific words and discourse features typical of the genre of the text in question.
Take a narrative text as an example. Nearly all narratives provide the setting early on. This is usually followed by a complication and ends with a resolution. In a newspaper article, on the other hand, we might expect a concise headline (inessential words can be omitted) followed by the details and finally the writer’s comments. Academic articles are expected to be lucidly structured with clear topic sentences. It’s important to raise awareness of genre-specific features with your learners.
What can learners do to improve their reading skills?
- Often the best learners read often and extensively. We should encourage learners to read for pleasure, read what is genuinely interesting to them and read as often as possible. It’s important to keep in mind that reading needn’t be task-bound; it needn’t come with a set of comprehension questions. Reading a novel, a newspaper article or a blog post – and doing so frequently – can develop overall linguistic competence by creating lots of opportunities to notice vocabulary and grammar structures in authentic texts.
- Use electronic devices and take full advantage of free e-books: caters to all tastes while there are many free appsfor iPhone and iPad users.
- Remember not to let reading become overwhelming! Putting down a book or not finishing an article is a very common occurrence. So, remember to keep reading enjoyable. Learners should choose texts that are neither too difficult nor too easy in terms of language or subject matter. If understanding a text means looking up every third word in the dictionary, then it’s not suitable.