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Academic Communication

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Effective reading

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Skimming and scanning

Skimming

Skimming means looking through a text quickly to understand the main ideas.

Use this technique to decide whether material is useful to you. After skimming you may decide that you need to read the text for detail, or that you can scan through the text quickly to find specific information. You might not need to read the text at all.

For a printed book, look at the following parts to find the main ideas quickly:

  • Title
  • Author(s) or editor(s)
  • Publishers' description of the book (see the back cover of the book)
  • Reviewers' comments (see the back cover of the book)
  • Preface/Introduction
  • Contents page
  • Index
  • Publication date
  • Opening paragraphs of each chapter or unit

For a website, look at:

  • Titles and headings on pages
  • Author(s), publishers or producers of the pages
  • Publication date - not always obvious
  • Opening paragraph
  • First, second and last sentences of following paragraphs
  • Words in bold

For all types of text remember that you should be just glancing through. Skimming means reading through quickly without looking at the detail.

Scanning

Scanning involves looking for specific information, for particular details rather than general ideas.

We all use scanning in our daily lives: to pick out friends in a crowd, to locate a book in the library, to find something in the supermarket. In these cases we have an idea what we are looking for and where we might find it. We run our eyes over all the faces, books or products, without really focusing, until we recognise what we are looking for.

In the same way learning to scan means you can select what you want to read from books, articles, websites or other materials without wasting time.

Scanning is a skill which improves with practice. The following will help you:

  • Decide where the information you want is most likely to be.
    • The contents page may tell you the right chapter.
    • The index may take you to the right page.
    • A date of birth in a biography is more likely to be at the beginning than the end.
  • Be clear what you are looking for.
  • Think about the words most likely to be used.