By the end of this lesson, you will be able to:

  1. Say what skimming is.
  2. Explain the principles of skimming.
  3. Use the principles of skimming on a given passage. 
  4. state clearly  the advantages  of skimming.

What is Skimming?

Skimming is a reading technique used to gather facts. Whenever you have a passage from which you want to gather facts, you apply the technique of skimming.  Skimming is done at a very high speed; faster than normal reading.  It helps you to read more in less time.  When you skim, you look only for the general or main ideas. This works best with non-fiction (or factual) material such as text books, news stories or events reported in newspapers and magazines.

With skimming, you do not read everything.  You read only what is important to your purpose. This is because during skimming you pass your eyes quickly over the words to get a basic understanding of the specifics or main ideas of the passage.

Skimming takes place while reading and allows you to look for details in addition to the main ideas.

When is this Technique of Skimming Used?

  1. People often skim when they have lots of material to read in a limited amount of time.
  2. You may use skimming when you want to see if a particular page of your textbook is essential to some research assignment given you by your teacher in any subject.
  3. The technique of skimming helps you to find dates, names, and places required from passages. It might be used to review graphs, tables, and charts.
  4. Skimming helps you to decide if a text is interesting and whether you should read it in more detail.

The Practice of Skimming 

What do you read when you are skimming?

I suggest the following strategy when skimming a passage:

  1. First, read the title, subtitles, subheadings, and illustrations; look out for relationships among them.
  2. Next, read the first and last paragraphs using headings, summaries and other organizers as you move down the page.
  3. Consider reading the first sentence of each paragraph. This technique is useful when you are seeking specific information rather than reading for comprehension.  This is because the main ideas of most paragraphs appear in the initial sentence which is often referred to as the topic sentence. However, in other passages where the style of the author is to use a question or anecdote, the last sentence of the paragraph might be more useful.
  4. Now search the text and look out for clue words that answer, Who? What? When? How? Or Why?
  5. Look out for unusual words, especially if capitalized.
  6. Look out for proper nouns.
  7. Take note of enumerations.  Take note of qualifying adjectives – e.g. best, worst, most, etc.
  8. Take note of typographical clues such as asterisks, underlining, italics, boldface, etc.
  9. Whatever approach you use, bear in mind that the purpose of skimming is to get a ‘rough idea’ of what the text is about. Having identified particularly relevant passages, you can later return to these in order to fully understand them.

When Do You Skim?

 Because skimming is done at a fast speed with less-than-normal comprehension, you should not skim all the time. There are many times, however, when skimming is very useful.

Suppose you are taking a presentation skills class and have to deliver an oral report in a few days about the first computers ever made. You locate six books and four newspaper articles about this topic. Because you must be ready soon, you do not have time to read each word, but you need a large quantity of solid information.

Skimming will help you locate the information quickly while making sure you use your time wisely.  It will also increase the amount of usable material you obtain for your research.

 Suppose you have an exam in a few days. You need to review the material you learned, but you do not want to reread everything.  By skimming, you can quickly locate the information you have not mastered yet and study only that material.

 While reading, ask yourself the following questions to help you decide whether or not to skim. If you answer yes to any of these, then skimming is a useful tool.

  1. Is this material non-fiction?
  2. Do I have a lot to read and only a small amount of time?
  3. Do I already know something about this?
  4. Can any of the material be skipped?

 Now, let us see how we can apply the principles above. Take a few minutes to skim through the passage below:

That night he collected his most valuable belongings into head-loads. His wives wept bitterly and their children wept with them without knowing why. Obierika and half a dozen other friends came to help and to console him. They each made nine or ten trips carrying Okonkwo’s yams to store in Obierika’s barn. And before the cock crowed, Okonkwo and his family were fleeing to his motherland.  It was a little village called Mbanta.As soon as the day broke, a large crowd of men from Ezuedu’s quarter stormed Okonkwo’s compound, dressed in garbs of war. They set fire to his houses, demolished his red walls, killed his animals and destroyed his barn. It was the justice of the earth goddess, and they were merely her messengers.

