Reading with a Purpose: Teaching Skimming and Scanning

The first time I can remember telling a class skimming and scanning were important was about seven years ago. I was teaching TOEFL iBT prep in Hanoi, Vietnam and was trying to explain just how important it was for the students to be able to get the “gist” of what they reading (skimming) or find key words/details (scanning) in a passage. If I remember right, I even held up the sheet below in an attempt to “prove” I was right.

TOEFL iBT, Reading Skills, Speaking Skills, Writing Skills, EAP, IELTS, TOEIC
Click here to download.

Fast forward to last semester. I was teaching English 101 at University of Arizona and, as I had so many times before, was telling the students to “not read every word – scan for the main idea.” And then one of my students did something that had never happened before: she asked “How?”

Yep, that’s right, I had been teaching TOEFL-iBT, IELTS and EAP for years and this was the first time any student had ever asked me how to skim before. Now I could go into a very long diatribe about how on earth this woman, who was raised in the US and had attended 12 years of schooling, did not know how to skim or scan but that would be useless.

For me, the more important question was why hadn’t any of my previous students ever asked me how to skim and scan? Did they really know how to and just choose not to?

No, in my mind, I’m guessing I finally had a student brave enough to ask how to do something. Bless her because, for the first time, I actually had to explain how to skim and scan.

Fortunately for me, I came up with explanation:


Skimming is easy to explain in 5 words:

  1. Big
  3. Alpha and Omega 

First, read what is big: Titles, Headlines, Headings, Sub-headers 

Next, read what is different: ALL CAPS, Colors, Bold, Italics, Different Fonts, Underlined

TOEFL iBT, Reading Skills, Speaking Skills, Writing Skills, EAP, IELTS, TOEIC
What does your eye read first? Do you think that’s an accident?

Finally, read the first and last:

  • sentence of shorter works
  • paragraph or page for medium length works
  • chapter for longer works

That’s all there is to it. You can get the main idea of pretty much any document by following the steps outlined above.


Scanning is a little more difficult to explain to students but seems to be easier to do.Essentially, students take a mental snapshot of the word and then look only for that word in a chunk of text.

However, if they’re using a computer, just press “CTRL” + “F” (“command” + “F” on a Mac) and then enter the word they are searching for.

Q: “What if they’re scanning for a word/phrase and it isn’t there?”

Great question!

A: When you start reading higher level texts, you have to start using higher level critical thinking skills.

Therefore, learners need to:

  1. think of synonyms and antonyms of the key words
  2. scan the text for those

Final Thoughts

One final bit of advice that I wish someone would have told me when I first started teaching: avoid the temptation to get frustrated when your students don’t skim/scan like experts after one or several lessons. Since it take learners several exposures to produce a new structure or lexical item naturally, we shouldn’t be shocked that it takes several practice sessions to become competent skimmers and scanners. Needless to say, the more they practice, the better they will become.

Happy Teaching! (function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i[‘GoogleAnalyticsObject’]=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,’script’,’//’,’ga’); ga(‘create’, ‘UA-49863069-1’, ‘’); ga(‘send’, ‘pageview’);


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