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Why you don't need to skim and scan in the IELTS reading exam

Updated: Apr 28, 2022

Most IELTS teachers, including myself, have taught their students reading skills such as skimming and scanning in order to succeed in IELTS writing. While these are valuable skills to master, there is an alternative way to tackle IELTS reading: to read the texts at a normal speed, answering the questions as you go. In this post, I am going to share an experience I had with an IELTS student and demonstrate how powerful this technique can be.

First, let's clarify what skimming and scanning is:


When we skim, we read the complete text fairly quickly for its overall meaning. We are not concerned with the details, we simply want to get an overview. We might use this skill when we want to check whether something is worth reading; I often skim the beginnings of long news articles to see if they are interesting enough for me to devote more time to them

Scanning This is another form of fast reading but when we scan, we are looking for specific information and ignoring everything else. An example of this is when we are looking at a large departure board in a train station to find our train. If I am going to London, I do not care about trains to Edinburgh, Birmingham or Manchester; I am completely focused on finding the train to London.

It's worth pointing out that you probably use these skills perfectly in your first language. The difficulty lies in using them well in a foreign language and then being able to cope with using them in exam conditions.

Marco's story I once worked with a student called Marco who had many things against them when it came to IELTS reading. Marco had complex learning disabilities including dyslexia and ADHD as well as several mental health conditions. In their favour was the fact that they were already at C1 and had strong vocabulary skills. Because of their learning difficulties, IELTS reading was particularly challenging for Marco and he never got the band score he needed for his university application. Marco had been taught to skim and scan but these strategies simply did not help him as they were too distracting so one day, I decided to try something different. I had come across the idea of reading IELTS texts at a normal speed from IELTS Simon and so in Marco's next lesson, I brought a complete IELTS reading test with me and we sat down together to do it. I instructed Marco to just read each text at a regular speed and to answer the questions as he went along. Marco began to read and was able to locate the correct section the questions. Because of his strong vocabulary, he could identify the synonyms well and he found himself answering the questions far more easily than normal. Not having to do different reading strategies simplified the process for him and this gave him confidence in his abilities. Because IELTS questions generally match the organisation of the text, Marco was able to steadily work his way through the questions. The exception to this is the Matching questions. For some reason, Matching questions are often placed first but is in a way this laying a trap for the candidate.

Think about it: to answer a Matching question, you very often need to have read the complete text. For this reason, I advised Marco to leave any matching questions till he had answered everything else. To our surprise, Marco found that answering the Matching questions was comparatively simple if he did them last as he already understood the complete text. Thanks to this simple but powerful technique, Marco was able to increase his abilities to answer the IELTS reading paper. We were both delighted by this change in fortune and Marco went on to get his Band 7 for reading, gaining his place at a great university in England. Five tips on using this strategy in your IELTS preparation

  1. Increase your overall speed Although I have suggested you avoid skimming and scanning, you need to be able to read reasonably quickly to complete the three IELTS reading texts in one hour. If you know you are a slow reader, it will be worth your while spending time increasing your overall reading speed. Ways of doing this include:

    1. Chunking I strongly recommend learning vocabulary in chunks (groups of words acting together). Not only does this make sense when it comes to building your lexical awareness (key for IELTS success!), but reading chunks is far quicker than reading rather than single words. Always look for patterns and chunks to learn instead of individual words and aim to translate this over to your reading.

    2. Timed reading Do you know how fast you can currently read? If not, this can be useful information. Choose a reading source that is consistent in difficulty and word length (this blog would be a great resource!) and time yourself as you read it. Then, set a goal to read a similar text on a regular basis, aiming to slightly increase your speed each time.

  2. Improve your vocabulary Unknown words are a major problem for reading and can slow you down considerably. For this reason, it is vital that you are working on your vocabulary skills all the way through your IELTS preparation. So much of the IELTS reading exam is based on synonyms and paraphrases and a good vocabulary awareness makes finding these so much easier! Read this article for tips on creating a great vocabulary learning system.

  3. Practice! Practice makes perfect! IELTS candidates often base their preparation solely on IELTS tasks but this is not only boring but also very limiting. Ready anything and everything you can find - blogs, articles, books, how-tos, recipes...... The more you read, the easier it will become! Set yourself a goal of 10-15 minutes of reading for pleasure every day and you will find your reading skill improves dramatically in very little time.

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