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Skimming and Scanning

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SKIMMING & SCANNING

Skimming and scanning are reading techniques that use rapid eye movement and keywords to move quickly through text for slightly different purposes. Skimming is reading rapidly in order to get a general overview of the material. Scanning is reading rapidly in order to find specific facts. While skimming tells you what general information is within a section, scanning helps you locate a particular fact. Skimming is like snorkeling, and scanning is more like pearl diving.

Use skimming in previewing (reading before you read), reviewing (reading after you read), determining the main idea from a long selection you don't wish to read, or when trying to find source material for a research paper.

Use scanning in research to find particular facts, to study fact-heavy topics, and to answer questions requiring factual support.

Skimming to save time
Skimming can save you hours of laborious reading. However, it is not always the most appropriate way to read. It is very useful as a preview to a more detailed reading or when reviewing a selection heavy in content. But when you skim, you may miss important points or overlook the finer shadings of meaning, for which rapid reading or perhaps even study reading may be necessary.

Use skimming to overview your textbook chapters or to review for a test. Use skimming to decide if you need to read something at all, for example during the preliminary research for a paper. Skimming can tell you enough about the general idea and tone of the material, as well as its gross similarity or difference from other sources, to know if you need to read it at all.

To skim, prepare yourself to move rapidly through the pages. You will not read every word; you will pay special attention to typographical cues-headings, boldface and italic type, indenting, bulleted and numbered lists. You will be alert for key words and phrases, the names of people and places, dates, nouns, and unfamiliar words. In general follow these steps:

 

  1. Read the table of contents or chapter overview to learn the main divisions of ideas.
  2. Glance through the main headings in each chapter just to see a word or two. Read the headings of charts and tables.
  3. Read the entire introductory paragraph and then the first and last sentence only of each following paragraph. For each paragraph, read only the first few words of each sentence or to locate the main idea.
  4. Stop and quickly read the sentences containing keywords indicated in boldface or italics.
  5. When you think you have found something significant, stop to read the entire sentence to make sure. Then go on the same way. Resist the temptation to stop to read details you don't need.
  6. Read chapter summaries when provided.

 

If you cannot complete all the steps above, compromise: read only the chapter overviews and summaries, for example, or the summaries and all the boldfaced keywords. When you skim, you take a calculated risk that you may miss something. For instance, the main ideas of paragraphs are not always found in the first or last sentences (although in many textbooks they are). Ideas you miss you may pick up in a chapter overview or summary.

Good skimmers do not skim everything at the same rate or give equal attention to everything. While skimming is always faster than your normal reading speed, you should slow down in the following situations:

  • When you skim introductory and concluding paragraphs
  • When you skim topic sentences
  • When you find an unfamiliar word
  • When the material is very complicated

 

Scanning for research and study
Scanning, too, uses keywords and organizational cues. But while the goal of skimming is a bird's-eye view of the material, the goal of scanning is to locate and swoop down on particular facts.

Facts may be buried within long text passages that have relatively little else to do with your topic or claim. Skim this material first to decide if it is likely to contain the facts you need. Don't forget to scan tables of contents, summaries, indexes, headings, and typographical cues. To make sense of lists and tables, skim them first to understand how they are organized: alphabetical, chronological, or most-to-least, for example. If after skimming you decide the material will be useful, go ahead and scan:

  1. Know what you're looking for. Decide on a few key words or phrases–search terms, if you will. You will be a flesh-and-blood search engine.
  2. Look for only one keyword at a time. If you use multiple keywords, do multiple scans.
  3. Let your eyes float rapidly down the page until you find the word or phrase you want.
  4. When your eye catches one of your keywords, read the surrounding material carefully.

 

Scanning to answer questions
If you are scanning for facts to answer a specific question, one step is already done for you: the question itself supplies the keywords. Follow these steps:

  1. Read each question completely before starting to scan. Choose your keywords from the question itself.
  2. Look for answers to only one question at a time. Scan separately for each question.
  3. When you locate a keyword, read the surrounding text carefully to see if it is relevant.
  4. Re-read the question to determine if the answer you found answers this question.

Scanning is a technique that requires concentration and can be surprisingly tiring. You may have to practice at not allowing your attention to wander. Choose a time and place that you know works for you and dive in.

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