Gist Task

The main aim for a gist task is to develop the students’ abilities to either skim for the main idea (of a reading text) or to listen for the main idea (of an audio/video clip). So, you want to make sure the activity matches its aims i.e. you want to give them an activity that focuses on the main idea as opposed to more specific information or details. 

Having the students focus on the main idea first gives them important context that they can then use to understand the text in more depth i.e. further detail, vocabulary words, or a grammar point. Here are some common type of gist activities you can use to design your lessons. 

Common types of gist activities:

  • Summarize: Students summarize the text with a restricted word count i.e. in one sentence or three words.
  • Choose Main Idea: Give them a few options of a main idea summary (ideally a short sentence), and they choose which one best summarizes the listening/reading text. 
  • Design title and/or sub-title: Leave the title section or part of it blank or unknown and students have to come up with their own title/sub-title. During whole class feedback discuss the different titles and perhaps give them the real title to see how close they were. This is more suited towards an upper level class and relatively uncomplicated titles.  
  • Several Main Ideas: You can break any listening and/or reading text into several main idea concepts. Especially important for longer texts. Can have them arrange order of several main idea concepts, too.
  • Check-list: Have them check main ideas or topics that are related to the reading or listening text.
  • Choose a Title: Give them a few different title options to choose from. You want to design the titles in such a way that there is one that clearly correlates with the main idea of the article over the others yet the others are not so different resulting in too obvious of an answer where there is no need to skim the article to find out the main idea. 
  • Image Association: Students associate the article with the correct image that is related to the main idea from a few different options. Important to make them different but not so different that the answer will be obvious without skimming through the article for the main idea. 
  • Match Question with Answer: For an interview type of text, they can match which question goes with which answer.
  • General Idea Questions: Have 1-3 (but, typically, no more than 3) short-answer questions regarding the main idea of the text. 
  • Headings: Leave sub-headings of each paragraph blank and have students match the heading to the corresponding paragraph.
  • Paragraph Summary: Summarize paragraphs with one word (or perhaps within a few words.
  • Ordering Chronologically: Students order events in correct chronological order as they appear in the listening or reading text. 
  • Story Board: Give students a few random either/or prompts and have them read which one has to do with the story. For example: let’s say there is a short article about a firefighter who goes into a house and saves a cat. The either/or main idea prompts could be like this: Police Man/Firefighter – Fire/Flood – Cat/Dog. Then the students read and choose which one relates to the story. 
  • Guess Who: For a biography type of reading or listening, could put images of different people on the whiteboard and have students guess who the biography is about.
  • Prediction: Where the students make a prediction about the main idea before they read it. You can use this type of activity in conjunction with most of the already mentioned gist task types. The students make a prediction based on some kind of clue i.e. a group of words, picture(s), the context discussed in the lead-in, a number of different titles etc. For example, you can have a lead-in discussing the topic of how caffeine affects the brain. Then you’d ask them “So, what do you think? What do you think the author’s opinion will be regarding caffeine and its effects of on the brain?” Then they read to check their prediction to see if it was correct or not. Or, for another example, you could show a picture of a cup of coffee, a brain, and someone studying; and ask: “What do you think the article’s main idea is going to be about based on the pictures?” After discussion they read to check their prediction (if it was accurate or not). 

Important Notes:

  • Always have a clear question/activity for the students to do before you have them read.
  • After they read individually, you want them to do a pair-check (where they discuss their answers in pairs for a moment before going to whole class feedback). 
  • Typically, you want to give them a relatively short time-limit for a gist reading activity to ensure that they skim for the main idea as opposed to getting stuck on trying to understand one or two specific parts of the article or particular words etc. 
  • You have the option to have them read only part of the reading text for the main idea of a reading gist task or listen to only a part of an audio clip for a listening gist activity. 

ICQs (Instruction Check Questions):

It’s good to give ICQs to ensure that stage aims are met. Some examples of ICQs for a gist task:

  • Do I want you to read quickly or slowly for this activity? A: Quickly
  • You only have ___ minutes to read the text (i.e. typically, 1 to 3 minutes depending on text size and student level), is that a lot of time? A: No.
  • Do you have to understand every word to get the main idea? A: No
  • Are you going to use your dictionaries to look up words? A: No.


Comprehension Questions:

  1. What’s the main aim of a gist activity?
  2. Should the gist question/activity come before or after you have them read?
  3. What kind of questions should you ask after giving instructions?


Can you think of anymore good gist activities? How about ICQs? Do you think this blog is missing any important details? 

Please leave your comments below. Thanks! 



    1. The main aim of a gist activity is to develop the students abilities to either skim for the main idea (of a reading text) or to listen for the main idea (of an audio/video clip).
    2.Gist question/activity come before we have them read.
    3.we must ask regarding the main idea of the text.

  2. Peju Okungbowa

    Thank you for sharing these awesome tips.

  3. Teacher Alex

    The tips are very thorough. Great examples and ideas. Thanks for sharing. I’ll certainly be using a lot of them in my classes.

Comments are closed.