Acquiring information from long passages can take quite a long time. This can be a major obstacle to completing the reading section of English language tests. Therefore, to work on this section in an efficient way, you need to be good at speed reading. And you can be better at it by mastering skimming and scanning skills. Moreover, skimming and scanning can also helps you to get higher IELTS score.

So what is skimming, and what is scanning?

Skimming is the skill you use to get the general idea as well as the main focus of the essay or the paragraph. When you skim through a passage, you only read the essay’s title, the topic sentence, concluding sentences and keywords. You read quickly through the text instead of reading the entire essay word by word. Doing this, you can identify keywords, determine the points of each paragraph. In some cases, you can even find the conclusion the paragraph heads towards. Sometimes, you can also indicate the attitude of the author towards the mentioned topic.

While also a skill to serve speed reading, scanning is entirely different. Usually, when you scan a paragraph, you read the texts quickly. You do so to look for particular information, details, or specific words. Unlike skimming used to identify the main idea, scanning is only used to search for small details. Also, when a task requires scanning, often you need to pay more attention to word use.

Why you should practice skimming and scanning, and when to use them

1. Skimming skill can help you read a passage quickly to get its main idea

Reading to acquire knowledge is a very familiar activity in our lives. For instance,

  • We consume news to know what is going on in the world.
  • We read academic papers to study.
  • We research in the library to get a better grasp of whatever we are interested in.

With so many sources, however, as we have so little time, we need to know what to read as quickly as possible.

This is where skimming come into play. With this skill, we can locate what we are looking for. It also helps us understand the quality of the piece of writing and still manage to use the time sensibly. Skimming allows us to have a general idea of what we are reading. Therefore, it helps us decide which parts we should read for more details. It also helps us scan for the correct information and find the correct answer. After all, it is hard to look at one sentence and know what the right answer is without the context of the essay.

2. Scanning skill is useful for finding specific information

Speaking of scanning, scanning is also helpful for increasing reading speed. It serves looking for specific information, for example:

  • Looking up phone numbers in the phone book
  • Getting information of time and place of the meeting in a business letter
  • Finding one or several ingredients in products while shopping, in case you have allergies

Reading all of the texts takes a long time, and scanning can help reduce such time. When it comes to researching, scanning helps us find which section of the references should be used. The skill also helps identify specific data and figures.

skimming and scanning in reading
(by kaboompics via

Another reason for you to practice your skimming and scanning skills is to increase your IELTS Reading score. As you may know, one important part of the IELTS test is the reading section. In this part, you will find a lot of questions demanding your skimming and scanning in IELTS skills, such as

  • Short answer questions: You have to understand the question being asked. After that, you skim through the paragraphs to understand the overall meaning. Then, you scan to find the specific answer. Finally, you paraphrase them to answer in no more than 3 words.
  • Completion questions: It can be sentence completion, summary completion or fill in diagrams. Regardless, this kind of question requires you to understand the general idea of the essay. Once you do, you scan for the correct answers to fill in. Sometimes you also need to paraphrase such answers.
  • Yes/No/Not Given or True/False/Not Given: You scan through the paragraphs to find the specific information asked in the questions, etc.

Notice why most of the questions require both skimming and scanning? That is because these two skills mostly go hand in hand. Using only one of them may not level up your speed reading ability. If you use both of them, though, you will notice a change.

You should practice skimming and scanning flexibly in reading to increase reading speed.  Or in this case, practice improving your IELTS reading skills. When taking a language test, the time is limited and reading the entire essay can drag out your process. That can prevent you from getting your desired score. Not only in language tests, researching often takes place under a deadline. Within a short amount of time, your reading skills also need to be improved. If you are able to master both skimming and scanning skills, you will find your reading process more efficient.

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But how can one practice skimming and scanning in daily reading?

Because these two skills are different, so are the strategies to get better at them.

