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Skimming and Scanning in TEFL

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Skimming, Scanning, Reading, Custard Pies…

Skimming and Scanning are two skills which are often talked about in TEFL when it comes to reading.

In fact, some teachers swear by them; every reading lesson (they maintain) should include practice with these skills because they feel their students will benefit enormously from knowing how to skim and scan effectively.

But what exactly are they? And do they do any good? Are those TEFL teachers who espouse them wasting their time?

This article looks at what these skills are and asks just how useful they are to a TEFL teacher and their students and it also asks if native speakers skim and scan. Is that lady in the picture skimming an article to find out what it’s about? Or scanning an article to find some specific information? Or looking at videos of cats?

Skimming or Reading for Gist

Skimming (or Reading for Gist as it’s sometimes known) is glancing as quickly as possible over a text looking for signposts or clues as to what the text is about.

In real life skimming is not used so much by most native speakers. We might pick up a book and skim through it deciding whether it’s the kind of book we want. We might glance at a row of brochures to see if there are any about a subject we’re interested in. When we pick up a newspaper we might glance over the front page to see if there’s anything worth reading. And that’s about it.

While normal reading is roughly 200-300 words per minute; skimming is 700+ words per minute and when you do it you’ll skip words, clauses or even entire sentences which your brain decides aren’t relevant.

Although native speakers aren’t usually taught skimming when they learn to read, some TEFL teachers will actively teach the “art” of skimming and get their students to read any headings in the text and then just the first and last sentence of each paragraph; some will even get students to use their forefinger to rapidly move over the page in a zig-zag pattern which their eyes follow, just picking up the words around it. (This last technique borrows from the skill of speed-reading of course).

But then again, most TEFL teachers probably don’t go this far and most TEFL teachers are probably right!

Scanning or Reading for Specifics

Scanning (or Reading for Specifics) on the other hand, is searching a text for very specific information: an answer to a question we have in mind.

In real life scanning is used much more often by native speakers. We look for specific information all over the place: the time of a performance; the quantity of flour in a recipe for bread; the address of a shop; the amount of tax Amazon don’t pay; the name of the first Lakers owner; the height of Queen Victoria…

Criticism & TEFL

If you read any TEFL book, chances are that they will tell you that skimming and scanning are skills which must be taught. They tend to do this because TEFL books are very conservative and often rely on ideas and practices years out of date. The argument goes that students will use these skills in exams and to help them understand texts, but is this true?

Certainly there is a special use for skimming in TEFL. You can, for example, give your class a text and simply give them 30 seconds to read it as fast as possible. Then you all put the text away and the class tells you what they saw: a name here, a place there, an idea here, an unusual word there. Together you can discuss all these clues and build up a rough idea on what the text is about and then, when you get the class to read it at a normal speed, you’ll see they will have used skimming to pre-teach themselves and get quicker and deeper understanding of the text.

But for sure this isn’t something that native speakers use skimming for!

Meanwhile, the argument against skimming and scanning goes that anyone who can read to any level of proficiency will have these skills anyway and so they don’t need to be taught. In fact, it you have never specifically taught skimming or scanning to your class you can try this out in your next class: ask them to perform a skimming or scanning task and they will almost certainly be able to do it well without specific instruction on how.

So should you teach them in class?

It’s probably not worth it. You can use them, certainly, when the situation arises (i.e. when those same skills would be used by a native speaker or for a bit of auto-pre-teaching) but as for actually having a lesson where you “teach” your class how to scan a text or how to skim a text… well this is probably redundant and you’d be better off letting them read for pleasure.

Useful Links

Reading‏‎ Skills in TEFL – a look at reading in general for your TEFL class.

Reading Comprehension‏‎ – all about understanding in reading.

Reading for Pleasure‏‎ – all about getting your class to enjoy extended reading for pleasure – just like native speakers do!

Skimming & Scanning – a blog by mallingual which looks at these two skills and tries to work out if they’re worth it.

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