A cartoon tortoise with a rocket on its back denotes how different skills such as scanning can help you read faster in the IELTS exam.

How to read faster: Skimming, Scanning and Speed Reading in the IELTS exam

How to read faster: Skimming, Scanning and Speed Reading in the IELTS exam

If there was no time limit in the IELTS Reading exam, would you get more answers correct? ⏰ I imagine so. Because if there is one comment I read again and again its that students struggle to finish the 40 questions in 60 minutes. So, what is the key to reading more quickly? Is it scanning and skimming? Is it increasing your vocabulary? Or is it simply being able to process words more quickly in your brain? Well, that’s what we are going to be discussing in today’s blog.

Three Types of IELTS Reading 📚

1) Skimming

Skim reading is the fastest of the three types of reading. It’s the type of reading we do when we want to know only the most general idea of a text. When we skim, we quickly look at the title, headings, first sentences of paragraphs, or even photographs to gain an understanding of the main idea of the passage.

Real World 🌍: Think of reading a newspaper or a magazine 📰 – you quickly turn the pages, looking at the titles and headings to decide if you want to read the text further. Often it takes only a few seconds to decide if a page is interesting or not.

Actually, this is the main purpose of skimming – we skim to decide if a text deserves further attention. If we don’t think the title or headings match what we are looking for or if the article looks boring, we will stop reading and look somewhere else.

Unfortunately, in the IELTS exam, you can’t stop reading if you think the text looks boring!!!! So, what is the purpose of skimming in the IELTS exam? Well, it’s to help you quickly understand what the GENERAL TOPIC of a text is. If you open your exam paper and see the title of reading Passage 1 is

Australia’s Sporting Success 

(as it is in Cambridge IELTS 6, p.18) that might be enough information of your brain to understand:

OK, I am going to read about Australia and why they are a successful sporting nation.

You could then stop skimming and start answering the questions! However, if you opened the paper and saw this title (Cambridge IELTS 8, p.89):

Land of the Rising Sum 

Well, you might be confused as to what the main topic of the article is In this case, you might want to read the first line of the first paragraph to see if it helps you:

Japan has a significantly better record in terms to average mathematical attainment that England and Wales.

Now, you will hopefully think

OK, this is a text about why Japan creates good mathematicians. (The title is actually a pun on the phrase Land of the Rising SUN, which we often use to refer to Japan)

Of course, if you are still clueless about the main idea of the article, read the first line of the next paragraph, and the next one, and the next until you do. The point here is not to find the answers to specific questions, or even understand main idea, all you are doing is looking for the most basic idea of the WHOLE TEXT.

Also, some IELTS passages also include photos or pictures next to the text, don’t forget to look at those too. They are often there because the exam writers know that the text is complicated so some test-takers will need extra support, but even I always look at the photos first!

Now, is skimming necessary? Well, some IELTS books tell students to skim the WHOLE TEXT before they tackle the questions. Personally, I think that this is a waste of time. However, as we will see in this lesson, reading is personal – what works for me, might not work for you. If you find it better to quickly read the first line of all of the paragraphs – great do it! If you want to skim the whole text – great do it!

Only YOU can decide what is the best way to manage your time ⏰.

2) Scanning

Scanning is searching a text for A SPECIFIC PIECE OF INFORMATION 👀. Now, this is very different to skimming. Remember, we skim to find out what a text is about in general. When we scan, we KNOW that a text contains information that we need, we just need to locate it quickly.

Real World 🌍: Every time you Google, you practice scanning 👨‍💻. Imagine that you Google “My IELTS Classroom reading lessons”. Many search results for IELTS reading will appear, but you are looking for only ONE. So, you will quickly move your eyes through the results until you find the one you are looking for. This is scanning.

scanning CAN be a useful skill in the IELTS exam. However, as we will see in a moment, it is not a magic method to finding every type of answer 🧙‍♀️. But, let’s start by looking at scanning is useful. In order to be able to scan, it is essential that you have a KEYWORD 🗝to look for. Keywords are words that will be easy for you to find in a text. This means that the best keywords include:

  • names of people / businesses / organisations / jobs
countries / cities / places / languages
dates / numbers
  • a technical word (a word you don’t recognise so will probably be unique)

However, you can scan for any noun that you think will only be found in ONE place in the text. And, this is important. What makes a keyword a keyword is that it is UNIQUE i.e. it only appears once in the text in the section that you need to answer the question. 