Now, see whether you were able to grasp the gist of the passage by responding to the following questions:

Let us find out if you understood the passage. Consider the following questions:

  1. What is the passage about?
  2. Who are the main characters mentioned?  List them.
  3. At what time did the crowd invade Okonkwo’s residence?
  4. What does the passage describe as ‘the justice of the earth’?
  5. What other description does the passage give to the crowd that invaded Okonkwo’s house? 

Now let us take a few minutes to skim through another passage below, this time a bit longer:

The Personal Qualities of A Teacher

 Here I want to try to give you an answer to the question: What personal qualities are desirable in a teacher? Probably no two people would draw up exactly similar lists, but I think the following would be generally accepted.

 First, the teacher’s personality should be pleasantly lively and attractive.  This does not rule out people who are physically plain, or even ugly, because many such have great personal charm. But it does rule out such types as the over-excitable,  melancholy,  frigid, sarcastic, cynical,  frustrated,  and over-bearing  : I would say too, that it excludes all of dull or purely negative  personality.  I still stick to what I said in my earlier book: that school children probably ‘suffer more from bores than from brutes’.

Secondly, it is not merely desirable but essential for a teacher to have a genuine capacity for sympathy – in the literal meaning of that word; a capacity to tune in to the minds and feelings of other people, especially, since most teachers are school teachers, to the minds and feelings of children.  Closely related with this is the capacity to be tolerant – not, indeed, of what is wrong, but of the frailty and immaturity of human nature which induce people, and again especially children, to make mistakes.

Thirdly, I hold it essential for a teacher to be both intellectually and morally honest. This does not mean being a plaster saint. It means that he will be aware of his intellectual strengths, and limitations, and will have thought about and decided upon the moral principles by which his life shall be guided. There is no contradiction in my going on to say that a teacher should be a bit of an actor. That is part of the technique of teaching, which demands that every now and then a teacher should be able to put on an act – to enliven a lesson, correct a fault, or award praise. Children, especially young children, live in a world that is rather larger than life.

 A teacher must remain mentally alert. He will not get into the profession if he is of low intelligence, but it is all too easy, even for people of above-average intelligence, to stagnate intellectually – and that means to deteriorate intellectually.  A teacher must be quick to adapt himself to any situation, however improbable and able to improvise, if necessary at less than a moment’s notice. (Here I should stress that I use ‘he’ and ‘his’ throughout the book simply as a matter of convention and convenience.)

On the other hand, a teacher must be capable of infinite patience. This, I may say, is largely a matter of self-discipline and self-training; we are none of us born like that. He must be pretty resilient; teaching makes great demands on nervous energy.  And he should be able to take in his stride the innumerable petty irritations any adult dealing with children has to endure.

Finally, I think a teacher should have the kind of mind which always wants to go on learning.  Teaching is a job at which one will never be perfect; there is always something more to learn about it. There are three principal objects of study: the subject, or subjects, which the teacher is teaching; the methods by which they can best be taught to the particular  pupils in the classes he is teaching;  and – by far the most important  – the children,  young people, or adults to whom they are to be taught.  The two cardinal principles of British education today are that education is education of the whole person, and that it is best acquired through full and active co-operation between two persons, the teacher and the learner. (Adapted from Teaching as a Career, by H. C. Dent, Batsford, 1961 – website:http://www.uefap.com/reading/exercise/skim/qualteac.htm)

Notice how reading these sentences gives you a good idea about the meaning of the text: Now see if you can make a list of your discovery  of six qualities  of a teacher the passage discusses:

  1. ……………………………………………………………………………..
  2.  ……………………………………………………………………………..
  3. ……………………………………………………………………………..
  4. ……………………………………………………………………………..
  5.  ……………………………………………………………………………..
  6.  ……………………………………………………………………………..


It is not difficult to find the answers to the above exercise on skimming.  This is because the topic sentences in the passage have the clues. In this case you would not need to read the whole passage. You must therefore be aware of how to identify the Topic Sentence in a passage. Remember that topic sentences contain the main ideas in any paragraph. Most often the added sentences in a paragraph are elaborations, illustrations and explanations of what the topic sentences have already stated. Examine these suggested answers.

