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Reading Skills: Skimming and Scanning

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Reading Skills: Skimming and Scanning

Skimming and scanning are very important reading techniques. In short, skimming refers to looking through material quickly to gather a general sense of the ideas, information, or topic itself. When you skim, you read through an article three to four times faster than when you read each word. Scanning refers to reading through material to find specific information. When you scan, you run your eyes over text or information to pull out specific words, phrases, or data. For example:

You quickly go through a twenty-page report in a few minutes, and determine the overall subject, tone, and a few key points. This is skimming.

You pick up the newspaper in the doctor's office, thumb through the first few pages, and gather the gist of the events happening in the world. This is skimming.

You flip through an accounting report to find a particular set of data. This is scanning.

You open the classified section of a newspaper, find the automobile section, and then mark a few cars within your price range. This is scanning.

Skimming and scanning work in tandem. Skimming may be used to preview reading content to gain a general picture, or it may be used to review text that has previously been read. Scanning allows the reader to find specific information to confirm and support ideas.

For English learners, both techniques should be practiced and encouraged with various activities because students will then realize that reading can be a valuable and enjoyable tool to improve English. Not every word needs to be read and fully understood, something which lower-level students often fail to understand. For example, beginner and lower-intermediate students have a tendency to read and translate much or all of the text, going through each word without linking the parts to a whole.

However, with good skimming and scanning skills, students will no longer be so strictly bound by the text, nor their reading and comprehension speed. There are applications both inside and outside the classroom.

In the classroom, the teacher may ask students to find specific key words in an article; answer questions for comprehension; or decide on the purpose of the article. With students who must read and understand every word, the opportunities for effective follow-up discussion becomes limited. The opportunity to select more challenging articles also becomes limited, otherwise the entire class may be spent on a line-by-line translation.

Outside the classroom, students may look at bus timetables, job advertisements, business reports, emails, and so on. A student will need to effectively and quickly gather and synthesize the information, an impossible expectation if he/she were to read each word. The sooner students become accustomed to, develop, and improve their skimming and scanning skills, the better.

Let's look at some strategy steps for each, as well as example activities to improve skimming and scanning skills.

How to Teach Skimming
When students receive a level-appropriate article selected by the teacher, they should first read the title. Although not every article title will clearly explain the contents, many will allow students to form an image of what will follow. For example, a title formatted as a question will provide answers in the article.

Next, students should read the introductory paragraph. Although there will be a hook to catch the attention of the reader, the first paragraph will often contain the thesis or main idea of the article. Some writers may opt for two or three introductory paragraphs before presenting the main idea, so students should also be aware of this style too.

If there are subheadings, students should read these and make connections with the article's title and introduction.

Moving on, students should look at the first and second sentence of each paragraph, as these usually provide the main idea for the paragraph. Subsequent sentences will contain supporting information, such as details, examples, and anecdotes. As a result, the following sentences can be read if students deem the additional detail necessary for comprehension or discussion.

And lastly, students should look at the final paragraph, as this should contain a recap or closing comment for the article.

Are all articles written with this sort of structure? Definitely not. And although students will quickly realize that most articles possess these elements, there are also a myriad of styles. However, with skimming activities, students can work through most of the above steps before reading through the remaining content.

Some ideas for skimming practice include:

Idea #1: The teacher writes the headline and first sentence of each paragraph on the board. Students pair up to discuss the guessed-at topic and contents of the article.

Idea #2: Students read only the first paragraph and the last paragraph of the article. They then work in pairs to discuss the guessed-at contents of the piece. To guide the discussion, the teacher can provide questions on the board, such as:

  • What do you think the writer will present and/or explain?
  • What details do you expect to be introduced?
  • Do you think the author is for or against the topic?

Idea #3: Students have two minutes to read the article. Of course, they won't be able to complete the piece, especially if they try to read each word. After two minutes, students get into pairs to discuss the contents of the piece without referring back to the article's contents. Additional points may also be discussed, such as overall tone (humorous, serious, persuasive), whether the writer supports or opposes the main idea, etc. Students receive a second opportunity to read the article, again receiving two minutes, before sharing the information in pairs again.

How to Teach Scanning
When students practice scanning, they must get into the habit of letting their eyes fall over large sections of text. It will prove important to anticipate how the information has been organized, such as alphabetically, chronologically, or numerically. Similarly, as with an article, students should anticipate what information must be retrieved: Do they need to find names? Dates? Numbers? Something else?

When first introducing scanning skills, the teacher should ask leading questions so students understand what organization to anticipate. For example:

  • How would information be organized in a dictionary?
  • How would a biography likely be organized?
  • If you googled "scanning," how would the list of sites be organized?

It should be noted that with a shorter text, as well as with a specific type of text like job advertisements, students will generally be able to scan the content in a single, quick search. However, with longer content, students may first need to skim the article to gain a general understanding of the content.

Here are a few ideas to practice scanning:

Idea #1: Several content-specific questions are written on the board before students receive the article. Students read through the text and answer the questions.

Idea #2: Key vocabulary words are written on the board before students receive the article. Students read through the text and circle the words, then read the sentence for each word for context.

Idea #3: You read aloud the beginning of a sentence. Students must go through the article, find the sentence, and read it aloud.

With any of the above skimming and scanning ideas, make sure to let students return to the piece again and again. For example, in a discussion activity, allot several minutes to skim and/or scan through the information once more to confirm the ideas exchanged with a partner. Students should then pair up, correct any information previously exchanged, and add to the discussion. When the teacher then assigns students follow-up tasks with the article, such as presentations or writing homework, they will be better prepared to do so.

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