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The IELTS Reading Test: Essential Skimming and Scanning Strategies 

 May 8, 2024

By  Jonathan

The IELTS Reading test requires you to navigate lengthy, complex academic texts under significant time pressure. Mastering the skills of skimming and scanning is crucial for quickly finding the specific information needed to answer questions, maximizing your performance, and minimizing stress.

What is Skimming?

  • Goal: To rapidly grasp the main idea, overall structure, and tone of a text.
  • Focus on:
    • Title, subtitles, and topic sentences (usually the first sentence of a paragraph)
    • Introduction and conclusion paragraphs
    • Visual aids (diagrams, tables, etc.) where applicable
  • Ignore: Specific details, examples, complex vocabulary at this stage

What is Scanning

  • Goal: To locate precise details within the text.
  • Focus on:
    • Keywords from the questions
    • Names, dates, numbers, or specific terminology
    • Headings and subheadings indicating where relevant information might be organized
  • Ignore: Unrelated sections of text – don’t read everything sequentially.

Why These Skills Matter for the IELTS

  • Information Overload: IELTS passages are dense. Skimming prevents getting overwhelmed and highlights key areas.
  • Time Pressure: Skimming the entire text before answering questions wastes precious minutes.
  • Question Variety: Some questions require understanding the big picture (skimming), others require pinpointing specific details (scanning).
  • Reducing Rereading: Effective skimming and scanning allow you to go to the right part of the text for answers the first time.

When to Skim vs. Scan

  • SKIM FIRST: Use this to get a sense of the text and then decide where to focus for specific answers.
  • Typical Skimming Tasks:
    • Identifying the main topic of the text
    • Determining the author’s overall opinion or stance
    • True/False/Not Given questions where you need a general understanding
  • Typical Scanning Tasks:
    • Matching headings to paragraphs
    • Filling in tables or diagrams
    • Questions which include specific keywords, names, or numbers

Skimming & Scanning Practice Tips

  • Use Your Finger: Track where your eyes are moving to ensure you’re not just passively rereading line by line.
  • Time Yourself: Start with short passages, gradually increasing difficulty. See how quickly you can extract the main idea.
  • Keywords are King: For scanning practice, highlight keywords in questions BEFORE turning to the text itself.
  • Question Type Matters: Practice specific skimming and scanning techniques relevant to frequent IELTS question formats.

Example: Identifying Text Type

A crucial skimming skill is recognizing whether a text is primarily:

  • Descriptive: Focus on WHAT (facts, features, processes)
  • Argumentative: Focus on WHY (opinions, claims, supporting evidence)
  • Instructional: Focus on HOW (steps in a procedure, rules)

This influences what information to focus on as you answer.

Common Challenges and Solutions

  • Fixating on Unfamiliar Words:
    • Strategy: Use surrounding context for general meaning; detail may not be crucial for the answer.
  • Losing Your Place:
    • Strategy: Guide your eyes with a finger or pen, especially when scanning for precise details.
  • Second-Guessing Yourself:
    • Strategy: Trust your initial skimming. Answers tend to align with the main idea, not obscure details.

Beyond the Test: Benefits of Skimming and Scanning

These skills are valuable in many real-world scenarios:

  • Research: Rapidly assessing the relevance of articles or journals for your academic work.
  • News Consumption: Getting the gist of lengthy articles to decide which merit deeper reading.
  • Professional Communication: Quickly extracting key points from emails, memos, or reports.

Important Reminders

  • Practice Builds Speed: Skimming and scanning may initially feel slower, but consistency brings rapid improvement.
  • The Goal is Efficiency: Finding correct answers quickly is far more valuable than understanding every word in depth.
  • Complement Other Skills: These techniques work in synergy with vocabulary building, question type familiarity, and time management.

The Power of Focused Reading

By dedicating yourself to mastering skimming and scanning, you equip yourself with powerful tools for the IELTS Reading test. These skills allow you to approach even intimidating academic texts with confidence, prioritizing the information you need for success while managing the pressure of the clock.

Jonathan has been teaching students to prepare for the IELTS and PTE Exams for more than 10+ years. He's taught English to students in various countries in the world including Singapore, China, Australia, Canada and Colombia.

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