Did you arrive at any different answers?

  1. The teacher must have a lively  and attractive  personality
  2. The teacher must be able to sympathize  with the children  he teaches
  3. The teacher must be intellectually  and morally  honest
  4. The teacher must be very tolerant or have the capacity to exercise extreme patience
  5. The teacher must be a continuous  learner        

Questions You Can Ask While Reading 

While reading it is helpful to ask yourself the following questions to help you decide whether or not to skim. If you answer yes to any of these, then skimming is a useful tool:

  1. Is this material non-fiction?
  2. Do I have a lot to read and only a small amount of time?
  3. Do I already know something about this subject?
  4. Can any of the material be skipped?  

If you have sufficient background knowledge or believe you do not need the information, then skip it. This may sometimes be the best use of your time. If you pick and choose carefully what you skim and skip, you will be surprised at the large amount of information you can get through in a short period of time.

The Benefits of Skimming

Skimming is useful in many ways:

  1.  During a Pre-reading activity, skimming is more thorough than simple previewing and can give a more accurate picture of text to be read later
  2. In reviewing, skimming is useful for reviewing text already read.
  3. In reading, skimming is most often used for quickly reading material that for any number of reasons does not need more attention.
  4. It provides a base to study structure, vocabulary and idioms.
  5. It provides a base for students to develop a greater control of language.
  6. It provides for a check on the degree of comprehension  for individual students

Disadvantages of Skimming

  1. There is little actual practice of reading because of the small amount of text.
  2. In a class with multi-reading abilities, students may not be able to read at their own level because everyone in the class is reading the same material.
  3. The text may or may not interest the reader because it was chosen by the teacher.
  4. There is little chance to learn language patterns due to the small amount of text.
  5. Because exercises and assessment usually follow intensive reading, students may come to associate reading with testing and not pleasure.

By now you would have realized that the fact that speed is developed and time is saved through skimming cannot be over-emphasized.  Developing speed in reading is very helpful.  In fact, becoming a better reader involves getting faster and more efficient at reading.  Reading involves how your eyes make sense of the shapes of the letters, and then put those letters together to form a sentence that you can understand.

The truth is that reading is quite a complex skill.  It may interest you to know that scientists now believe that each of your eyes lock onto a different letter at the same time, usually two letters apart. Your brain then fuses these images together to form a word. This happens almost instantaneously, as we zip through several pages of text.

Advantages of Speed Reading

Many people read at an average rate of 250 words per minute.  This means that an average page in a book or document would take you 1-2 minutes to read. However, if you are able to double your rate to 500 words per minute, you can read through the whole material in half the time.  The rest of your time could be spent on other tasks or for relaxation. 

Another important advantage of speed reading is that you can better comprehend the overall structure of an argument.  This leads to an understanding which can greatly benefit your work.

Although speed reading is a useful and valuable skill, there might be times when using this technique is not appropriate. For instance, it is often best to read important and challenging documents slowly, so that you can fully understand each detail.

Keys to Speed Reading Success

Knowing the “how” of speed reading is only the first step. You have to practice it to get good at it. Here are some tips that will help you break poor reading habits and master the speed reading skills discussed above.

  1. Practice is a must – you have to use your skills on a regular basis. It took you several years to learn to read, and it will take time to improve your reading skills.
  2. Choose easy material to start with – when you begin speed reading, do not use a difficult textbook. Read something like a novel or travel writing, which you can understand and enjoy with a quick reading.
  3. Speed read appropriately – not everything you read lends itself to speed reading. Legal documents,  the draft annual report, or even the letter you receive from a loved one in the mail are things  that are better read in their entirety,  with sub-vocalizations, among others.
  4. If you need to understand the message completely, memorize the information, discuss it in detail, analyze it thoroughly, or simply enjoy the prose the way the author intended, then speed reading is the wrong approach.
  5. The material’s  structure  – this includes  skimming  information  to get a feel for the organization  and layout of the text, looking  for bolded words and headings,  and looking  for the ways in which  the author transitions  from one topic to the next.
  6. When you start speed reading, it is wise to benchmark your current reading speed.

