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Reading for gist, listening for detail.

December 15, 2009

Inter alia, I teach English as a Second Language to young adults, many  of whom are going on to study at an Australian university or college. To this end, the skills ‘Reading / Listening for Gist’, and ‘Reading / Listening for Detail’ are inevitably included in curriculum for all (good) English Language Schools.

Why are these skills so important? ‘Reading / Listening for Gist’ is the ability to quickly scan a body of text (or listen to a short segment of dialogue) and formulate a hypothesis of what the text (or dialogue) is generally about. This ability is essential for choosing what, and what not, to pay attention to (see my last post on this). At beginner level, almost all adult learners of a second language struggle with the gist skill. They need to read every single word, rather than skim-read sentences and note only significant words. If English is your first language, read the passage below for a sense of what it’s like for a beginner to read for gist:

“A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance.”

Got it? This passage is from the wonderful On Being Certain, by Robert Burton MD, which I first encountered on the equally wonderful Brain Science Podcast. Did you read every word? Re-read? Is your curiosity piqued? Which words or sentences are more important? Do you have several hypotheses? Could it describe a bonfire? Meditation? A recycling process? Sailing? Orienteering? A papier maché scarecrow? Crossing hot coals?

Even if you can’t get the gist of the text (its intention), you could probably answer detail questions, such as:

1. Is it easy to learn?

2. What seldom gets close?

3. How much room does one need?

4. Under what conditions can it be peaceful?

etc. In other words, you might not know what ‘it’ is, but you do know (some of) how ‘it’ acts in the world.

And so it is with beginner English learners. In my experience these learners, given a short spoken or written text, can easily reproduce verbatim sections if asked detail questions. This is not ‘rote’ learning (there’s no repetition over time), but a function of attending to every word (what I would call ‘non-selective’ attention). While this ‘Reading / Listening for Detail’ skill is vital for things like getting directions, it is not useful for say, note-taking in university lectures or having a conversation at a cocktail party. Functionally, we all need to have both detail and gist skills.

Does the picture help you make sense of the quoted text? Did you have an ‘aha’ moment? More on Burton’s ‘On Being Certain’ in a future post, but for now I want to draw a connection between what (gist) and how (detail), and Feldenkrais.

After puzzling over the detail, is your understanding of ‘kite’ richer? After attending to how it acts in the world, do you have new connections between kite flying and other actions? If the text had been entitled ‘Flying a Kite’, would you have simply skimmed the text to confirm your existing concept of kite?

A Feldenkrais class is much like reading the quoted passage above: the gist, or ‘what’ (intention) is absent from the movements, to promote exploration of the detail. A lesson which investigates ‘turning’ is probably not entitled “Improve reversing your car” or “Greater ease in Tango giros”, although success in these intentions is improved with better turning ability. The ‘Aha’ moment comes when the detail attended to in a lesson enriches the ‘gist’ of a function.

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