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Reading Skills: Scanning vs. Skimming

by Stacy Alleyne

There are many reading strategies that help readers better comprehend information. Two that help them to read faster are scanning and skimming. While the two terms may seem synonymous at first glance, they are two distinctly different procedures that good readers use to help them comprehend written material quickly and accurately. Many times it becomes necessary to cover large amounts of reading material in a short period of time. Scanning and skimming help us to do that and depending on what we need to gain from the text, we choose to either scan or skim the information.

Scanning versus Skimming

Scanning information involves a cursory glance over the text features of a book, article or other written material, while skimming is a more in-depth procedure. Skimming involves trying to get the gist of printed information by quickly reading the subjects, verbs, topic sentences, headings and conclusions of paragraphs. In a nutshell, scanning is a more superficial assessment of written material; skimming is slightly more involved. For example, if you are given an article on SAT prep and you want to learn whether hiring a private tutor is better than taking a course, you might just scan the article for the words "tutor" and "course," and read the sentences that deal with that. But, if you were to skim that same article you might try to get the sense of the entire article by reading the introduction, topic sentences and conclusion very quickly.

When to Scan

When you have a specific question or piece of information you’re looking for, it's better to scan. When you’re scanning, you usually are looking for a specific piece of information or have a question you need answered by a piece of text. To scan information, we normally look for text features that jump out from the page without reading everything that’s written.

When Skimming is Better

To get the gist of written material, we use a form of accelerated reading called skimming. Skimming is something readers do when they either don’t have a lot of time for a deeper reading or their interest is low but they still need to know what is being said in a particular piece of writing. Both skimming and scanning are accelerated forms of reading that allow readers to access written information in a quick and accurate way.

When to Skim or Scan

Deciding whether to skim or scan depends on what the purpose of your reading is. Usually, it’s best to thoroughly read material that you need to retain a long time. If you’re studying the history of the Roman Empire, you don’t want to skim your textbook the very first time you encounter the material. After you have done an in-depth reading and become familiar with the material and the subject matter over time and you are presented with new material on the same subject matter, skimming or scanning becomes effective.

About the Author

Stacy Alleyne is a certified English teacher with a BA in English and graduate work in English, education, journalism and law. She has written numerous articles and her own dining column for the "Gazette."

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