Skimming and scanning are two of the most misunderstood and misused skills in the whole IELTS test.
This is mostly down to poor advice from teachers and books. Many teachers tell students that skimming and scanning are the keys to success in the reading test without really explaining what they are and, most importantly, when you should use them.
What is Skimming and Scanning?
This is when you read the whole text or a large part of the text, so that you understand the general meaning. In other words, you read quickly to understand generally what it is about.
When I look at a newspaper I tend to do this, so that I can quickly understand what the stories are about and if I want to read some of them in more detail. In this way, I can read a whole newspaper in 5-10 minutes because I have not been reading every word of each story, but instead just quickly finding out what the general meaning is.
Why do we do this?
Understanding the general meaning of a text will help you scan for the correct information and decide what the correct answer is. It is very difficult to look at one sentence and decide what the correct answer is without knowing the overall context of the entire text.
Scanning is when you look for a particular word or phrase. We normally use this skill when we are trying to locate where the correct answer is. This skill alone does not give us the correct answer, rather it tells us the correct location of the correct answer.
This skill is useful because it means we do not have to read the entire text to find the answer. In that way, it is a time-saving skill more than anything else.
I use this skill when I am going to the cinema. Instead of reading every single movie and every single time, I will scan the text for the name of the movie I want. It will then tell me the location of the available times and then I can make my decision.
Will Skimming and Scanning Improve my Score?
No – you also need to perfect the skill of ‘close reading.’
In many ways, the IELTS Reading test is just one big vocabulary test, so you also need to be aware of how your vocabulary is being tested and how to deal with it on test day. For more information on vocabulary in the Reading test, please click here.
What is Close Reading?
This is probably the most important skill because it helps us decide which answer is correct. There is no point in just skimming and scanning without using this skill, because skimming gives us general meaning and scanning gives us a location, neither of which give us the correct answer.
Close reading is when we understand a whole sentence or paragraph so that we know exactly what it all means.
In other words, you understand every word and the meaning of the whole sentence. It takes time and concentration and requires you to think carefully about meaning.
You will use this skill when deciding the correct answer.
I use this skill when reading an important email from someone. It is essential that I read and understand every word. If I don’t, I could misinterpret something and send the wrong reply.
How Do I Use These Skills?
The most common advice is to skim for general meaning first, scan for the location of the correct answer and then use close reading to decide what the correct answer is.
This is what most people do:
However, this is a BAD strategy because it is too simplistic and does not take into consideration the requirements of the specific question type or the ability of the student.
Instead, you should have a strategy in place for each of the different question types.
IELTS Reading: Skimming and Scanning Practice
I recently created a FREE online IELTS Reading Course that will teach you my step-by-step strategies for improving your skimming, scanning and close reading skills so you can score a Band 7, 8 or 9 in IELTS Reading.
You’ll also find a number of strategies for each IELTS Reading question type on my website. The links below should get you started: