G is for Gist

27 11 2011

A couple of weeks ago Patrick Huang, a teacher trainer in Toronto, wrote to me:

I was hoping you could help with this notion of ‘gist’ tasks, which I’ve always thought as helpful in the ESL classroom.  … A colleague in Seoul recently met Michael Swan, and he mentioned that Michael has reservations about the use or usefulness of gist tasks for students. I also seem to remember seeing an article along the same lines.

What’s your current view on this? Do you include / recommend this in your MA TESOL course? Would you be able to refer me to sources where I can do more reading on the topic? I might then be able to give my students and trainees more useful and helpful ideas and practice.

Reading for gist is conventionally associated with the idea of skimming, which, in turn, is typically mentioned in association with scanning. In An A-Z of ELT these terms are defined like this:

  •  skimming (skim-reading, reading for gist): rapidly reading a text in order to get the gist, or the main ideas or sense of a text. For example, a reader might skim a film review in order to see if the reviewer liked the film or not.
  • scanning: reading a text in search of specific information, and ignoring everything else, such as when consulting a bus timetable for a particular time and destination.

Setting skimming and scanning tasks in the language classroom rose to prominence with the advent of the communicative approach, and its promotion of the use of authentic texts. Authentic texts were considered to be more in tune with a functional (i.e. non-structural) view of language, and lent themselves to a task cycle in which different skills were integrated in order to achieve a communicative outcome. Arguably, the only way to deal with such texts – especially at lower levels – was to skim and scan them. “You don’t have to read every word!” the long-suffering students were exhorted.

Very quickly, skimming/scanning became an end in itself, and teachers were misled into thinking that, by having students skim or scan texts, they were developing the skill of reading. How often do you see this expressed as an aim in examined lessons: “To develop the sub-skill of skimming a text for its gist…”

This overlooks two basic facts: (a) most students already know how to skim/scan texts in their L1, and will transfer these skills to their L2, when faced with texts whose purpose  precludes a closer reading; and (b) the skimming and scanning of texts (in the absence of a more intensive reading) is a characteristic, not of good readers, but of poor ones.

(These, I suspect, are Michael Swan’s arguments too).

Of course, it’s true that students, faced with a text in class, tend to ‘park’ their L1 reading skills, assuming that the text is a linguistic object, rather than a communicative one, and adopt a one-word-at-a-time strategy. Setting gist tasks, initially, is one way of discouraging this tendency. Giving students a time-limit to identify what the text is about, who wrote it, to whom, and why, seems an excellent way of ‘peeling off the first layer of the onion’, as it were. But this is less a skill-teaching strategy than a text-attack one. And, unless it is followed up by a more detailed reading, including some kind of focus on the linguistic features of the text (e.g. its lexical, grammatical, or discourse features), it would seem to be a singular waste of time and resources.

It’s also true that L1 reading skills don’t transfer automatically to the L1 if the text is beyond the learners’ present linguistic competence – particularly if it contains a relatively high proportion of unfamiliar words. This is what is sometimes known as the ‘threshold effect’. As Catherine Wallace (2001, p. 22) puts it,

L2 readers need a minimum threshold level of general L2 language competence before they can generalise their L1 reading abilities into L2. Where proficient L2 learners are good readers in their L1, the consensus view (based on a wide range of research studies and teachers’ observation) is that reading abilities can, indeed, be generalised across languages even in the case of differing scripts.

This would suggest that, in order to optimise skill transfer, the teacher should either pre-teach the unfamiliar vocabulary, or choose (or create)  texts whose lexis is within the students’ present competence. Researchers suggest that familiarity with 95% or more of the words in a text is the cut-off point. (The Vocab Profile tool on the Compleat Lexical Tutor website allows a highly useful test – based on word frequency data – of a text’s readability).

But pre-teaching vocabulary or using graded texts is not ‘teaching reading’. It is simply allowing learners to transfer existing skills into their L2 reading.  Why do it, then? Because texts are a useful springboard into other activities, including speaking and writing, as well as offering the opportunity for a more detailed analysis of the text’s grammatical or discourse features. Failure to exploit texts in these ways, by simply skimming or scanning them, teaches nobody nothing.


Wallace, C. 2001. ‘Reading’.  In  Carter, R.,  & Nunan, D. (eds.) The Cambridge Guide to TESOL. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.