Sunday, 20 January 2013

Skimming and scanning

For those of you who are firm believers in teaching skimming and scanning feel free to skim this post and answer the questions at the end…you have 1 minute…go! For those of you, like me, who are more sceptical…read on.

This is the second in my “reading skills” series, following up the piece on prediction. Like prediction, skimming and scanning are very attractive to teachers as they make the rather mysterious process of reading eminently teachable. Without “reading skills” teaching reading would resemble teaching the ‘Cinderella skill’, listening. But should we teaching skimming and scanning at all? I will argue 'no' for two reasons. Firstly, skimming and scanning don't accurate reflect the way people usually read and secondly because most students already know how to do them.

Skimming and scanning are pretty popular in EFL, with hundreds of web pages offering lesson plans for skimming and scanning classes. St Martins University are keen on them 
as is the 'teaching English' website and Harmer includes lesson plans with these skills as targets. Textbooks like Oxford's "Well read" and "Headway" include these activities and   Grellet’s book, which as Paran notes is probably responsible for the popularity of these skills in the TEFL world, has a whole section on “from scanning to skimming”. Telling though Grabe doesn’t mentioned them once in his book on the reading in a foreign language, something which Kerr describes as "eloquent commentary" (2009:29).

Skimming and Scanning are so pervasive that a large number of teachers, (like the one pictured above and me, for the longest time) have managed to convince themselves that this is actually how people read. But it isn't. At least, not usually. Usually we read one word at a time as you're probably reading now.

Skimming and scanning are classed as "expeditious reading" (Nation 2009:70) skimming is reading quickly and for the general or “gist” meaning. Scanning is trying to identify specific information in a text. The classic example was always a “name in a phone book” until phone books went the way of tape cassettes and chalk. Nowadays “bus timetable” is the most likely example. Not only is this a reading skill that doesn’t need to be taught, it’s a basic human skill that doesn’t need to be taught. People who disagree should read “where’s Wally”.

Gist in laymen’s terms means a general understanding devoid of specifics as in “I wasn’t really paying attention but I got the gist of what he was saying”.  But is this a teachable skill? Or even one that we should be teaching?

We may do reading activities like setting time limits for our students while reassuring them that they “only have to get the gist” but is this teaching them anything or merely expecting them to apply a skill we assume they already have. Is a teacher who says “skimming is just trying to get the general meaning” teaching or explaining a concept we expect students to already know? If it’s the former, we have failed as we haven’t ‘taught’ them how to do it; we’ve just explained what it is. If the latter, why do we assume they don’t know how to do this? After all plenty of monolingual EFL teachers seem to be able to manage skimming without prior instruction –hell they’re so good they can even teach it!

 Secondly, what exactly is reading for gist? If it were possible for me to read faster than I do now then I would do it. But sadly I can’t (so the pile of unread books and papers grows ever larger, staring accusingly at me). If a person reads for gist then they are necessarily losing something. Otherwise they are just reading. If I read faster than normal, then I ignore parts of the text –I miss bits out. These bits may be important, they may not. I just take my chances.

Often with skimming students are told to read the first and last sentences of a paragraph; or the first sentence, or the first and second sentences. Sometimes they are told to “run their eyes over the text” whatever that means. This advice might work at times but other times it may not. Would it work with the paragraph directly before this one? I think it possible could for a test question like “what is this paragraph about” but probably not for understanding the text. 
I have heard it argued that these techniques could be useful for EAP students looking through texts and trying to find useful ones in a hurry, or trying to locate relevant sections in a book, but students will almost certainly not be doing these things under timed conditions. They’ll probably while away many pointless hours in libraries reading the wrong books, -much like native speakers do. It’s also quite likely that once the “don’t use a dictionary –just get the gist” bullies are out of the picture and the students successfully make it onto their courses, they'll probably sit there (sensibly in my opinion) with a text in one hand and a dictionary in the other slowly trying to make sense of whatever tortuously dull and impenetrable academic text they are unlucky enough to find themselves having to read.

