skim and scan

Question:  Do I need to skim and scan in IELTS reading? Answer: Yes you do. These are important reading skills which will help you to extract information quickly from a large body of text; this is exactly the skill that is being tested in IELTS reading.

It’s important to understand the difference between them and use each one to best effect. So here is an explanation and also not only how you can use these skills to help your IELTS reading but also how you can improve them to make your skimming and scanning faster and more effective.


Skimming is a way of reading a text very quickly.

The way to do this is to cast your eye very quickly over the text picking our content words – these are the words that carry the information (usually nouns and verbs). If you just focus on these words you will be able to pick out the overall message of the text.

It is important to ignore details (these would be adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, articles etc.), the words that provide extra information. When we take notice of these things we slow down and stop skimming. In IELTS we only want an overview at first the detail is restricted to the questions.

Try this skimming exercise.

  • Take a pen or pencil and skim over the text just looking at the main content words
  • Underline some of these
  • Write down the words that you underlined
  • Create a short summary of the text using just these words
  • Now read the text carefully and see if your summary is a good overview
  • If it is then congratulations you have good skimming skills – now keep practising the first two steps until you are able to ignore the non-content words easily and then you won’t need to write them down

Skimming is important in IELTS for the following things:

  • Getting an initial overview of the text
  • Doing heading questions
  • Doing specific information in paragraph match
  • Choosing overall titles to texts


Scanning is a way of spotting individual words and short phrases.

You again cast your eye over a text but instead of picking out random words you will be looking for specific words, numbers, names etc. All words count and you will generally be searching for the keywords in the questions.

Remember that often in IELTS the match words in the text will be synonyms so you will be scanning for a few words to make sure that you have the right place. You will, however, look first for the ‘location’ keywords that you chose from the question.

Try this scanning exercise

  • Pick an ielts text and chose a location keyword from the question
  • Take a ruler and drag it slowly down the page looking for the keyword in each line
  • Underline the word each time you see it (if you only see it once that’s fine it makes your job easier)
  • Now choose the other keywords from the same question and see which occurrence of the keyword includes these too – now you are ready to look more carefully at this sentence to find the answer
  • It is unlikely that all the keywords will be in more than one place
  • Now do the same with the next question
  • Keep practising with the ruler until you can do this easily without it. Once you are able to see the keywords easily you should find that your reading gets faster

Scanning is important for the following things

  • Finding keywords
  • In YNNG and TFNG questions
  • In gap filler and sentence completion questions
  • In tables and flowcharts

These skills are vital to improving speed. But you should only be skimming and scanning when you have a purpose. There is no need to skim the whole passage at the beginning – skimming the introduction should give you enough about the topic.

There is also no point in scanning for words until you have identified the keywords that you need for the question. Looking randomly and underlining words without a specific purpose is simply wasting your time.

However spending some time on the exercises above will help you to speed up and gain a better understanding of how the text works so that you can find the keywords and subsequently the answers much more quickly and easily.

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