How Do You Break Poor Reading Habits?

Becoming a better reader means overcoming these bad habits, so that you can clear the way for new, effective ways of reading.

Let us now examine some of the most common bad reading habits, and discuss what you can do to overcome them.

  • Sub-Vocalization

Sub-vocalization is the habit of pronouncing each word in your head as you read it. Most people do this to some extent or another.

When you sub-vocalize, you “hear” the word being spoken in your mind.  This takes much more time than is necessary, because you can understand a word more quickly than you can say it.

Eliminating sub-vocalization alone can greatly increase your reading speed. Otherwise, you are limited to reading at the same pace as talking, which is about 250-350 words per minute. The only way to break through this barrier is to stop saying the words in your head as you read.

  • Reading Word-by-Word

 Not only is it slow to read word-by-word, but when you concentrate on separate words, you often miss the overall concept of what is being said. People who read each word as a distinct unit can understand less than those who read faster by “chunking” words together in blocks.

Practice expanding the number of words that you read at a time.  You may also find that you can increase the number of words you read in a single fixation by holding the text a little further from your eyes. The more words you can read in each block, the faster you will read!

  • Inefficient Eye Motion

Slow readers tend to focus on each word, and work their way across each line.  The eye can actually span about 1.5 inches at a time, which, for an average page, encompasses four or five words. Related to this is the fact that most readers do not use their peripheral vision to see words at the ends of each line.

To overcome this, “soften” your gaze when you read – by relaxing your face and expanding your gaze, you will begin to see blocks of words instead of seeing each word as distinct unit. As you get good at this, your eyes will skip faster and faster across the page.

When you get close to the end of the line, let your peripheral vision take over to see the last set of words. This way you can quickly scan across and down to the next line.

  • Regression

Regression is the unnecessary re-reading of material.

Sometimes people get into the habit of skipping back to words they have just read, while, other times, they may jump back a few sentences, just to make sure that they read something right.  When you regress like this, you lose the flow and structure of the text, and your overall understanding of the subject can decrease.

 Be very conscious of regression, and do not allow yourself to re-read material unless you absolutely have to.

  • Poor Concentration

If you have tried to read while the TV or radio is on, you will know how hard it is to concentrate on one word, let alone on many sentences strung together.  Reading has to be done in an environment where external distractions are kept to a minimum.

To improve your concentration, stop multitasking while reading, and remove any distractions.  This is particularly important, because when you use the techniques of chunking blocks of words together and ceasing to sub-vocalize, you may find that you read several pages before you realize you have not understood something properly.

Beware of “internal distractions” as well.  If you are rethinking the consequences of a heated discussion, or if you are wondering how to finance an urgent impending project, this will also limit your ability to process information.

Sub-vocalization actually forces your brain to attend to what you are reading, and that is why people often say that they can read and watch TV at the same time. To become an efficient reader, you need to avoid this.

  •  Approaching  Reading Linearly

We are taught to read across and down, taking in every word, sentence, paragraph and page in sequence. When you do this, you pay the same attention to supplementary material as you do to core information.

Overcome this by scanning the page for headings, and by looking for bullet points and things in bold. There is no rule saying that you have to read a document in the order that the author intended, so scan it quickly, and decide what is necessary and what is not. Skim over the unnecessary parts, and pay attention to only the key material.

As you read, look for the little extras that authors add to make their writing interesting and engaging.  Similarly, decide what you need to re-read as well.  It is far better to read one critical paragraph twice than it is to read another eight paragraphs elaborating on that same concept.


In short, skimming allows you to read through all the information quickly and remember a small summary or ‘get the gist’ of the writing.

·         Skimming is a technique  of reading

·         It helps the reader gather facts.

·         Reading is done very fast when skimming.

·         Skimming helps you to read a lot within a short time.



William Foli Garr, (Rev.) M.Phil.

Peer Reviewers 

Prosper Kwesi Agordjor, M.Phil. 

John Tetteh Agor, Ph.D.

Modestus Fosu, Ph.D.