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How to learn a language
How to learn a language

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2.2 ‘Seeing a long text puts me off’

Learners often spend a long time reading a text, looking up words and structures, until they have fully understood it. Not all texts need to be read word for word and often you don’t need to understand every word to get the information you need from a text.

Sometimes all you need is to get the gist of what the text is about. For example, when reading a newspaper, you may only be interested in the headline to tell you what the text is about and decide whether the text is of interest to you. Or you may have been asked to provide the answers to some questions to be found in a text. In that case, skimming the text so you can identify key words from the questions will help you find the information in a text without needing to read or understand every word of it. Sub-headings within a text will also provide clues as to whether you need to read a particular section or not. If the text is in digital format, a search for relevant words will help you too.

If you are looking for a certain piece of information, you may not even have to read for gist, just scanning the text will suffice. We do this all the time in our first language. Just like you don’t read the whole of a train timetable but just look for the information for the particular train you need, you can do the same with a text in the target language.

So remember, just like in your own language, when reading in a foreign language you don’t have to read every word in a text. Skimming (or reading for gist) and scanning are two reading strategies we all use when reading in our first language, and they are equally useful when reading in your target language.

Activity 3 Skimming or scanning?

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

Do you skim or scan in the following situations?

Finding out the weather in your area from a newspaper weather report

a. 

scan


b. 

skim


The correct answer is a.

Look through a TV guide to see if there’s anything you fancy watching

a. 

scan


b. 

skim


The correct answer is b.

Finding out what a news article is about

a. 

scan


b. 

skim


The correct answer is b.

Finding out the price of an item in a catalogue

a. 

scan


b. 

skim


The correct answer is a.

Flick through a book to see if you fancy reading it

a. 

scan


b. 

skim


The correct answer is b.

Read the first couple of sentence of each paragraph of a long newspaper article to find out what it is about.

a. 

scan


b. 

skim


The correct answer is b.

Finding out the departure of your flight in the airport display board

a. 

scan


b. 

skim


The correct answer is a.

Discussion

Understanding the difference between when to skim and when to scan is very useful. Sometimes inexperienced language learners feel they need to read and understand every word in a text to make sense of it, and that is not the case, neither in your own language nor in a foreign one!