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3 How quickly should you read?

3.1 Skimming

Did you read the Layard article quickly enough, or perhaps too quickly? Reading speed is a persistent worry when you study. There always seems to be much more to read than you have time for, so you feel a tremendous pressure to read faster. But then, if you go too fast, you don't learn much. So what is the ‘right’ speed? The answer is – it depends on what you are trying to achieve.

It's surprising how much you can pick up if you push on quickly through a few pages.

Box 5 Skimming first sentences

You can get a rough idea of what a piece is about by skimming quickly through the first sentence or so of every paragraph, looking for key words. Doing this for the first nine paragraphs of the Layard article, I came up with:

society richer – people not happier

happiness – enjoying life

rich people happier

depression risen

evidence from different countries

why – income norm rising

two things drive up norm

habituation – adjust to good and bad

keeping up with Joneses.

This gives me a sense of what this section of text is about, but it doesn't convey what Layard's arguments are. It certainly doesn't save me the job of reading the article, however skimming in this way is useful in:

  • helping me to decide whether to read the article ‘properly’;

  • putting me in a frame of mind able to understand the article;

  • reminding me afterwards of what the article was about.

There will be many times in your studies when you need to look through texts quickly, scanning through lots of pages to get the gist of the issues, or to find specific information. It is very useful when you pick a book off a shelf, for example, to be able to review it quickly so that you can decide whether or not to read it. You just skim through the contents list, glance at details about the author, look for familiar names in the reference list, scan the preface and dip into a chapter or two.

Similarly, when you are about to start reading an article or a book, you can prepare your mind by skimming through chapter headings, contents lists, introductions, summaries and conclusions. This helps you construct a framework within which to make sense of what you read. It also helps you think strategically about how to tackle the reading: whether to read the whole thing or just sections, how long to allow yourself, and whether to take notes. Rather than simply wading in you prepare yourself so that you can work intelligently on the text.

It is important to be clear however that this rapid scanning of texts is not reading. Skimming can tell you about a text, but you will not learn what is in it.


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