In fact, and rather ironically, these skills seem to be most useful for doing English reading tests. That is we, the EFL community, design tests which require students to employ reading skills they probably already know and then ‘teach’ them these skills in order for them to pass the tests we wrote! Genius! Perhaps we should also invent writing upside tests and tests of underwater listening.

Don't teach grandma to suck eggs

Skimming and scanning are at times, very useful; so useful in fact that every person who comes from a culture with a written language already knows how to do them.  Arguably though they are more useful to teachers than to students as they give us something to teach. Thornbury notes

Very quickly, skimming/scanning became an end in itself, and teachers were misled into thinking that, by having students skim or scan texts, they were developing the skill of reading. How often do you see this expressed as an aim in examined lessons: “To develop the sub-skill of skimming a text for its gist.”

The point he goes on to make, and one also made by Swan is that student likely already have reading skills in their L1. "Much of the teaching of reading skills is predicated on the assumption that learners do not already possess them" (Swan 2008:266) but they almost certainly do and we almost certainly don’t need to spend time teaching them.Swan and Walter in a piece called "teaching reading skills: mostly a waste of time" refer to research which indicates that students will be able to use these reading skills automatically when their language reaches a proficient enough level.

In defence of Skimming and Scanning

There aren't many defenders of skimming and scanning these days but one article written by Phillip Kerr could possibly be described as a “defence” but that wouldn’t really be accurate as Kerr lists criticism and then suggests that there might be some reasons why it might be OK to use them:

1. They aren’t very difficult and they don’t take much time and so they might motivate students to feel like they have achieved something.

2. Well-designed skimming and scanning activities can help students to decode and create meaning in a text.

3. The skills are short and though not perhaps helping students learn to read, may give them some impression about the text.

4. Good for tests

Number four has been already been discussed. Number two is the idea that these skills  belong to the psycholinguistic model of reading, criticised by Paran and Grabe. sampling a text is not how most people read, most of the time. 
But let me take a minute to talk about the other reasons. If you read the article you’ll notice Kerr wraps up his reasons in such apologetic language that you almost feel sorry for skimming and scanning and want to teach them just so they don’t get thrown in a bag with some Cuisenaire rods and drown. Kerr seems to be saying, “Well, look, we all know we don’t need to teach these skills but they’re awfully quick and they might make the students feel good about themselves and oh please! It’s awfully cold outside; these skills have no place to go!”

But don't feel sorry for these skills. Feel sorry instead for the poor students who are forced to do them, and the poor teachers filling up their DELTA lesson plans with skimming and scanning targets. Isn't it time we stopped teaching students to do things they can already do?



  1. nice post but disappointed no question at end :(
    you pointed out what is main reason we still do these types of things - tests /btw i didn't scan for "tests" in your post but ctrl-f'd it ;)/

    until such time they change will we have to keep on with our old ways?

    i believe also scan reading goes undercover now by way of multiple matching?

    1. Hi Mura!
      THanks for the comment.

      I don't know if we have to 'keep our old ways' I certainly don't like the idea of doing something for the sake of a test. Also a lot of these are supposed short cuts for weak readers,aren't they? Perhaps we need someone to develop a better style of reading test?

      I've never heard of multiple matching. I'm going to go and google it!

  2. Excellent post and very funny. I'm surprised you didn't throw NLP in the bag with the cuisenaire rods and reading skills...

    I guess the question is then, if you are advocating more of a focus on bottom up skills and detailed reading, how are you going to do it? Collocation awareness, referencing awareness, inferring meaning, etc., or just using text as a linguistic object to help you teach language?

    I don't have any answers myself, but for now will probably just continue to do gist tasks in moderation as a precursor to delving into the text, and not just leaving it as an aim in and of itself.

    1. Hi! Thanks for commenting.

      To be honest, I don't have any answers to "what we should be doing". Paran suggests a kind of matching activity but it doesn't look very attractive (as he himself says) while Grabe and Nation (and possibly waters?) go for practice in timed readings...i.e. trying to get sudents reading speeds up.

