Top Tips for IELTS

More about scanning in IELTS

The focus in this lesson is to give you some practice ideas for scanning in IELTS. It follows my earlier lesson on how to scan more effectively. The focus this time is on how to use scanning as a skill in IELTS and to avoid some common mistakes from scanning ineffectively. The central message is that you need to learn how to combine 3 different reading skills:

  1. the ability to skim a text quickly – to see how it is organised
  2. the ability to scan for information – to see where the answer comes
  3. the ability to read closely for meaning – to get the right answer

Scanning and looking for key words is certainly not enough if you want to score well.

Understanding scanning in IELTS

Why mistakes are made

Scanning tells you where to find the answer, not what the answer is

My guess is that if you got the answer wrong, you chose A. It does look tempting. I also suspect that you chose A because you were scanning ineffectively. The first step is to understand that scanning is a limited skill in IELTS: it tells you where you can find the answer, it does not tell you what the answer is. To find the answer, you need a separate skill.

To illustrate this, answer A is wrong because it is simple word matching. If you chose it, you saw the word “complex” and matched it to the question without looking at meaning.

How not to make the mistakes

After you have found the right paragraph, refer back to the question. Then read the text carefully

To understand this, let’s look at the question again. Scanning in IELTS certainly helps you see that the answer comes in the second paragraph because you find words such as ‘United States“research”, “complex” and ‘manufacture“. You must be in the right place. At this stage, you need to stop scanning for words and start reading sentences closely for meaning, all the time referring back to the question. Then you will see “simple process” and “would vary from region to region”.


What should you learn from this?

  1. you can scan the text for key words in the question, but before you answer you must read the whole question for meaning
  2. don’t stop when you have simply word matched one word, here “complex”
  3. scanning is just one step in the process: it tells you are in the right place, it doesn’t necessarily tell you what the answer is

An exercise that everyone should do

Look at the answers first – the open book exercise

This is an exercise everyone should try. For your next practice test, look at the answers first before you do the reading and then try and work out why they are correct without reading the whole passage. When you find the “answer” in the text, underline it.  This works in at least 3 ways:

  • it’s good scanning practice as you will be looking for known information in the text
  • you should see how the words you are scanning for are very often not the same words as in the question – this is almost certainly the best way of understanding how IELTS reading questions work
  • for many people it helps to learn how to get the answers right under no pressure. If you always practise under pressure, you may find your skills don’t improve

An excellent place to practice this is with the sample questions from the official website:

Look at the answers first, then figure out why they are correct. You should find yourself automatically scanning the texts.

Some exam practice activities

1. Learn to section the text

Which is easier to scan: 250 words or 1000 words? Naturally, it is easier to scan shorter texts. So the suggestion here is that before you scan:

  • you quickly read the whole text first (and I do mean quickly) to understand how it is structured
  • you make short notes or underline key words in the text so that you remember what you have read.
Don’t just scan. Skim the text first. You’ll save yourself time

This way when you get to scan the text, you know which part of the text to scan first and save valuable time. Some people don’t like this process as they think they are wasting time because they don’t need to understand the whole text. I strongly suggest though that you practise doing it. While you may use 2/3 minutes reading the text first this way, you are very likely to waste more than 2/3 minutes looking for information if you don’t do it.

2. Underline the words in the text that give the answer

This is a super important one for me. If you are scanning quickly under time pressure, it is very easy to match words from the question with similar/identical words in the text. What you need to do is take that extra 30 seconds to read the passage in the text carefully to make sure it matches the question. I find that the most practical way to do this is to underline the words in the text as that way you cannot ignore them.

3. Keep scanning until you are certain – have a marking code

The danger with scanning is that it is a “quick” form of reading. You see the word in the text, you match it to the question, you move on. And you probably made a mistake – perhaps because you were looking for one of those famous key words and not a synonym. What I suggest you do  is this:

  • if you find something in the text which may be answer you mark it  “?Qu4”
  • then you keep looking/scanning, there may be a better answer elsewhere
  • if you find a better answer, you compare it to the previous answer and if it is better you mark it “√Qu4”

Again, some people complain to me that this wastes too much time. My answer to that is nothing wastes as much time as getting the answer wrong.


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3 Responses to More about scanning in IELTS

  1. Claudio July 17, 2011 at 11:53 pm #

    I just want to say one thing. Is it REALLY HUMANLY POSSIBLE by just superficially skimming a text IN A VERY FEW MINUTES to get the correct answer among three other, very similar and ”cleverly” deceiving ones????

    Would, a native speaker of this language, be naturally capable to excel in this task???

    Thanks very much!!!


    • Dominic Cole July 18, 2011 at 12:10 am #

      Nope. That’s why you don’t skim to get the answers. You need to skim, scan and read closely for detail – all three skills are necessary. Skimming tells you how the text is organised, scanning tells you where particular answers might come and close reading of the text in relation to the question gets you the answer. You may come across advice to tell you to concentrate on key words – it doesn’t work. The core skill – the one that requires real language ability – is the skill to read closely. Most people forget that as they are looking for a quick fix solution.

      And no, native speakers will make mistakes here too – IELTS teachers included. For my money the reading paper is at the top level is unnaturally hard.

      • Anonymous July 26, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

        Thanks so much , the website is extremely useful… espesially the part which introduce effective skimming,I had so problem with keyword and how to find the answers in the limited time but as I practiced according to ur guidance I had it less difficult…Cheers. Bahar from Tehran

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