Learning Skimming and Scanning

This is an exercise I came up with last night to try to teach students about scanning and skimming readings. This topic mostly comes up for me in my TOEFL or IELTS preparation classes and usually I don’t explicitly talk about skimming and scanning texts. I tell them not to worry about understanding every single detail in the text and then I show them how different question types can be best answered by either skimming for main ideas in a paragraph or by scanning for key words from the question.

But I felt that the class I am teaching right now needed more a more direct explanation of what skimming and scanning are. I wanted to show them that they already had these skills and used them in their native language.


  • To teach students to skim and to scan through a demonstration
  • To help students realize that they already know how to skim and scan in L1
  • To improve the speed of answering reading questions on the IELTS/TOEFL
    • Materials

      • An article or text from a newspaper, journal, or book with details blocked out in some way: See the box below for a sample handout. Or you could hand out the full article and demonstrate reading it by skimming (say, “blah, blah” or skip over details)


      I start off by telling the class that when they are reading the newspaper in their native language, they are very often skimming. That is, they see an article that looks interesting and they read it fairly quickly, looking for main ideas and interesting points. I gave them a text much like the following (I’ve modified it here to make it more universal and not Kazakhstan-specific):

      Today, the President signed a new law on education. He said the law was important because xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

      The new law makes it a criminal offense for teachers to take bribes or gifts of any kind. The implementation of the law will xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx pilot regions xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx 2012 xxxxxxxxxxx whole country xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

      According to the new law, teachers who take any gifts or bribes from students or their parents will be fired immediately and forbidden from teaching in any government school ever again. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx old laws were ineffective because xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

      Corruption in education is a serious problem. For example xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx and one teacher had $1 million xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Public School 222 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

      International organizations praised the new law xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx OSCE xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx UN xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Teachers’ reactions were mixed.xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

      I told students that this is probably what it looks like when they read the newspaper. I read it out loud substituting muttering or “blah blah” for the xxxxx to indicate that those were parts of the article they probably read more quickly and without much interest because either they were predictable (the President said the law was important because it was big step forward, corruption is bad, the same sort of things politicians always say), contained technical details students may not understand well or not care about (the law will be implemented on some schedule in some pilot regions, such and such policies will also be changed.), or weren’t interesting (The UN and the OSCE said the law was super awesome). I pointed out that

      I also noted (and would love to have elicited this from them somehow) that the highlighted sentences above form a complete story, the kind of thing we might say to a buddy when discussing the article: “Hey, did you hear about this new law? It prevents teachers from taking gifts or bribes. If they do, they are out of a job forever. Apparently corruption is really bad, one teacher even had like $1 million saved away just from bribes!”


      So that’s skimming. Noting main ideas and noting where key details are in the passage so we can go back and read in more detail if we want to. For example, if your friend that you are talking to about this article says, “Hey, teachers must hate this law.”, you will think, “Yeah there was something about that at the end and scan for the phrase “teachers’ reactions”. Then you can read that bit in detail:

      Teachers’ reactions were mixed. Sally Johnson of PS 154 said the law was far too harsh because children and parents sometimes give innocent gifts, especially younger children. On the other hand, John Saleri said, “I have seen bad teachers take money from students left and right, and then use some of that money to bribe the director of the school so they aren’t ever fired. It hurts our education system”

      Anyway, that was my brillant last minute idea. I think it went okay but I’m not sure they fully got it until we moved on to IELTS exercises and they saw actual questions that they had to solve. So maybe my demonstration didn’t give them enough motivation. I would also say that the class I did this with had very good scanning skills but skimming still wasn’t great. Not bad, but not great. They had trouble focusing on the most important information and instead latched onto the most abstract or general information, which I suspect reflects the Kazakhstan education system and thus represents the habit that I have to break them of.

      For example, we did a reading about snow machines. I would have summarized the first paragraph as, “in the past lack of snow was a problem for ski resorts, but the snow machine solves that problem by letting them make snow when they want.” Students produced, “It’s about problems in the winter sports industry” or “the history of ski resorts” which were way, way too broad and abstract.

      I would love to hear other people’s comments on my idea. How can I make the lesson better, or is this approach completely useless? If you try something like this, I’d also love a comment on how it went. Or any other ways of teaching skimming and grasping main ideas.

      I’d also be curious how students find this tool. Is it useful for you? Does it make sense?

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9 Replies to “Learning Skimming and Scanning”

  1. This is brilliant! I’m SO going to use this idea. Thank you! I’m teaching English in a Nursing College in Malaysia and most of the students are pretty much naive to English. I’m going to get them to skim a newspaper article in their own language first, to prove to them that they can skim; then get them to do it again in English.

    Unfortunately, the last literacy survey in Malaysia suggests than Malaysians read only 1.5 sentences per year! So even skimming might be out of the question 🙁

  2. I just found this website and it contains some good stuff on English teaching. Awesome. Walton, do you do a lot of IELTS teaching? I teach IELTS and I’ve compiled as much information online as a I can in relation to IELTS teaching. There’s no real definitive book on this area, yet there should be! Lots of books for students, but not many or any for IELTS teachers!

  3. I used to do more IELTS teaching. If you search my site for IELTs, you’ll find some of the plans and activities. But since I came back to the States, I haven’t done as much.

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