Of skimming and scanning

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Skimming time: Skimming or scanning requires practice.
Skimming time: Skimming or scanning requires practice.

Know more about skimming and scanning to enhance your reading skills.

If you are skimming a book, you should read the blurb, the preface and table of contents. The chapter headings provide a reliable indication of the content of the book. You can turn the pages randomly and check its readability, style and seriousness in terms of treatment. You can focus your attention on subheadings, bold, italicized or underlined text, diagrams, graphs, charts and photographs, if any. If there are chapter summaries, you get the vital points quite easily. You can go to the text to find the details of points in the summary you found interesting. Once you find that the book is worth detailed study, you can go for it. If it is a work of fiction, you will easily form your assessment; you are not looking for the accuracy of facts.

For skimming a page, you can run your eyes vertically from top to bottom, skipping unimportant matter and simultaneously grasping relevant points. Some say that they glide their eyes over material of no great concern. Or, you can run your eyes diagonally along the page and take note of the most relevant parts. Moving the eyes in a zigzag way over the page is also possible. You start at the top left and move downwards, with the eyes zigzagging to the right and left edges of the printed text and reaching the bottom of the page. It can be done effectively only with practice.

For an optimal reading environment on computer screens, adjust the brightness, contrast, font colour and line spacing to make reading most comfortable. If the text is not in the most pleasing format, you may ‘copy and paste’ it, and modify it as required. Long hours before an uncomfortable screen will lead to fatigue and lack of concentration.

An indirect advantage of skimming is that it improves your general reading speed. It saves your time and betters your learning efficiency. Suppose you are reading a second textbook in a subject, after having studied thoroughly one standard textbook. You can afford to do a lot of skimming, without any loss. If you practise skimming, you would be exposed to a larger volume of literature than a person who insists on reading it word by word. Research scholars or students pursuing specialised higher studies may have to go through a number of journals regularly. Unless skimming is practised, they would not be able to fulfil their obligations.

Practise regularly

Unless you practise the art of moving your eyes vertically or diagonally for skimming and gain experience in it, you may not be able to do it effectively.

The time spent on practice, is certainly spent well. You may practise it every morning using the daily newspaper, which anyway is not read word by word. What is suggested here is that you consciously practise skimming, as a daily routine, with the help of the newspaper. You do not have to find special time for the exercise.

This kind of training in skimming is not recommended for young children. The reader should have a fairly good vocabulary and familiarity with writing styles. He should be able to follow the logic and organisation of the text. Skimming would be effective, only if the matter has been written logically and in a well organised style.

Even if you become adept at the art of skimming, you should not apply it to anything you read. School or college textbooks, serious documents or material that has to be analysed in depth cannot be skimmed or even read rapidly. Every word may be significant. An analogy would help in this context. You know how to walk slowly, walk fast and run. It does not mean that you always run. Reading, rapid reading and skimming can be considered to have some similarity with the modes of locomotion suggested. Francis Bacon, English lawyer and philosopher (1561-1626), wrote: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested.”


Imagine that you are trying to find out the meaning of a word from a dictionary or a telephone number from a directory. You read only what you want. You ignore everything else. You look for a specific piece of information and ignore the rest. This process is scanning.

An illustration can help us to appreciate easily what scanning implies. Suppose you go to a festival crowd with a friend, but miss him in the surging throng. Your eyes travel quickly over the crowd to locate your friend’s face, totally ignoring all other faces. Scanning is a similar process in the world of rapid reading.


Try to distinguish between skimming and scanning.

Skimming implies looking for a general overview aimed at quickly identifying the main ideas of a text. In scanning, you move your eyes quickly down the page seeking a specific word, phrase, number or idea. Unless you practise scanning, you may waste a lot of your time while using reference books. Suppose you want to find out a specific bit of information from an encyclopaedia. Your eyes should travel fast along the relevant pages and locate the bit that you look for.

Though whatever is given in the book may be useful information, that would be irrelevant at the moment. So do not start reading a page in an encyclopaedia in the usual course. Just scan the pages and get the information required. In fact, a drill in scanning is an essential part of training in the use of reference books.

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