Many IELTS reading texts are really tough and the questions can be tricky, but time is the real problem for many candidates. How can you read and process 3 texts of 800-900 words in 60 minutes? One answer is skimming, another is scanning.
Done well scanning can save you time, done badly it may be a waste of time. Scanning skills do need a little learning – there is a definite art to it.
What is scanning?
Scanning is the skill of looking for individual words in the text without reading the text for meaning. This is an important point and is worth emphasising: when you skim a text you are trying to understand what the text is generally about, but when you scan it you are simply looking for words not meanings.
Why does it matter?
To show you why scanning skills matter, take a look at this extract that I have borrowed from Wikipedia on the life of Dickens. It is really quite similar to an IELTS passage. The question you need to answer is:
How many performances did Dickens give on his reading tour of the United Kingdom?
It’s a fairly simple question and your task is to get it right in 30 seconds. Give it a go. Time yourself.
How were your scanning skills?
The answer is of course “eighty seven” and I hope you got it. But how long did it take you? If it took much over 30 seconds, you are probably not scanning correctly. Here are two reasons why: you did the logical thing and started reading at the beginning and left to right.
1. Don’t read from left to right
If you start reading from left to right you are going to scan very slowly. In fact, what happens is that you start to skim the text and read it for meaning rather than just scanning for individual words. This happens because your brain wants to process the information coming to it.
If you’re an Arabic language speaker, here you have an advantage!. You should be used to reading right to left.
2. Don’t start at the beginning
It is of course logical to start reading from the beginning. Or is it? Actually no. This is because the word you are looking for could be anywhere in the text and there is no reason to start at the beginning: you’re not reading the text for meaning, you’re looking for a word. In the example here the word is right at the end – the very worst place to start was at the beginning.
How to scan
You will need to practise this yourself to see what works for you, but the skill of scanning includes:
- the skill of reading right to left and up and down: that way your brain can’t slow you down by trying to understand the text
- the skill of starting in the middle: you are more likely to find word quickly that way.
In this next diagram, you’ll see the arrows (and your eyes) do not all go in the same direction. Some go right to left and some left to right.
In the next one the eyes start in the middle and move out in all directions. This is the logical place to start reading if you want to find your information quickly.