  3. Good, another meaty topic to chew over (is that rather a disgusting metaphor?!)
    Anyway, I agree that many students (though not all) will be able to transfer L1 skills to L2 reading, enabling them to read bus timetables etc. (The exception being students who aren't proficient readers in L1 either)
    I also agree that a lot of the tasks we do with students are more about helping them to pass exams than anything else, which is a ridiculous situation, but hard to know how it will change as exams want tasks which are easily assessable.
    For this reason alone, I think it is worth teaching students little strategies like reading the first line of each paragraph, as they will need to carry out tasks like identifying which paragraph has a particular piece of information.
    And, I'm all in favour of bottom up work, but think you do need to engage with the meaning of the text first,as Philip Kerr, says, comprehension qs can do this (though there are of course alternatives)
    I also think there is a difference between how we read in L1, which isn't word by word but in chunks, missing out bits that we can guess, and how most of us read in L2, which is much more likely to be word by word, and therefore much slower. Anything which encourages students not to do this, is likely to increase reading enjoyment.

    1. Hi Rachael!

      I'm always glad to get a reply from you...usually a nice bit of push back.
      REading the first line of a paragraph for something like IELTS practice may work, -I've taught this, so long as there is a reasonably good topic sentence. Sometimes it doesn't work though, does it?

      I'm really interested in what you wrote about L1 reading being different to L2 reading. It sounds like you're talking about the psycholinguistic model, are you? I would be curious to see any papers you have which talk about this. The ones I've read so far tend (Paran, Grabe) tend to suggest that this "isn't" how people read...

      If I've got the wrong end of the stick here, please let me know, but as far as I know reading in L1 'is' word by word, usually.

  4. Good post. I have to admit that I spend little time on skimming and scanning and much more time on very intensive decoding of texts, which is actually something we don't naturally do when we read either. It is necessary though, as we accomplish this decoding very quickly when reading in L1, but students do not, focusing merely on the vocabulary issues they have and missing out on much of what constructs a common text, be it all the way from newspapers to academic articles.

    I argue that skimming and scanning (scanning in particular), though perhaps not a new skill to be taught, are skills that should be practised in the classroom, because it forces students look for information they want quickly, something we most certainly do in academics. Besides, with the volume of required reading students must do in university classes, if they spend time reading every word and trying to get it all, it takes them hours to do so (as suggested by my students), so skimming to figure out what sections aren't so relevant can be useful.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I think it's your first, isn't it?

      I would question your suggestion that they need to be "taught". If we assume that students can already do these things in their L1 then why are we 'teaching' them? I think Swan asks something like "Do we assume students forget how to do these things?"

      At lower levels it may be the case that the sheer amount of unknown language makes it impossible for them to employ these skills, but then the problem is linguistic not skills-based isn't it?

    2. Did I suggest they are skills that need to be taught? I think I only suggested they be practised because they are things useful when encountering English-language university reading. Likely they haven't done so much of it in anything but their L1.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Maybe I need to clarify what I mean by "practised". It's not about building a lesson solely around skimming or scanning, it's incorporating instances of doing so within larger reading practice, like the intensive decoding of text I mentioned before.

      Btw, I think it may be my first. Pleasure! :)

    5. haha I realised I must have 'skimmed' over that part of your reply! how ironic. I completely misread it. That'll teach me to try to reply at work.

    6. You write:

      look for information they want quickly, something we most certainly do in academics. Besides, with the volume of required reading students must do in university classes, if they spend time reading every word and trying to get it all, it takes them hours to do so (as suggested by my students),

      But do you really think students will, after we're out the picture, do this? I would be interested in questioning post uni students as to whether they actually do this or not? My feeling is that they sit there with a dictionary painfully going through the text word by word.

    7. I'm sure there are dictionaries involved here and there, but given the amount that they need to read in 1st+ year, there's just not enough time in the day to accomplish it all with diligent attention to vocabulary.

      But again, like most skills we learn in school, it's not a daily application.It does come up, however, and we notice if we're good at recognising the transferability of skills.

    8. I'm with Tyson on this. How many students have you come across who've gone through a text word by word, covering it in meticulous translations, but then can't answer a basic "What did you think of it?" question? I find it's often down to the way they were taught English at school and it's a habit they've developed in L2 that they just wouldn't use in their L1.

