One of the most valuable skills you can master to improve speed on the reading sections of these tests is skimming and scanning. Skimming basically suggests a light read. Scanning implies a hunt for specific targets. Both of these skills will allow you to correctly answer reading comprehension questions while actually reading less of the text. This is also the essential skill to harness in order to be able to reduce paragraphs to short headings that will then allow you to focus your search for answers.
How to skim a reading passage
Skimming is commonly believed to be a light read of a passage, much like we lightly dust furniture to bring out the shine of the wood. Of course, we will not notice the small details, the blemishes and the grain. But we do not need to at this point. Skimming is the pre-read of the passage. It is meant to give us an idea of what lies in the passage without a thorough comprehension of it. That will come later when we go looking for answers to the questions. The point of this exercise is to know where to go looking in the first place. If we return to the furniture analogy, all we want to identify is the desk or the chair or the coffee table. We don’t need to know the brand or the type of wood, or the exact size, yet.
We begin our skim by reading the topic sentence of the paragraph and getting a general idea of what the paragraph is about (remember: a well-written paragraph will have one central idea and the topic sentence will give the reader an idea of what that is.) We then glide over the words in the paragraph trying to pick out the key words that will support the main idea. In essence, all we want to know is what this paragraph aims to do. For example, does it aim to introduce a concept? Does it aim to explain something? Does it aim to outline a process, or the results of an experiment?
In looking for the key words then, we have to train our eyes to act like a camera set on multi-frame shots. In other words, we want to take snapshots of words that are related to the topic. Once we have enough of these words to support the topic, we can write down a heading for the paragraph. The key in this exercise is not to get trapped in the habit of reading. When we are looking for words, it is very easy to read a word and then the word right next to it, and then the word right next to that one. The next thing you know, you are reading an entire sentence, and then another, and another. You are then not skimming the paragraph, but actually reading it.
The best way to avoid this habit is to not give it the opportunity to take hold. One way to avoid this is to read the passage vertically, from top to bottom, then back up and horizontal, in a zigzag fashion, until you cover the entire paragraph. An even more drastic approach is to do this vertical read from left bottom to right top. This will ensure you do not read, but skim.
Let’s look at an example: (taken from http://takeielts.britishcouncil.org/prepare-test/free-sample-tests/reading-sample-test-1-academic/reading-passage-3)
The loss of helium on Earth would affect society greatly. Defying the perception of it as a novelty substance for parties and gimmicks, the element actually has many vital applications in society. Probably the most well-known commercial usage is in airships and blimps (non-flammable helium replaced hydrogen as the lifting gas du jour after the Hindenburg catastrophe in 1932, during which an airship burst into flames and crashed to the ground killing some passengers and crew). But helium is also instrumental in deep-sea diving, where it is blended with nitrogen to mitigate the dangers of inhaling ordinary air under high pressure; as a cleaning agent for rocket engines; and, in its most prevalent use, as a coolant for superconducting magnets in hospital MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanners.
Don’t worry about the whole passage. What came before this paragraph or follows it is not important to this exercise. Read the topic sentence, which is usually the first and/or sometimes the second of the paragraph. Right away you have an idea of what the aim of this paragraph is: to demonstrate something, namely how the loss of a compound would affect society. You now want to skim the paragraph and scan for key words that would support your idea.
What are some of these words?
applications, commercial usage, blimps, deep-sea diving, cleaning agent, coolant
What is this paragraph about then? Helium is used widely and has many applications, some of which are listed here. Once this is clear, write yourself a few words in the margin of the passage (or scrap paper if the test is computer-based) that capture the overall idea of the paragraph. For example, you can write for the sample paragraph above, Helium’s applications. That is enough. Now, when you look at the questions, any that involve specific applications will lead you directly to this paragraph for the answer.
Here is an example, taken from the same source as above:
Reading passage 3 has six paragraphs, A–F.
Which paragraph contains the following information?
27) a use for helium which makes an activity safer
28) the possibility of creating an alternative to helium
29) a term which describes the process of how helium is taken out of the ground
30) a reason why users of helium do not make efforts to conserve it
31) a contrast between helium’s chemical properties and how non-scientists think about it
You already have at least one answer written in your margin: question 27: a use for means applications. Now, you have to scan for the key word(s), in this case being make safer. You look for this in terms of synonyms and find that makes an activity safer = mitigate[s] the dangers of
Another way to make use of this skill is to concentrate on scanning techniques. In the TOEFL test, for example, you should look at the questions before you even approach the passage. Once you are ready to begin looking for answers, you can go directly to scanning for specific information. Keep in mind that the easiest things to scan for are numbers, any proper name that begins with a capital letter, an honorific (Mr., Ms., Dr., etc.), or longer words, such as maneuverability. These are easy to spot because they “stand out” in the passage. What is much harder to find is a synonym to a key word, which is also the most frequent situation you’ll find on most of these tests. Again, this skill takes practice, but the strategy remains the same: first skim the passage to figure out roughly where the answer should be. Once you are in the correct vicinity of the answer, you can then scan for the specific detail you need in order to answer the question.
Let’s look at another example: This passage is about a meteorite impact and dinosaur extinction (taken from: http://www.ets.org/Media/Tests/TOEFL/pdf/SampleQuestions.pdf)
This impact released an enormous amount of energy, excavating a crater about twice as large as the lunar crater Tycho. The explosion lifted about 100 trillion tons of dust into the atmosphere, as can be determined by measuring the thickness of the sediment layer formed when this dust settled to the surface. Such a quantity of material would have blocked the sunlight completely from reaching the surface, plunging Earth into a period of cold and darkness that lasted at least several months. The explosion is also calculated to have produced vast quantities of nitric acid and melted rock that sprayed out over much of Earth, starting widespread fires that must have consumed most terrestrial forests and grassland. Presumably, those environmental disasters could have been responsible for the mass extinction, including the death of the dinosaurs.
Again, what came before this paragraph and what follows it are not important right now. TOEFL will usually tell you where to look for the answer to a question, so all that is left to do is scan the paragraph for the necessary details. These details will be taken directly from the question. Here is the question, taken from the same source as the paragraph just above:
According to paragraph 4, all of the following statements are true of the impact at the end of the Cretaceous period EXCEPT:
- A large amount of dust blocked sunlight from Earth. – Look for dust, sunlight, blocked
- Earth became cold and dark for several months. – look for cold, dark, months
- New elements were formed in Earth’s crust. – look for elements, crust
- Large quantities of nitric acid were produced. – look for quantities, nitric
Once you have found the relevant lines and read those sentences, you only need to pay attention to meaning. The correct answer is C, and a quick scan would tell you this because the words elements and crust are not mentioned in the paragraph, therefore the truth of this statement cannot be validated.
Remember, skimming and scanning are tools that need to be practiced in order to be useful. Here are a few suggestions as to how to practice these skills:
- While practicing your listening skills, write down words you hear in a recording, then look for them in the transcripts.
- Make a list of 4–5 function words (prepositions, articles, etc.) then take a reading passage, and in a timed period (1–2 minutes) find as many of these as you can. Then go over the passage slowly, counting them as you go, to confirm.
- Do the same for all names in a passage (news article are best for this).
- Use your study materials: circle all key words in every question, then look for these and their synonyms in the passage as quickly as you can. With time and practice, you should be able to do this faster and faster.