Let me show you what I mean by looking at the T/F/NG questions from the Land of the Rising Sum text. What do you think the best words would be to scan for in these questions? Try to find the word that is most likely to be unique:

  1. There is a wider range of achievement amongst English pupils studying maths than amongst their Japanese counterparts.
  2. The percentage of Gross National Product spent on education generally reflects the level of attainment in mathematics.
  3. Private schools in Japan are more modern and spacious than state-run lower secondary schools.
  4. Teachers mark homework in Japanese schools

How did you get on? Did you choose “Japan” or “maths” as the keyword in any of the questions? I hope NOT! 💀 Usually, these would be great keywords, but because THE WHOLE of this text discusses Japanese students and mathematics, it would be impossible to scan for these words.

Remember, we need words that will ONLY be found in the part of the text that discusses the answer. Therefore, I would choose these keywords:

  1. There is a wider range of achievement amongst English pupils studying maths than amongst their Japanese counterparts.
  2. The percentage of Gross National Product spent on education generally reflects the level of attainment in mathematics.
  3. Private schools in Japan are more modern and spacious than state-run lower secondary schools.
  4. Teachers mark homework in Japanese schools

Notice that in some sentences I have chosen MORE THAN ONE keyword. This can be a good idea in many questions. Look for anything that will help you locate the place where you should read more carefully to find the answer. Plus, please remember that even when you CAN scan, this will NOT help you answer the question itself. It will only help you find WHERE to read.

In fact, in my class, I call keywords for scanning location words It is a mistake that these words will help you answer the question (which will we talk about tomorrow in A LOT more detail when we look at T/F/NG questions). And, this brings me to my …..

Be careful of scanning ✋

​Although scanning is a great academic skill, as I said before, too many teachers are telling students that they can use it to answer EVERY type of IELTS question – THIS IS NOT TRUE. As we have seen two previous blogs, you cannot scan to find the answers for Information Match Questions and Headings match Questions, because these test your ability to understand the FUNCTION of language or what the MAIN IDEA of a text is, and these can never be found in ONE word.

In general, you CAN SCAN when you need to find a specific word or piece of information, but you CAN’T SCAN when you need to understand the purpose or function of a text.

​This means that there are some questions in the IELTS exam that are QUICK 🚀 to answer (those we can scan for) and some that are SLOW 🐢to answer (those we CANNOT scan for). If you look at the 13 questions in an IELTS passage, you should notice that there is usually a MIX of these questions i.e. a headings match followed by T/F/NG, OR an Information Match followed by a diagram to complete.

This is because the SLOW question (which comes first) forces you to read MOST OF THE TEXT, and then the QUICK question (which usually comes second) asks you to go back and find specific details.

To help you understand which type of questions you can realistically answer using scanning and which you can’t, I’ve made this table that you can refer to when you practice:

Can Scan = QUICK 🚀Difficult to scan = MEDUIM Can't Scan = SLOW 🐢
T / F / NG QuestionsYes / No / NG QuestionsHeading Match Questions
Short Answer QuestionsMatching Sentence Endings QuestionsInformation Match Questions
Completion QuestionsMultiple Choice Questions
Box Matching Questions

3) ​Detailed Reading

​Our final type of reading is detailed reading. This is where you read every word of a passage slowly to UNDERSTAND MEANING.

Real World 🌍: When you read a novel or poetry, you usually read every word to maximise your enjoyment. Here, it is not the main ideas that are important, but the small details.

In the IELTS exam, we need to read in detail to locate the specific answers to questions. While scanning is moving quickly to find WHERE to read, detailed reading is slamming on the brakes and moving slowly to CHECK THE MEANING OF EVERY WORD. What you are checking for will depend on the type of question but, in general, you will probably be looking back and forth between the question and the passage to decide how to answer. In other words, you will probably need to read and understand EVERY WORD.

​Increasing your General Reading Speed

OK, so these are the THREE standard types of reading that are discussed in most IELTS books. However, what very few books mention is that your success in the exam will depend on how fast you are able to read IN GENERAL.

That’s right, after many years of teaching these three reading methods, I realised that when I was doing the IELTS reading test, most of the time I wasn’t using ANY of these methods. 😲 Yes, I definitely skimmed the titles before I read. Yes, for SOME quick questions I was scanning to find the parts of the text I should read. BUT, to find the answers for the majority of the questions, what I was actually doing was speed reading. Speed what? SPEED READING: 

Reading all of the text VERY QUICKLY to understand the GENERAL MEANING 🏎

Think of it of a hybrid between scanning and detailed reading. Yes, my eyes were moving quickly across the page, but I wasn’t simply looking for a key word, I was understanding the main ideas of the text as I went. Not the small details, but definitely the general arguments. Think semi-detailed reading at the speed of scanning! And, why was I doing this?

