Reading Strategy: Skimming – not just for milk!


It is something done to milk, but skimming is also a method of reading selectively which can assist greatly when completing the IELTS reading tasks. There is no end to the number of course books will tell you this, yet I find many students do this badly or not at all.

Recently a new student joined my IELTS class. I have known the student for a long time. He already has an IELTS of 7, is a doctor and can speak English with the best of them! However, his reading score was lowest and he was keen to improve it. The student told me the problem was that he answered the questions for texts 1 and 2, but by 3 he was running out of time. Clearly the problem was time management, which means using the correct strategies. If you only answer the questions for the first 2 passages (13-14 questions each) then your score is limited to 26-27 (6.5). After only one lesson where we reviewed how to skim, when to use it and practised the technique, my student confidently returned the next week to tell me he had done a mock reading test and got 35 (8.0).
Of course, I don’t know that he didn’t cheat and give himself more time, or marked his answers generously, or even lied (although I don’t doubt his claim).

It seems to me that everyone in their native language can skim read a text, however when confronted with a foreign language text there becomes a sudden urgency to read and understand every word. Natives only pour over every word in a document in a handful of scenarios; lawyers scrutinising a contract, an editor proofreading a manuscript, a PHD preparing to defend his/her thesis. To a lesser extent, natives would also be keen to read and understand every word in a story. I believe (though I’m willing to be corrected) that most natives do not stop if they encounter a word they are not familiar with. The point is that you will not get a story per se, will not be analysing legal ease, or proofreading a manuscript. You will be reading academic texts.

I tell my students to read the following:

  • The first paragraph,

  • The first sentence of every paragraph,

  • The last paragraph.

These give the most information about a text. The first paragraph sets up what the article will talk about in terms of the topic and the angle (problem/solution, advantages/disadvantages, etc.). The first sentence in a paragraph should introduce the main idea of the paragraph and is a good way to understand how the article is sequenced. Finally, the last paragraph pulls together the ideas in the article and gives a final impression of the view of the author.

An important part of the skimming process is what to do if you encounter unknown vocabulary. You will encounter some, and in fact I’d wager most natives would find unfamiliar words in IELTS reading passages. Really you have three options to deal with this vocabulary:

  1. give up, or sit and worry for half of the time that you will not get the meaning of the whole text because you have no idea what on earth a testudo is;

  2. ignore it, and keep reading to see if you can understand without the word;

  3. guess the meaning from context.

Most students tell me they think they should do number 3, although I would guess many actually do number 1. Numbers 2 and 3 are the correct answer, and in that order. Ask yourself if the sentence makes sense without the word. If it doesn’t what meaning could you give the word so that it makes sense.

There is some argument as to whether you should skim the passage before reading the questions or after. I advise before reading the questions, so that you understand what each paragraph is referring to. If it helps, make a quick note next to the paragraph of what it is about.

It is difficult to read a text in this way, which requires discipline and practice. If you are going to do IELTS, I would recommend that you practice this skill until you can skim passages of 800-1000 words in under 3 minutes. Good luck.

This post is originally posted by AWOL IELTS

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