Many IELTS students fall in to the trap of trying to understand every word in a reading text and their reading speed suffers. Many students seem to be trained to start reading at the first word of the reading text and continue word by word until the end is reached. These students set themselves the target of understanding every word and every sentence of the reading text – they are not satisfied unless they can reach this level of understanding. Very often these students will focus their attention on a pencil or their finger as they move it along the text. This type of reading – intensive reading – is great if you are reading a novel for enjoyment. This is not the only way to read and it will always slow you down in the IELTS reading exam.
What is skim reading?
Imagine this: you are flicking through a magazine and see an article but you are not sure whether you really want to read it or not. How do you decide whether to read it or not? The first thing you do is read the title, isn’t it? As soon as we read the title, we start to predict the content of the article. This is a very important stage in reading comprehension. It doesn’t matter if you predict correctly or incorrectly : the fact that we are making a prediction starts our minds working and any vocabulary that we know relating to the predicted subject of the article is “woken up.” This prediction continues as we read the subtitles and other headings. If our predictions about the content of the article are wrong, we will know that when we read the text. We are able to compare our prediction with the real content.
In the IELTS exam, you have a very short amount of time to answer all of the reading task questions. It’s not easy!! Your reading skills have to be very good to get an IELTS band score of 6.5 or higher. Skim reading a text is one of the first steps to efficient reading and it is something that you can practise doing.
How to skim read
1 Read the titles and subtitles of the text. What do they mean? What do they suggest to you?
2 Look at the pictures or photographs in the text. Do they give you any information about the content of the text?
3 Read the first and last sentences in each paragraph. What information do you get?
4 Look at the rest of the text but don’t read every word. Hunt for key words and focus on them. Ignore prepositions, articles and other “grammar” words.
5 Constantly ask yourself this: what is the text about? What kind of text is it? Is it an analysis of a subject? Or a description? Is it a discussion or a narrative?
Once you have finished skim reading a text, you should have a good idea of the content of the text and should know, in general terms, what it is about. You should be able to write one sentence summarising the text.
How can I practise skim reading?
The Internet offers you lots of opportunity to practise skim reading. I often ask my students to register with StumbleUpon. Registration is free. StumbleUpon takes you to a random website on the Internet when you click the “stumble” button in the top left-hand corner. You can specify the type of site you want to see but it’s a good idea to start with totally random websites.
I give my students a maximum of one minute to skim the home page of the first site that comes up and then they must try to summarise the content. Some sites are easier to read than others but my students get into the habit of quickly skimming any text on these random sites to get a general idea of the content. Often my students work in pairs and discuss what they think they have understood. You could do this with a study partner. I always encourage my students to bookmark one or two of the random sites they visit so that they can return to them and read them in more detail.
Of course, you can also follow different links on a website to see where you end up. You could even click on the advertisements on a web page. How quickly can you skim the text on a site and decide what it is about? Give yourself a maximum of a minute per site.