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Get the Gist of an Essay & Improve Reading Comprehension

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  • 0:33 Gist
  • 1:36 Getting the Gist
  • 3:09 Four Steps
  • 6:26 Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Doresa Jennings

Doresa holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies.

In this lesson, we learn quick rules of getting the 'gist' or point of a sentence, paragraph and essay. This skill will improve your reading speed and help you become a more effective and efficient reader and writer.

Getting the Gist

Some people are naturally good at finding the main idea of an essay, and the people we find with the most talent for this tend to be dyslexic. That's right, if you're like me and the ten percent of the population thought to have this disorder - congratulations - you are naturally equipped to be able to quickly get the 'gist' of written works.

Merriam-Webster defines gist as the main point or part: the essence. It's what the author spent all that time and all those words trying to deliver to you. Being able to get to the gist allows you to read more efficiently and more effectively. It allows you to read with purpose. Most people read by looking at every word, every sentence, every paragraph as its own independent piece. This is the equivalent of listening to an orchestra play and trying to isolate every note of each instrument independent of one another.

Not only is this a very inefficient way to listen to music, it also misses the point of what the composer and the conductor were trying to deliver to you. They wanted you to get the 'gist', the moment, the mood, the message of the music. Such is the case in reading. If you concentrate too heavily on each piece in isolation, you can easily miss the message the author was trying to portray.

Getting the gist guides you through the reading process. It allows you to put together the pieces of the puzzle the author is weaving for you, it allows you to stay with the author for the entire piece - eliminating the need to continue to go back and re-read the information. It helps you to place the author's work in not only short term, but long term memory by more quickly linking it with other information you are familiar with. It even allows you to compare and contrast with other information you have encountered in the past - having a proper dialog with the piece while reading through it. It takes you from simply 'reading' a piece to engaging with the author and making the time taken to read more worthwhile. Gist puts you in the proper frame of mind to read the piece as intended. Have you ever had a conversation with someone simply to look up and think 'what the heck are they talking about?'

Yeah, reading for the gist helps that not happen so often. You will be much more properly grounded in the 'conversation' your mind is having with the author - increasing your reading efficiency and reading comprehension significantly. There really is nothing worse than reading a chapter in a book - than realizing you have to read it again because you didn't get the point. And when taking a timed test - from a CLEP exam to the SAT or a final exam - you don't have the option of re-reading passages. You have to get the point the first time you read through a passage.

So, now you know what gist is, and you're convinced you want to get good at finding it. How do we help that happen? I am going to give you four steps to improving your reading and helping you quickly and efficiently find the gist of a piece of writing - no matter if it is a paragraph, a blog entry, a chapter in a book or an entire textbook.

Step 1

The first step in improving your speed when getting to the gist is whenever you are reading a piece, no matter the length, you should always be asking yourself - what is the point? What is the author trying to say? Is the author's message making sense? As you move through the piece, keep asking yourself if the author is making the same point or has the author has switched focus. This point should lead you to the thesis statement of the writing. If the thesis is not explicit, try to figure out how you would define it yourself.

Step 2

The second step is foreshadowing - where you try to guess where the author is going with the piece. Once you think you have the gist - think about the next thing the author would try to do to prove their point. Now, you don't have to be right. This isn't about about always knowing what somebody is going to say next. The purpose of this is to allow you to think while you're reading through the piece and think about a natural flow of information. If the author goes a different way, that's fine. Go with them, but ask yourself 'what are they trying to say?'

Step 3

A third step in training yourself to understand the gist of a piece is to imagine how you would explain the piece to others who haven't read it for themselves. How would you describe the piece if you had half the space the author took in the original writing? Now, how would you describe it using 1/3 of the space? Next, go for 1/4 of the space. Your next challenge is describing the piece in four sentences. Your final challenge is describe the piece in one sentence.

Step 4

The fourth and final step in this process is critique and evaluation. As you look at what the author seemed to be trying to say - were they successful in saying it? How could they have been more clear in their point? Were they concise enough or did they actually need more depth? How did the gist match their thesis statement, if they had one?

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