Gist and Main Idea


If you're wondering what the difference is between a gist and a main idea (or theme), you're not alone. It's one of the questions I get asked a lot, and I get it. The two terms are so similar - and used in such similar ways - that the lines are easily blurred. But there is a difference.

The gist is your initial thinking about what a text is mostly about. The word gist literally means the substance or essence of a text. It's your first, initial impression that you get when you lightly read or even skim a text. The main idea, on the other hand, is the key point that the author wants you to take away from reading the text, and it's only found through a careful analysis of the text and its key details. Sometimes your gist, or first impression turns out to be the main idea. Other times, your gist may turn out to be incorrect after you carefully read the text. 

Here's how it looks in my world. Every Sunday, my husband and I get The New York Times. I get my coffee and start skimming my favorite sections to see what I actually want to read. I may quickly read an article here or there that catches my eye to get the gist of what it's about. I might find one and think to myself, "Ooooh, this article about planting vegetables in raised beds looks good. I want to dig in." It may turn out that it is indeed about the benefits of planting vegetables in raised beds and how to do that, and my gist was right. Or, it could turn out that the article was actually about the mechanics of how to build a raised bed, and my gist wasn't exactly correct. But both of those layers - finding the gist and then thinking about the author's main idea - help me understand what it is I'm reading.

If you want to hear kids talk about the difference between gist and the main idea, check out this video. They explain it simply and well, and it's a great one to share with students in your classroom as you introduce (or reintroduce) this.

Here's to simply teaching well,

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