Top Tips for IELTS

Scanning skills in IELTS

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.


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22 Responses to Scanning skills in IELTS

  1. Ali Darweesh January 10, 2010 at 11:02 am #

    Wonderful. Never thought I would be able to explain it to my students this way. Thanks a lot.

  2. Reshad January 31, 2010 at 8:49 pm #

    Thank you very well. My problem was scanning from left to write now I realised it thank you very much. Now I will practice on scanning beginning in the middle. but i have a question? what about? from top to bottom ? pls answer

  3. Pinkesh April 2, 2010 at 4:40 am #

    i am very thankful to getting this article, one of my problem regarding to how to scan whole paragraph . now i will try to scaninng from middle.
    but will u give briefly explaination on scaninng from middle.

  4. julia September 26, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    Nice Work.

  5. TIAN FATMA January 17, 2011 at 6:37 am #

    Wow this is what I want for my thesis.Thank you very much

  6. AK June 14, 2011 at 8:21 pm #

    Very usefull lesson, thank you sir for your effort.hope for you all the best =) .

  7. Azi July 7, 2011 at 10:00 am #

    Thanks a lot for sharing your great works! Invaluable exercises and materials! All the best

  8. sheesha July 12, 2011 at 5:09 pm #

    Did not realise that it was to be done this way

  9. rajendra August 13, 2011 at 7:39 am #

    i had never tried before in that way, surely i will do better in exam.

  10. Annie November 9, 2011 at 8:06 pm #

    I have learned a lot. Great job. Thanks a million.

  11. Soha September 17, 2012 at 9:22 pm #

    Hi, I read more information and guidelines about scanning techniques but I need more explanation, especially about how to scan from the middle. Do I have to search for a key word or how can I perform efficient scanning from the middle. If anyone can help ?

    • Dominic Cole February 22, 2013 at 11:13 pm #

      Good question I shall add more materials to help

  12. Kayla September 26, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

    Such a specific job! I have learned new in reading strategy from you today. Thanks.

  13. Dominic Cole April 2, 2013 at 4:12 am #


  14. mani January 29, 2014 at 6:45 pm #

    nice article,,, hopw it solves my problem too… will give it a try

  15. erEN October 11, 2014 at 1:12 pm #

    Thank you so much. Great advises

  16. Reem October 11, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

    thanks ,I think that these information so useful

  17. Anonymous October 31, 2014 at 11:20 am #

    This skill is explained extensively in a book named Speed reading skills by Tony Buzane.
    I strongly recommand this book to IELTS test takers.It Will Help a lot

  18. Jay July 30, 2015 at 11:27 pm #

    Excellent! – But then, is IELTS really testing “comprehension” capabilities?

  19. Anonymous December 20, 2015 at 1:32 am #

    Great! you are god of reading.

  20. Anonymous February 11, 2016 at 12:28 pm #

    one hell of a idea sir! thanks. I would give it a try

  21. Anonymous July 23, 2016 at 1:08 pm #

    thank you so much

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