Reading time 2 minute read

In today’s post I will give you some tips about skimming and scanning. When undertaking a research project, dissertation or thesis, you will need to do a lot of reading. Some people enjoy this more than others! Some people find this easier than others do. Building on from my last post on reading strategies for university students, I will explain why you should use skimming and scanning, and how you can ensure that you do a good job.

What is skimming and scanning?

Skimming and scanning is an important initial step to help you get an overview of the text and decide whether it is relevant.

Skimming, also known as skim reading, is useful when you want to quickly gain an overview of, or familiarise yourself with, a text. This allows you to understand the structure for later note-making and more in-depth reading.

Scanning, also known as scanning text, is what you do when you are searching for particular information, or checking to see whether a text is relevant.

I recommend that you practice your skimming and scanning skills through your studies and also through your leisure reading. You can also take a look at this video by BBC Skillswise, which is pretty useful.

Skimming and Scanning


Skimming tips

Skimming can save you hours of time spent reading. However, it is not always the best way to read. Skimming provides you with a preview of the text, allowing you to return to read more thoroughly at a later time should you wish to. The problem is, however, that when you skim, you may miss important points or overlook the finer details of the text.

To skim read you must first prepare yourself to move rapidly through the pages. You will not read every word. Instead, you will pay close attention to typographical cues such as:

  • headings
  • bold and and italic text
  • indenting bullet points
  • numbered lists
  • key words and phrases
  • the names of people and places
  • dates
  • nouns
  • unfamiliar words

Key tips for skimming a text:

  1. Read the table of contents or chapter overview to identify the main areas covered.
  2. Look at the main headings in each chapter and read the headings of charts and tables.
  3. Read the introduction and then the first and last sentence only of each following paragraph. For each paragraph, read only the first few words of each sentence or to locate the main idea.
  4. Stop and read the sentences containing keywords indicated in bold or italics.
  5. When you think you have found something significant, stop to read the entire sentence or paragraph. Don’t continue reading once this section is finished- resist the temptation to stop to read details you don’t need!
  6. Read chapter summaries or abstracts.

Good skim readers do not skim everything at the same rate or give equal attention to everything. While skimming is always faster than your normal reading speed, you should slow down in the following situations:

  • When you skim introductory and concluding paragraphs
  • When you skim topic sentences
  • When you find an unfamiliar word
  • When the material is very complicated

Scanning tips

Scanning also uses keywords and organisational cues to help manage your reading. While the goal of skimming is a bird’s-eye view of the material, the goal of scanning is to locate and zoom in on particular facts.

Facts may be buried within long text passages that have relatively little else to do with your topic. This can make them difficult to locate. It is a good idea to skim this material first to decide if it is likely to contain the facts you need. This includes the contents page, summaries of the text, indexes, headings, and typographical cues.

When scanning a text you should:

  1. Know what you’re looking for. Decide on a few key words or phrases and search terms.
  2. Look for only one keyword at a time. Don’t over-complicate things.
  3. Let your eyes float rapidly down the page until you find the word or phrase you want.
  4. When your eye catches one of your keywords, read the surrounding material carefully.

Scanning is an activity that requires concentration and can be very tiring. You may have to practice not allowing your attention to wander, I know this is something that I struggle with- particularly if the text isn’t very interesting!

Do you have any more tips for skimming and scanning? I’d love to hear them- leave your comments below!

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