Skimming is when you very quickly look though a text looking for a general understanding of what it is about, how it is structured and how it is written. You are not looking for specific information, just an overview. A common time you may have used skimming skills is when you deciding to buy a newspaper or magazine – you quickly look through to see if there is anything in there you may be interested in reading closely.
Scanning is when you are looking for a specific piece of information in a text. This could be a name, a place, a date or any specific detail. A common time for scanning would be looking through a telephone directory, looking for a specific name.
So what are good strategies to help you skim and scan faster?
1. Reading the title / looking at any illustrations
This is a GOOD strategy. Not all IELTS reading texts have titles, but if there is one it can often be a good indicator of what the text is about. The same is true for illustrations, which can often give you a good idea of what at least part of the text is about.
2. Reading every word
This is a BAD strategy. The IELTS test does not give you time to read every word of the complete text, and trying to do so will often mean you do not finish all three sections. The only time you should reading every word is when you think you have found the an answer and want to read the surrounding sentences carefully. Otherwise, you should either be skimming the text for a general understanding or scanning for something in particular.
3. Reading the first and last sentence of each paragraph
This is a BAD strategy. The IELTS test has developed to test your English level and skills, and shortcuts like this simply do not work anymore. You will miss vital information or even be led astray by sentences designed deliberately to mislead you.
4. Underlining/circling names as you skim
This is a GOOD strategy. People, places and other kinds of names can often give you a good guide for where information is in the text, and can help you come back to a specific point much faster.
5. Concentrating on difficult vocabulary
This is a BAD strategy. It is very common to get stuck on a word or phrase when you don’t know the meaning, but this is wasting precious time when you should be moving on. It’s possible that you may lose a point because of a word you didn’t know, but it’s better to answer easier questions first and if you have time, go back to that word at the end.
In conclusion, the most common advice is to skim for general meaning first, scan for the location of the correct answer and then use close reading to decide what the correct answer is.
There are over 10 different types of questions on the reading test and all of them require a different strategy. Doing them all in the same way will waste a lot of time and will probably result in you getting a lower score than you deserve.
Instead of skimming and scanning without thinking about the question, you should have a strategy in place for each of the different question types.