skimming and scanning in TOEFL

Anyone who plans to take the TOEFL, or other English tests like IELTS, should be aware of the importance of skimming and scanning. All of these exams contain reading passages that have varying lengths or levels of difficulty. They are accompanied by questions that relate to the passages, and finding the answers within the reading text is a challenge that can be overcome by using these two reading techniques. All of these English tests include time limits, too, which makes it even more important that you can read quickly in order to find and extract key information to answer the questions.

These sorts of test always seem difficult on first inspection because they contain lots of information and usually feature many hard words that you don’t understand. However, intelligent test takers know that you don’t need to read and understand every part of the passage. You only need to be able to find the necessary information to answer the questions. These types of candidate don’t panic when they encounter a couple of difficult words; rather, they skip over them and keep looking for the necessary answer.

Let’s take a closer look at these two vital reading skills and how they work together so you can find answers to the reading questions in the TOEFL test.

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We will discuss skimming first because it is likely to be the first thing that you do. Basically, skimming means reading quickly in order to find the main idea of an article, a passage, or even a paragraph. The verb “skim” means to lightly bounce over, like throwing a flat stone across a river. It should not go down into the water; instead, it glances across the top of it.

Skimming is what we do when we want to find the most basic information, which is sometimes called “the gist.” Perhaps you use this in your own native language when you check the news in the morning. You might see a newspaper article and rather than reading the whole thing in detail for ten minutes, you spend one minute finding out the main idea – who, what, where. This is how most people read the news.

When we apply skimming in a reading test like the one in TOEFL, we usually read the whole article very quickly. At the end, we know what the article was about, even though we don’t really know any of the facts. However, in addition to the gist, we now have an idea about where the main information is located within the article. For example, an article about deforestation may include two paragraphs about its effect on tigers, which we might remember is in the final quarter of the article. This can help us when we answer the questions.


Sometimes people confuse skimming and scanning because they both involve reading something quite quickly in order to find information. However, skimming is about finding the main idea of a text, while scanning is quite different. Scanning means looking for specific information.

We use scanning on our second approach of the text. Usually, this time we have picked a question and will attempt to answer it. Above, I gave the example of a passage about deforestation. Perhaps there is a question about the cause of deforestation. In this situation, I would look for synonyms of the word “cause” and then read the text again, focused on finding this part of the article. Hopefully, my scanning would have informed me of the general area, but now I have to find the specific sentence.

People use this sort of reading skill all the time in their native language. We use it for searching for information online or checking to find someone’s phone number or e-mail address. It is the best way of searching for information in a piece of written text. In TOEFL, we use it frequently to get the exact right information to answer a question.

One last difference between skimming and scanning is that skimming is a quick process that continues until the end of the reading passage, whereas scanning ends when we find what we are looking for. If you are searching for the word “cause” and you find it, you will soon have the answer to your question. You will read until you get that answer, then move on to the next question and scan the text again.

A step-by-step guide to skimming and scanning for TOEFL

When you sit down to do the TOEFL reading test, you will encounter some reading passages and some questions about those passages. The following is a recommended approach to answering those questions, involving both skimming and scanning.

Step 1

Read the title of the reading passage and any headlines or captions that appear within it. This will give you clues to what it is about and help your brain prepare for the reading that will follow.

Step 2

Skim the passage. As we discussed above, this means reading quickly in order to get the main idea of the article. Read from start to finish very fast, not worrying about any particular words. Focus on the start and end of the article and the first and last sentence of each paragraph. These contain the most pertinent information.

Step 3

Read the questions. Go through them one by one, thinking of synonyms for each of the important words within the sentence. Remember that you may not find exactly the same words within the text, so this is essential.

Step 4

For each question, you must now scan the passage. Keep in mind the main idea of the question and the synonyms that you have noted down. Read quickly until you find the part of the text that contains these words, and then when you find it, stop. You now have to finally read more carefully and slowly. Don’t read too much. Just read the part that you need to find the answer to the question.

Step 5

Repeat these steps for each of the questions. Once you have finished, you can check your answers again if you still have any available time left. If you have left any answers blank, you can review the text and take an educated guess at anything you were unable to specifically find.

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Practice makes perfect

The reading component of these English exams can be really troublesome because of the fact that they are timed. As such, it is important to get good at speed reading. You should do lots of reading in English each day so that you get good at assessing the main idea of a text. Over time, your reading speed will naturally increase. You will need to practice both skimming and scanning, and this will mean that when you sit the TOEFL for real, it will not seem so stressful due to the time constraint.

Reading doesn’t have to be boring. If there is something that really fascinates you, it is possible to use that as practice. For example, some people really love sports and so they read sports news websites every day. They read an article really fast and then ask themselves questions about what it was saying. They might even scan for names or numbers and then try to work out the meaning.

Most English textbooks these days contain reading passages that specifically check your abilities for skimming and scanning, as do many websites. You should make use of these during your practice sessions so that you are capable of doing it in the real test. Remember: practice makes perfect.

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