Skimming and Scanning: The Basics

There comes a time that you have finally mastered the necessary skills required to achieve competency in a foreign language. You have definitely accumulated enough knowledge and experience on various parts of this language. Some of them are understanding, recorded or written texts and dialogues, speaking fluently and managing grammar rules. All this may have led to the acquisition of a much sought-after diploma or plainly to the certain uplift of your confidence.

Today, though, you find yourselves once again in the position of passing a higher level degree or you are simply requested to absorb a specific amount of information into a limited time span. Either way, every time you try to attain the demanded information as quickly as possible, you simply run out of time… So, how can you make it when the clock is ticking away?

The answer to your problem is “Skimming and Scanning”. These two words describe specific techniques used for speed reading. To elaborate, by using these two ways effortlessly, a person can acquire a great amount of information from any given text, in a few minutes only!

  1. Skimming

Skimming a text means reading its titles and subtitles, focusing on any bold words that may be found through it and reading carefully the first and last sentence of each paragraph. These are called topic sentences and they will give you the main point of each paragraph. At the end of each topic sentence, your eyes should quickly go through the paragraph to search for other information that may interest you, such as names, dates, or events. Continue to read only the topic sentences, going through the main body of the paragraphs, until you are reaching the end of the text. Since, the last paragraph of any text is its conclusion, it is better not to skim it but actually read it in depth.

Keep in mind that with skimming, the overall comprehension of the text will be lower than when we read in detail. However, if while skimming we have a grasp of the main ideas, then skimming is successful.

▪When to Skim

Skimming is a way to read quickly, however it should not replace actual reading. So, when is it suitable to use skimming instead of reading?

Supposing that you have an exam coming up shortly. You need to review the material that you have learned, but you don’t want to go through it all. By skimming, you can quickly locate the information that you haven’t assimilated and study only that.

While reading, ask yourselves the following questions to help you decide whether or not to skim. If you answer ‘yes’, to any of them, then skimming is required in your case.

♠    -Is this material non-fiction?

♠   -Do I have a lot to read and only a small amount of time?

♠   -Do I already know something about this?

♠   -Can any of the material be skipped?

If you have enough background knowledge or believe you don’t need the information, then skip it! That’s right! Don’t read it at all! Believe it or not, skipping the material might sometimes be the best use of your time. If you choose carefully what you skim and skip, you will be surprised at the amount of information you can get in a truly limited amount of time.

  1. Scanning

Scanning is another useful tool for speeding up reading. In contrast to skimming, while scanning, we look only for a specific fact or piece of information without reading the entire text. In order to proceed to a successful scanning, we need to understand how the material is structured as well as having the level of competency to understand what we read, in order to locate the specific information that are requested. Scanning also allows you to find details and other information in a hurry.

Establishing your purpose, locating the appropriate material, and knowing how the information is structured before you start scanning is essential.

Learning to use your hands or pen/pencil while scanning is very helpful in locating specific information. Do you use your hands to locate a word in a dictionary? To find a meeting time on your calendar? To read a train or bus schedule? Using your hand, finger or pen and pencil is extremely helpful in focusing your attention and keeping your place while scanning a column of material.  Your peripheral vision can also help you scan effectively. When your hand moves down a list of names, you see not only the name your finger is pointing to, but also the names above and below. Let your eyes work for you when searching for information.

▪When to Scan

We scan when our aim is to find specific pieces of information.

In the past, we have all scanned without knowing we were actually doing just that. Now, we can use scanning more intentionally and frequently. The more we practice, the more effective scanning will become. Finally, the most important benefit of scanning is its ability to help you become a more flexible reader. Scanning adds another high gear to your reading.

Because you may be used to reading every word and may be uncomfortable leaving some words out, you need to give yourself permission to overlook some words by skimming, scanning, and skipping material according to your reading purpose. Trust me, nothing bad will happen if you do it!


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