      Like Tyson, for me a lot of my job is getting (EAP) students to increase their reading speed so that they'll cope better with their future reading load. If that means using labels like 'skimming' and 'scanning' in activities to get them to break old habits, then that's fine with me. Academics definitely skip around in their reading, starting with the conclusion first and working back through the less interesting sections of an article, for example. Giving students licence to skip the boring bits can be a light-bulb moment for some!

      I'm sure many students start off their courses with dictionary in hand working through line by line, but as they realize they'll never get through the reading list, you hope they'll remember what you did in class about how to use abstracts, key words and section headings and focus on the important stuff.

    9. Hi Julie and thanks for the comments.

      So we seem to all agree that skimming and scanning are not things that need to be taught so much. You guys feel that they do need to be practised though and that they are useful.

      I'm not so sure. I agree with Julie that they need to get their reading speeds up, but I'm not sure skimming would be a good way to do that. All the reseach I've read on this subect indicates reading speeds are related to ability and comprehension. They rad slowly because they don't understand the words and their English isn't good enough. This is definitely true with EAP because they 5.5 ish students we often get are wholly unable to deal with the texts they are supposed to be reading -hell, they're even hard for native speakers. Being economical about what they read is agood idea -a must, by skimming is something different. If you skim over something you're not reading it faster, you're just missing bits out. I'm not sure how wise that would be with an academic text....or even if students could be sure what they were missing wasn't crucial to the argument.

      Reading the abstract, key words section headings is all good advice as far as I'm concerned...not so sure about gist skimming.

      I agree with both of you though that our students need to prioritise what they read.

  5. Thanks for this post. I appreciate the insight that many students may already possess scanning/skimming skills from L1 reading experience, I hadn't thought of it in that way before.

    However as a teacher of international students bound for American universitites, I frequently encounter students who are in need of these skills in order to pass placement tests, gain admission, and then keep up with native speakers in graduate-level courework. While they may already know how to scan or skim in L1, they aren't yet able to do it in L2. So I will include opportunities to practice these skills in reading classes. Is this "teaching to the test"? Maybe...but I do believe strongly in giving students opportunity to practice and develop the skills that they need to do what they want to do with the language, not what I think they should do with it. If that happens to be passing a standardized test so they can get to a university I have no problem teaching skills to help them achieve that goal. Do I dream of a day when students aren't tested like this? Sure. But right now thats part of the reality, what students are bound to encounter when they leave my classroom and head into tests, univeristy classes, and beyond, and I want them to be ready for that.

    I probably should have rephrased my original tweet: its not that I read all texts by scanning and skimming. In the context of graduate level coursework in American universities, it is an essential skill. Most of my students, when practicing reading in L2, will pick at a text word by word, get caught up with unfamiliar vocabulary, become distracted from the meaning, and rarely finish the text. Most of them will have a really hard time at the university level unless they develop some strategic reading skills. Not that these are the only ones they need, but I do think they are important.
    I agree with you. I don't think that scanning and skimming are ultimate results to strive for in the classroom. However, I think that ignoring them would be a disservice to students who will inevitably need them in their academic careers.

    1. Thanks for replying Ava, and I hope you don't mind my using your picture in the tweet?

      I'm glad that this post has generated so much discussion. I always hope that teachers do things because they are effective and not just because that's what they learnt on their CELTA courses. A lot of the replies show that people have thought about this which is good.

      I agree with you that, for now, it may be useful to highlight these skills for readings tests, I just get concerned when teachers (and maybe this is just splitting hairs) say that they are going to "teach" these skills.

      I agree with you that for EAP scanning and skimming are important. There are a lot of dull texts to plough through and skipping over bits is often the only way to save your sanity. You're probably right that ignoring them isn't the way to go, but I just wanted to give the TEFL pendulum a shove in the other direction. I'm glad for the push back. I think it's an interesting debte.

    2. Very interesting ideas which have given me a lot to consider. Some points I agree with, yet other points I disagree with.