1. Practice skimming

Skimming is used to determine the main idea, so you should do as follows:

  • At first, it is important to pay attention to the title and the first paragraph. It can give you a general understanding of the topic.
  • Then, you read quickly through topic sentences and concluding sentences of each paragraph. Doing so can make the supporting arguments clearer. Not only that, it can also help you see the relationship of said arguments. That can be seen through conjunctions and/or implications.
  • The concluding sentences can sometimes indicate the attitude of the author, which may be asked in the IELTS exams, or any other language test.

Of course, before you read, you need to ask yourself some questions. How much time do you have on your hand? Where have you got any knowledge on the subject? Do you know which materials you can skip? etc … Skimming is also an important part of researching. If you ask yourself such questions first, your skimming technique will be able to develop. Even after your language test, skimming can still really be helpful beyond exams.

2. Practice scanning

Scanning is actually something you do quite frequently, so mastering this skill may be easier than you think. Scanning helps you find specific information, so

  • The first thing to do is to understand clearly what you need to find:

Is it an example of one particular argument, or is it a figure? Identify which part of the paragraph the information in questions belongs to. This is why skimming and scanning should be used at the same time. After that, scan through the paragraph.

  • Once you have found that information, you need to read one or two sentences regarding that. Doing so would help you get more details related to the information.

Remember, you are scanning the essay, so you should not delve into main ideas when you are practicing this skill. Instead, pay attention to the expression, as these questions can be quite deceiving. If you do not pay attention, you may get the wrong answer.

  • When you first practice scanning, you do not need to scan a paragraph at a fast pace. Just follow the steps, and do it slowly.

You may be used to reading every word and may find it awkward leaving some words out. When you apply these skills, you should learn to forget your old reading habits. Don’t be afraid to try to overlook some words when you are skimming or scanning. It is okay to skip some parts of the paragraph according to your reading purposes.

visual aid for skimming and scanning
(by mentatdgdt via

How to practice skimming and scanning in reading more effectively

Technical practice alone may not help you as quickly as you hope. In that case, you are going to need some aids.

Visual is very important, so when you practice, you can try

  • Using markers to highlight some information.

+) For example: when you skim through a paragraph, once you find the sentence indicating the topic, you should highlight it. Mark the keywords as well.

+) You should mark the conjunctions which indicate the relationship between paragraphs as well.

+) Some words can express the tone of the passages, so highlight those words. From there you can infer the attitude of the author.

  • Pointing your finger at where you are reading to make sure you are not mistaken. Sometimes, let your eyes do the work. When you point your finger, your eyes may focus mainly on that point. But your eyes also notice what above and below the object as well. You might be able to pick up some other details related to what you are finding.

Remember, use both skills flexibly and at the same time. Each one serves different purposes, but they can be helpful to one another.

How can I apply these skills to IELTS Reading section?

1. Regular IELTS practicing

When it comes to practicing IELTS, however, you should pay more attention to the questions first. That means you need to approach IELTS Reading tasks in a different way.

  • Remember to time yourself while practicing. Usually, you have about 20 minutes to finish ONE reading task. At home, you have a lot more time. So when you practice, maybe you can push yourself just a little by setting the time limit shorter.
  • At first, you read the title and skim through the first paragraph. Doing so can help you understand the overall idea.
  • Then, instead of skimming through the entire paragraph, you jump right into the question. Scan the questions, identify the keywords AND what is asked to do. Highlighting the keywords and question words can help you remember them more easily.
  • When you have understood the question clearly, you should come back to the paragraphs at once. Skim the essay for the part where the keywords in that question are mentioned. Then you either skim or scan that part to get the correct answer.

If the question asks you to sum up some ideas, you skim through the paragraphs. But if it asks you for specific information such as names, places, figures, date and time, … then you should use your scanning skill.

  • When it comes to the matter of inference, e.g. “What do you think the attitude of the author is?”, you should

+) Pay attention to suggestive words

+) Be careful with paraphrasing

+) And more importantly, you should NOT let your own knowledge on the subject interfere with your completing the task. The section asks you about what is stated in the essay, it DOESN’T test YOUR knowledge on the subjects.

