Skimming and scanning
Skimming and scanning are important skills to help you to read effectively and efficiently.
How we read in English depends on exactly what we are reading for.
For example, when looking through the telephone book trying to find a specific telephone number, we don’t read in the same way as we would read a novel.
When skimming and scanning can be useful skills
It is always important to consider why you are reading. Trying to read every word every time you read something will slow down your reading speed. It is often not necessary to read every word, or in some situations you may not have time to read everything in detail anyway.
Practising your skimming and scanning skills will improve your reading speed and will help you in examinations and in other situations when you need to understand something quickly.
Definitions of skimming and scanning
Below you will see a short definition of what skimming and scanning mean and how you can use skimming and scanning skills in everyday life.
Skimming means to look quickly over a section of text to get a general idea of the meaning. When you are skimming a text, what you read is more important than the information you leave out.
For example, if you were in a shop deciding whether to buy a newspaper, you might very quickly skim the stories to see if they seem like something you would like to read in more detail.
If a ‘main idea’ of a paragraph you are skimming is relevant to your reading purpose, you might skim more information around that part to give you a deeper understanding or then decide to read that section in more detail.
Imagine you are reading an academic text because you need to write an essay about the topic, or you are researching web information to write a report. You might have to read information from several sources and reading every word in everything you look at will probably take far too much time.
Using the skimming technique
To use a skimming technique, you might:
1. Read the introduction / first paragraph in detail to get a good idea of what information will follow.
2. If you have a generally good idea of what information will follow, you can then start to skim the text and read only the first sentence (the topic sentence) of each paragraph in detail. A well written topic sentence will give you the main idea of what information will be in that paragraph.
3. If the topic sentence of a paragraph is of interest in terms of your purpose for reading, you may then decide to skim that paragraph more, or read it in detail. If the topic sentence tells you the information in that paragraph is not so important, you might leave that paragraph and move on to the next.
Scanning means to look quickly over the text looking for specific word(s) or facts.
For example, if you are looking for your name in a list of names, you would scan because you are not interested in getting a general idea of the other people’s names, you just want to find your own.
Your eyes should move very quickly over a piece of information when scanning for something specific. It is often useful to use a marker, e.g. move your finger or a pen across the text to help you scan. Moving something physically across the information helps to keep your eyes focussed on where you have scanned and which parts you still need to scan.
Using the scanning technique
Imagine you are taking an examination, and the question is: ‘Which country has the largest farming industry?’.
1. You will know you are looking for a country’s name, so could scan the text (using your finger or a pen as a marker) to find the names of all countries mentioned.
2. You can them skim or read in more detail around the parts of the text that contain the names of countries to confirm which country has the biggest farming industry. You can ignore the rest of the text (for now) as you are looking for specific information in relation to that question.
Skimming and scanning in examinations
In English examinations such as IELTS, you will need to use a combination of skimming and scanning techniques. You often have a relatively short amount of time to read quite a lot of text. If you try to read every word in detail, you will run out of time.
Remember that you can use skimming and scanning techniques to help you find answers to questions more quickly, and you should also have time to read important parts of the text in more detail to check that your answers are correct.