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Intermediate Reading Course. Section 2: Study Skills in Reading

Skimming and Scanning as Study Skills

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Strategies to Find Information

Scanning and skimming are reading strategies you can use to quickly gather information from the text. They are both useful to process large amounts of information.

Scanning: Find What You Need

To scan means to look at something quickly looking for specific information. For example, when you check out at a supermarket, they use a scanner, which goes over a product ignoring everything except a specific product code.

When we read large amounts of information but we already know what information we need, we do not need to read everything. We scan the text until we find what we need.

For example, if you are trying to find a specific recipe in a cookbook, do you read the whole book until you find it? or do you scan the index or table of contents for the recipe you are looking for? Obviously, using scanning as a strategy makes much more sense.

Skimming: Gain Insight

To skim means to remove the top layer of something from the surface of a liquid. For example, if you have dead leaves in a swimming pool, you do not remove all the water to get rid of the leaves; you simply skim the surface of the water with a net (a skimmer) to remove the leaves.

Skimming as a Reading Strategy

As a reading strategy, skimming means you read over a text to get a general idea about the content. You can also skim over a paragraph quickly to find main ideas.

Skimming is different from reading, though.

When you read a paragraph, for example, you read each sentence carefully analyzing the details to get to the writer’s main point (that is, the main idea). You do that for each paragraph while trying to figure out how everything fits together. However, when you skim a paragraph, you move over it quickly. You skip parts of the paragraph because you are not really reading; you are just trying to get a sense of the main idea.

How to Skim the Text

There are a number of ways to skim a passage. You can do any or all of the following:

  • Try to get a sense for the structure and organization of the passage. Look at the title and headings (if any).
  • Quickly look over tables, graphs, illustrations, and so on. They usually give you a great deal of information about the content of the text.
  • Quickly read the first paragraph, which typically gives you an idea what the whole passage is about.
  • Quickly read the first sentence of other paragraphs, one or two random sentences in the middle, and the last sentence.
  • You can even skip whole paragraphs, even entire sections.
  • Quickly read the last paragraph, which usually has a summary of the information and a conclusion.

Scanning and Skimming as Study Skills

When to scan or skim

When looking for specific information

Scan the text if all you need is a specific piece of information from it.

When you need to identify key information

Scanning helps you identify key information in the text when you know exactly what you are looking for.

Skimming helps you identify information when you are looking for something specific, but you are not sure exactly what it is.

When deciding if you need to read a passage

Perhaps you are looking for a certain type of article. Not sure if a passage is relevant or useful? Skim it first and decide.

When reviewing for a test or exam

If you are already familiar with the information but need to refresh your memory, skim the text. (You may decide that you need to go back and review it more carefully, that is, you need to read it.)

When you have limited time and a large amount of information to read

Skim passages if you do not have enough time to read them all carefully. It is not ideal, but it is better than not reading at all.

Important Caveat

Scanning and skimming are reading strategies you can use in very specific situations; however, they are not the same as reading.

In social media, for example, sometimes you come across people who clearly just skimmed over an article and start acting as if they were “experts” on the topic. They come across as silly.

Use your judgment when scanning and skimming are enough for what you need.

Up Next: Taking Notes and Annotating as Study Skills

Go to the next lesson to learn about taking notes and annotating as study skills.