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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. For English learners, both techniques should always be encouraged because, with practice, students realize that every word doesn't need to be read and fully understood. Good skimming and scanning skills means that they 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, you may ask students to find specific key words in an article, or 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 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 were to read each word. The sooner students become accustomed to, develop, and improve their skimming and scanning skills, the better.

Here are some example activities to improve skimming and scanning:


Idea #1: Students read the headline and the first sentence of each paragraph of an article. They then pair up to discuss the guessed-at topic of the article.

Idea #2: Students read the first paragraph and the last paragraph of the article. They then work in pairs to discuss the guessed-at contents of the piece.

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. Additional points may also be discussed, such as overall tone (humorous, serious, persuasive), whether the writer supports or opposes the main idea,


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 after their discussion. 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 you then assign students to take a more detailed look at the article, they will be better prepared to do so.

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