      "Teach" is most likely the wrong word, as a majority of students do possess skimming and scanning skills in their L1. "Practice" is a much better word choice, and it is something that I do in my lessons. Sometimes a single lesson will be devoted to skimming, scanning, and other reading strategies/skills. More often, though, students are implicitly directed towards skimming and scanning tasks. (For example, "Where does the article state...?" or "Can you find a statistic, idea, etc. that supports your reasoning?") And a majority of the time, students are given material to take home, read, and prepare to discuss for the next class, as this represents most real-life reading.

      I feel that many students do need to practice skimming and scanning in English to turn on the lightbulb, give confidence, and allow them to better function with their English skills, though. Too many students (in particular, Japanese students) want near-perfect comprehension of a reading passage, which isn't practical in many situations. As a result, they don't employ these skills to their language studies. I can't tell you the number of times I have been given a memo, email, report, or some other document in a meeting; expected to read through it quickly; pick up the salient points; and then participate in a discussion. I can't tell you the number of times business professionals have struggled with doing the same, and not because of language ability. It's important that students be able to do the same in their L2, especially in the less-forgiving professional world.

      Skimming and scanning have their place with other skills in the classroom then, such as prediction, finding main ideas, summarization, and discussion. Speaking (or writing) gets much improved when students can return to a relevant point in a text and incorporate it into their discussion (or essay) to support their opinion, agree, disagree, etc. Again, practice builds confidence and allows many students to more quickly and consistently apply these skills..

      As a final note, I have no doubt that students would eventually apply skimming and scanning skills to their L2 without a teacher's direction. But generating awareness and a good application of skills provides an effective jump start, shortcut, or whatever you might want to call it. My goal for each course is to have students acquire the ability to successfully navigate their world without my help.

      As a final, final note, I hope the above all makes sense. At the moment, I'm sardined on a train into Shinjuku!


    3. Thanks for the reply Chris,

      Greetings from Chilly Yamanashi!

      Yes, alot of people seem keen to give students chance to pracitce these skills. I can't see anything wrong with that per se, just I don't think the skills warrant as much attention as they perhaps get.

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  6. hi i'm korean students studying reading skills to get full marks in the english exam to enter the korean university. but the korean have not teached it as well. so i study it through a private tutoring. by the way i have hard time aply the skimming and scanning skills. So could you give me some tips of skimming and scanning

    ps.sorry... my english fluency is bad T^T but please answer me!

  7. Interestingly, if you watched Michael Hoey's plenary at Harrogate, he commented that based on his discourse research into priming effects in language processing, the reason students don't understand a text when they are presented with it, not because of the density of unfamiliar words, but the density of unfamiliar collocation and chunks.

    This would totally undermine the principles that justify using skimming and scanning with your students, if your lesson aims involve helping learners to understand a text.

    1. That's an interesting take on it. I've always thought chunks lead to ease of reading/listening. In my second language I can feel the end of the sentence coming before it does sometimes.

  8. Interestingly, if you watched Michael Hoey's plenary at Harrogate, he commented that based on his discourse research into priming effects in language processing, the reason students don't understand a text when they are presented with it, not because of the density of unfamiliar words, but the density of unfamiliar collocation and chunks.

    This would totally undermine the principles that justify using skimming and scanning with your students, if your lesson aims involve helping learners to understand a text.

  9. A thought-provoking post. Teaching skimming or scanning skills can be a needless attempt for an EFL teacher to teach. However, in reading materials with a design including these skills leads ss to read twice, obviously. Most of my ss don't feel comfortable reading just by running their eyes through the text without a dictionary. So skimming doesn't work for them. They just want to read closely by grasping every bit. When I instruct them first I just tell them to read without a dictionary, then in the second reading I allow them to read with their dictionaries. To me this two-time reading helps them get more from what they've read. It might be their raised awareness to the ideas in text and their raised concentration.

  10. I don't know if it's just mme or if eceryone epse encountering issues with your site.
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    1. Can you go into more detail? What are you using to view the site?

    2. While reading for gist is an appropriate way to provide students with some basic information on the text,skimming helps them to go into further deatail. Both methods are good for understanding texts.