Why should all students read to get the gist?

Posted on March 25th, 2011

Stephanie M. McConachie, a former IFL Fellow, discusses why all students need to read to get the gist as part of the Institute for Learning's Patterned Way of Reading, Writing, and Talking.

[Video Transcript] Why should all students read to get the gist? Reading comprehension is defined as readers’ active efforts to build meaning from what they read, grappling with the ideas in a text. It is not simply a matter of hanging back and the meaning of the book will leap off the page. It’s about delving into the book and interacting with it to make meaning from the text.

So how can lessons be designed to support readers' fuller understanding of a text? At the Institute for Learning, we offer a tool called "The Patterned Way of Reading, Writing and Talking" that helps students access, study and experience texts that are rich and complex enough to warrant deep study. The tool helps students see that all readers, even expert ones, benefit from a process that sets up different purposes for reading a complex text multiple times.

If full comprehension and understanding is the multi-level challenge that is being met, reading to get the gist is the starting place. It’s the initial sorting of information to understand what’s happening literally in the text. We typically ask the following questions: What’s happening? Who are the characters? What do we know about them? Or, if it is an informational text, what is this text about?

Once students comprehend the text at a first literal level, they are ready for a second reading of that same text for the purpose of identifying moments that strike them as significant to that text. Students are then asked to explain the significance of the moments they selected. They are doing this to begin to think about the big picture of the overall text and to practice using and explaining textual evidence.

Students then read to interpret the text. They are given an interpretive question that is thought-provoking, linked to the ideas in the text and can be answered with multiple, varied responses based on evidence from that text. It’s critical that a text is rich enough to support an interpretive discussion that could result in more than one valid interpretation of the same text. Finally, students read to analyze the author’s craft. They’re asked to consider the choices the author made when writing this narrative, argument, or explanation about how those choices impact the meaning and influence the reader’s impressions of the events, characters, or argument. By the time students are engaged in analyzing how the author wrote the book, they have the confidence of knowledge and are not speaking in generalities but drawing on strong, central inferences and interpretations using reasoning and critical thinking supported by evidence.

Let's go back to the first stage of the tool — What are some important things for teachers to do to help students get the gist? First, make sure you’re using a text that comes with some difficulties, that has complexity of ideas, that has ambiguities built into it — whether the text is informational or literary.

Second, keep the discussion short. No longer than students need to sort information. Otherwise, they’re not motivated when they have to do readings later for deeper interpretation and analysis.

Third, use open-ended, text-based questions like what is happening? Who are the characters? What is this text about? We have a question, how do you know, which asks students to go back into the text and cite evidence to support their answer. These kinds of questions go beyond retrieval of bits of information and ask for a fuller literal understanding. A closed question like, What color is the sweater Mrs. Price makes Rachel wear? sets up retrieval of information from only one point in the text but does not make it possible for the teacher to assess if students have made sense of the total text.

Finally, all students need time in class with the teacher to get the gist. If teachers find students don’t need this time, perhaps they’re not giving them complex enough texts to read. Reading to get the gist gives all students the confidence of content knowledge when they move to higher-level thinking about texts.

Stephanie McConachie

Stephanie M. McConachie is a former Fellow at the Institute for Learning. She has designed and led professional learning and curriculum development in English studies for school and district educators in ten urban school districts and a state consortium. Her most recent publications include co-editing the recently published Content Matters: A Disciplinary Literacy Approach to Improving Student Learning and co-authoring several chapters of the book, including one on professional learning and leadership.