Scanning – searching a text for specific information (such as names and dates).
Scanning is an often overlooked but effective reading technique that should be explicitly taught to students of all ages. Reading a challenging, long and unfamiliar text can be daunting even for the most avid and confident readers. However, novice teachers tend to jump straight in and have students read with very little preparation. This mistake can cause a series of issues including behavioural problems such as task-avoidance. In addition, language development, reading strategies and metacognitive skills can be stunted. Finally, student attitude and confidence with reading is likely to plummet due to frustration, embarrassment, and repeated failures.
Experienced teachers spend more time on pre-reading activities such as predicting, using graphic organisers, questioning, discussions, using cues, scanning and skimming.
To overcome these negative effects, experienced teachers spend more time on pre-reading activities such as predicting, using graphic organisers, questioning, discussions, using cues, scanning and skimming. These activities help students to successfully approach and comprehend unfamiliar texts; they build confidence and encourage reading for either pleasure, study or work.
Scanning is when a student quickly looks over the text in a very short period of time (such as 2 or 3 seconds per page). A passage that takes 3 minutes to read might take a few seconds to scan. Students can scan the text to find cues, images, key words and other important information that stands out. They tend to not read the main contents other than the first sentence in a chapter, section or article, or parts of a sentence (such as the captions on graphs and images).
Information gleaned from scanning forms the foundation on which the text can be read in full. When students subsequently read the passage word-for-word, they are already familiar with the text: they know what to expect and roughly how long it will take to read. After scanning, the passage seems more accessible, less daunting, less complex and less challenging.
When students read (for comprehension, language development or topical knowledge), texts are approached and studied in layers. Each layer represents a deeper understanding of the text.
When students read (for comprehension, language development or topical knowledge), texts are approached and studied in layers. Each layer represents a deeper understanding of the text. Scanning is the first layer to be peeled away. Skimming and active reading are the second and third layers respectively. This layering approach provides students with gradual exposure to the complexity and details of the text. Skipping the first layer or 2 means that students will potentially be overwhelmed with an unmanageable amount of detail and complexity. If this happens, comprehension naturally suffers as a result. By skipping straight to the active-reading layer, students are cognitively overloaded as they scramble to figure out what the text is about and to distinguish between important and irrelevant details.
However, the layered approach allows students to gain an understanding of what the text is about before reading it word-for-word. Subsequently, they can direct their attention to search for specific information or other cognitive tasks such as remembering key points (see the cognitive load theory that was outlined earlier in the book).
Hint: scanning is an effective pre-reading activity that improves with practice and explicit instruction – particularly think-alouds and modelling. Students should be provided with regular opportunities and reminders to practise pre-reading techniques.
Scanning doesn’t take up much time: a few minutes at the most. For example, teachers can hold up a book and ask questions such as ‘what do we notice?’ or ‘what is this book going to be about?’. Students can then quickly look through the book – a few seconds per page – skipping some pages altogether. Teachers should then ask questions such as ‘did anything stand out’ or ‘is this book similar to other books that we have read, and if so, how?’. As you can see, there are many different methods and variations of this strategy. Ultimately however, as with many strategies, the goal is for students to eventually include scanning in their toolbox of reading, learning and metacognitive skills that they can take with them wherever they go.
Skimming – reading a text quickly in order to gain a limited understanding (for example, by reading several words in the middle of each line).
Unlike scanning (which involves a quick glance at the page), skimming requires students to read part of the text – usually the middle of each line. A common technique for skimming is to slide your finger from the top to the bottom of the page while reading 2 or 3 words on each line. This should take around 5-10 seconds per page depending on text type, the student’s experience with skimming and the level of understanding required. The speed at which each page is skimmed can be adjusted as needed. Inexperienced students may take 20 seconds per page whereas experienced students may skim a whole chapter in a minute or 2. When skimming multiple pages (such as textbook chapters), important sentences can be read in full and other sections skipped altogether. One technique is to read the first and final sentence of each page or section (or the first paragraph and final paragraph of a chapter) while stopping occasionally to read a sentence here and there. For students already familiar with a topic, headings, images and dot point lists can provide ample information.
Once students have skimmed through a passage, they can update their predictions and/or graphic organisers. A short class discussion may also be useful at this point. As skimming involves skipping most of the words on a page, students will not know everything after the first pass; it will allow them to answer some questions and it will also generate new ones. For example, students skimming a history book may learn why WWI started but not how it ended. These questions become the drivers of the active-reading process which follows. Skimming prepares students for the word-for-word active-reading phase (which is otherwise quite difficult). It uncovers a deeper layer of the text and is a useful life skill in its own right.
Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.
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