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Skim reading : a key skill Improving your skim reading skills takes time and effort

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Most candidates who’ve done the academic version of IELTS (International English Language Testing System) say the reading test was the most difficult of the four modules.

The academic reading test assesses whether your reading skills are developed enough to succeed in studies in English at an undergraduate or postgraduate level.

If you’re a professional, such as a doctor or a lawyer, you may also need to do the test to see if your language skills are developed enough for you to work in an English language environment.

Many candidates want IELTS band score 6.0 in the reading test, but some need 7.0 or even higher. This can be very challenging.

Most candidates find the first of the three reading passages is difficult, and the next two passages are always harder.

Still, it’s possible to get a very good band score. Of course, you must have fairly good English grammar and vocabulary to do well. Just as important, though, are well-developed reading skills.


One of the essential reading skills is skimming. Skimming is what you do when you want to quickly find out the general idea of a piece of writing.

For example, when you look at a page of a newspaper, such as the Bangkok Post, to find something interesting to read, you just look quickly at the headings and any photos, and maybe a few phrases here and there in an article. This quick reading is called skim reading. It’s a speed-reading technique that’s essential for the IELTS reading test.

To skim read, you must read at least twice as fast as your normal speed. However, don’t try to read and understand every word. Try to find the main ideas, which are usually in the main clauses of each sentence.

Doing it in the test

Before you try to answer any questions in a reading passage, look at the heading and any pictures. Ask yourself what you think the passage might be about. Then, read the first one or two paragraphs and quickly guess what the whole passage is about. Finally, skim read each of the remaining paragraphs to get a general idea of what each is about.

When skim reading, you only want to find the main point and the general content of each paragraph. The main point is given in the paragraph’s topic sentence. Make it a practice to read the opening sentence of each paragraph in a reading passage since it’s usually, but not always, the topic sentence.

Don’t read every word in the topic sentence. Just read its main subject, its main verb and the object of the main (or independent) clause. Pay less attention to other words in the topic sentence, such as any relative clauses or adverbial clauses.

It’s also very important to get a feel for the general content of each paragraph. To do this, skim through the whole paragraph, looking at sets of related words throughout it.

Before moving on to the next paragraph, skim read the paragraph a second time and underline the main points. This second skim reading makes the main points much easier to recognise and understand.

Once you’ve quickly summarised the main points of the paragraph in your head, move on to the next paragraph and repeat the process.

Only read each paragraph enough to understand what it’s generally talking about, and try to ignore less important information.

For instance, don’t try to remember the items in a list of examples in the paragraph. Instead, just remember that the paragraph has examples of a certain category of things.

A road map

At the end of your skimming, you should know two things: what the whole passage is generally about, and what each paragraph is generally talking about.

Remember, you’re not trying to get a detailed or accurate understanding of the passage. All you want is a mental outline that tells you which paragraph talks about what topic: a “road map” of the passage.

With this map, you’re in an excellent position to quickly find the right paragraph with the answer for a reading passage’s question.

Spend six minutes skimming the 10 or so paragraphs in a passage before looking at any of the questions. That leaves 14 minutes to do the questions, which is still plenty of time to answer the 13 or 14 questions for the passage.

Other approaches

Some candidates find it difficult to get the general content of each paragraph in six minutes. The most common reason is they’re trying to understand every word, or too many words, in the paragraphs.

In other words, they’re still reading normally, not skimming. Distracted by less important information and confused by words they don’t understand, they waste time.

Other candidates go straight to the questions and start scanning for answers instead of first skim reading the passage. Usually, they’re afraid they won’t have enough time to answer the questions.

However, this method’s very inefficient as the candidates often can’t understand the questions or the reading passage.

Since they aren’t familiar with the general content of each paragraph, it’s also harder to find which paragraph has the answer to a question. They’re frequently forced to waste time scanning the whole passage a number of times.

By comparison, if you first spend six minutes developing a road map, you’re more likely to understand the questions. You’re also often fairly sure of an answer as soon as you read a question.

However, as your mind can play tricks under the pressure of the exam, always make sure an answer is correct by carefully checking the information in the passage.

As well, by skim reading first, you very often know exactly which paragraph to read to check or find an answer. This saves valuable time, so you’re in a better position to answer all questions and get a high score.

Improving your skim reading skills does take time and effort, but it’s essential, especially if you’re aiming for band 6.0 or higher. You may need much practice to become good at skimming.

This article was written by David Park, a highly experienced IELTS teacher. Ajarn David teaches at Paradigm Language Institute.

If you have any questions about IELTS that you would like Ajarn David to answer,
or if you wish to do an IELTS preparation course, write to:

IELTS is owned by Cambridge ESOL, the British Council and IDP: IELTS Australia.


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