Well, it meant that I was able to read and understand all of the text, which made finding the answers so much easier. The problem with scanning is that you have huge black holes in the text. While sentences that are missing and, why they might not include the answer, the information in these black sections often contains context and explanation that helps you find the answer!

Plus, I didn’t just sit and read the text and then look at the answers! I was still using all of the specific techniques for each type of question, just without scanning! Again, I want to make it clear that I am NOT saying that you should read the whole text slowly, but rather the whole text quickly. WAIT! 🛑 I can already hear you saying

Shelly, it’s impossible! How can I read quickly and understand at the same time?!

Well, my answer is PRACTICE! Reading is like any physical skill – the more you practice, the better you become 🏋 You might think that your current read depends on your level of vocabulary. And, don’t get me wrong, it definitely does, but we are also limited by the speed of the voice in our heads. That’s right, did you know that most people read at the same speed that they speak. This is because our internal voice “speaks” the words for us.

However, our brain is actually able to process information MUCH faster than this. And, with practice it is possible to up your speed significantly, so what I want to encourage you to do is train your brain to process readings texts much faster.

 Let’s look at the facts:

  • The average adult reads in their native language at about 200 words per minute.
  • Most IELTS reading texts are around 800 words, so that means that a native speaker should be able to read each text in around 4 minutes (but let’s say 5 because the texts are academic and dense with information). That would give a native speaker 15 minutes to answer the 14 questions in each section, so about one minute each.
  • How fast do you think your reading speed is? If you can only read at 100 words per minute, then you will need 8 minutes to read each text and, therefore, only have 12 minutes to answer the questions (so around 45 seconds each). Even if you use scanning and skimming to save a couple of minutes, that’s not much time to process complex questions.

So, what can you do if you are a slow reader to increase your speed? Well, you can spend 5 or 10 minutes each day working with a speed reading App like Spreeder. (I have not been paid by Spreeder and there are other similar products on the market, but Spreeder is free and easy to use, which is why I am recommending it)

​If you copy and paste ANY text into Spreeder, it will show it to you one word at a time at the speed you choose. It’s really fun trying to read this way. You don’t move your eyes, so the information just appears in a stream. I can read comfortably at 400 w/p/m (which means that IELTS passages take me only 2 minutes to read!). How fast is comfortable for you?

Start at a comfortable pace (maybe 150 words per minute) and train for 5 or 10 minutes each day. Try to increase the speed by 10 w/p/m a day.

You can change the word speed by clicking on settings and adding your desired speed

Exam Skills

Reading speed is like any physical skill – the more you practice the better you will become. Last month I could read I 100 words per minute in Russian, but now I can read 140. I’m aiming for 200 by the end of next month!

Now, obviously in the exam, you won’t be able to copy and paste the reading texts into Spreeder, but you can still use a secret weapon. In fact, not just one, but TEN –

👆👆👆👆👆YOUR FINGERS👆👆👆👆👆

​Seriously, putting your finger onto the paper and running along at a fast pace is a proven way to read more quickly. As I said before, most of us read at the speed we speak (which is SLOW), but by adding a finger and moving it across the page at a faster speed, we can FORCE the voice inside our heads to move faster! The trick is to move you finger slightly more quickly than the voice in your head. Why don’t you try this today – I know that it might feel a bit strange at first, but it really DOES work – I tested it today to make sure it did, and I was shocked at how much faster I was able to read.

Remember, our goal is to be able to read a complete IELTS passage in 4 minutes.

Now, before we finish I want to make it clear that reading is a personal skill. You may love scanning and find it works for you. If so, great, keep going. But, if you have been trying to achieve 30 points or more for a long time with no success, why don’t you try speed reading the text when you look for answers, rather than scanning. Who knows, it might help. And either way, EVERYBODY can benefit from boosting their speed reading level 💥

So, what have we learned in this post? Well, skimming and scanning are great academic reading skills, but they will only help you to answer​ SOME questions more quickly. Therefore, I recommend that you also try to improve your overall reading speed by using an app like Spreader. Plus, reading faster will help you answer EVERY question more quickly (and help in the listening exam too when you have to answer those pesky MCQ’s. Good luck! 🚀

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