  • Most of the questions are arranged in the order of the content flow of the essay. Therefore, when you are sure of the first answers, don’t worry about where you can find your next answer. As you move on to the next questions, you should skim and scan vertically further down the essay. The right answer follows the order of the text after all.

One important note, when you find test examples to work on at home, do not practice with a computer. Rather, you should probably print them out. It is not easy to practice reading with a computer screen at first.

2. An example of applying skimming and scanning skill in IELTS Reading

Take a look at this True/False/Not Given question:

example of skimming and scanning

example questions of skimming and scanning
(source: British Council Academic Reading Practice Test 1)

This kind of question asks you to read these statements carefully. You will have to use your skimming and scanning skills to read the reading passage. Then, you decide if those statements are true, false, or not given.

  • If you can find a matching statement in the reading essay, it is TRUE
  • If what you read in the essay dispute the statement in any way, it is FALSE
  • If you cannot find the given statement in the essay, it is NOT GIVEN

To finish this task, you need to follow a strategy:

  • First, start from the beginning

Read the first statement slowly, and remember the keywords.

This statement is a question. A question you have to find the answer to in the essay. Because these statements follow the order of the text, you should begin with the first part of the essay.

For example, in the first question, they are “chronobiology”, “living things”, and “evolved”.

  • Second, use your skimming and scanning skill to look for the information in the essay

Scan the question and the keywords. Then, you go back to the essay and skim the beginning paragraphs to find the sentence that contains this word.

In this case, chronobiology is an important one. You then go back to the reading passage and scan for this word. You will find this text at the beginning: “Chronobiology might sound a little futuristic – like something from a science fiction novel, perhaps – but it’s actually a field of study that concerns one of the oldest processes life on this planet has ever known: short-term rhythms of time and their effect on flora and fauna.

  • Third, read the text carefully to make sure you get the right answer.

+) Keep in mind that the question may use synonyms instead of quoting the texts word by word. That means you have to have a large lexicon.

+) Sometimes the facts lie in the little words. You have to read the text to find words that make the sentence restrictive in some way. Those can be words like “just”, “only”, “always”, “every now and then”, “all”, “some”,…

+) If you spend a little bit too long to make a decision, then the statement in question may be NOT GIVEN.

Let’s come back to the first question of the example. Now that you have found the text and the meaning, so the answer isn’t NOT GIVEN. With some basic biology knowledge, you’ll know “flora and fauna” means “plants and animals”. That can be paraphrased to “living things”. Then, notice the phrase “have evolved over time”. The phrase “Over time” indicates a long period of time. However, the original texts states “…short-term rhythms of time…”. These two statements contradict each other. That’s why you’ll know the answer is FALSE.

A reminder before you enter the test

When you do the IELTS Reading task, your skimming and scanning skills will be put to use the most. It is the moment when your time spent practice comes to fruition. Remember to:

  • Combine both of these techniques.
  • Read the beginning paragraph first to understand the main topic.
  • Pay attention to the questions. Memorize what they ask, pay extra attention to the keywords.

Then, you come back to the essay and apply skimming and scanning as well as other reading skills. You won’t have a lot of time (about 20 minutes at most per reading passage). That’s why you should not read too much in details or you will run out of time.

But worry not, my friend. Before the exam, you may have already practiced these two techniques without knowing. So now that I show you these strategies, you will be able to practice more often and with more intention. The more you practice, the better you become at reading. So if you keep practicing, you will master these two techniques in no time.

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IELTS Reading can also be difficult when it mentions some specific subjects, like biochemistry or geophysics. While you shouldn’t let your own knowledge on such topics distract you, you should definitely know some of the basic jargons of those topics. That, alongside skimming and scanning skills, can really speed up your reading process. You can start learning those words using eJOY Extension. When you come across a new word, you can double-click on it and eJOY Extension will pop up and provides you with pronunciation, Vietnamese translation and English definition. You can choose to add them to your Wordbook, and eJOY will remind you to come back to them every day. You can check out by following the link below.

Have a good time studying and good luck with your test!