This is the second in my “reading skills” series, following up the piece on prediction. Like prediction, skimming and scanning are very attractive to teachers as they make the rather mysterious process of reading eminently teachable. Without “reading skills” teaching reading would resemble teaching the ‘Cinderella skill’, listening. But should we teaching skimming and scanning at all? I will argue ‘no’ for two reasons. Firstly, skimming and scanning don’t accurate reflect the way people usually read and secondly because most students already know how to do them.
Skimming and scanning are pretty popular in EFL, with hundreds of web pages offering lesson plans for skimming and scanning classes. St Martins University are keen on themas is the ‘teaching English’ website and Harmer includes lesson plans with these skills as targets. Textbooks like Oxford’s “Well read” and “Headway” include these activities and Grellet’s book, which as Paran notes is probably responsible for the popularity of these skills in the TEFL world, has a whole section on “from scanning to skimming”. Telling though Grabe doesn’t mentioned them once in his book on the reading in a foreign language, something which Kerr describes as “eloquent commentary” (2009:29).
Skimming and Scanning are so pervasive that a large number of teachers, (like the one pictured above and me, for the longest time) have managed to convince themselves that this is actually how people read. But it isn’t. At least, not usually. Usually we read one word at a time as you’re probably reading now.
Skimming and scanning are classed as “expeditious reading” (Nation 2009:70) skimming is reading quickly and for the general or “gist” meaning. Scanning is trying to identify specific information in a text. The classic example was always a “name in a phone book” until phone books went the way of tape cassettes and chalk. Nowadays “bus timetable” is the most likely example. Not only is this a reading skill that doesn’t need to be taught, it’s a basic human skill that doesn’t need to be taught. People who disagree should read “where’s Wally”.
Gist in laymen’s terms means a general understanding devoid of specifics as in “I wasn’t really paying attention but I got the gist of what he was saying”. But is this a teachable skill? Or even one that we should be teaching?
We may do reading activities like setting time limits for our students while reassuring them that they “only have to get the gist” but is this teaching them anything or merely expecting them to apply a skill we assume they already have. Is a teacher who says “skimming is just trying to get the general meaning” teaching or explaining a concept we expect students to already know? If it’s the former, we have failed as we haven’t ‘taught’ them how to do it; we’ve just explained what it is. If the latter, why do we assume they don’t know how to do this? After all plenty of monolingual EFL teachers seem to be able to manage skimming without prior instruction –hell they’re so good they can even teach it!
Secondly, what exactly is reading for gist? If it were possible for me to read faster than I do now then I would do it. But sadly I can’t (so the pile of unread books and papers grows ever larger, staring accusingly at me). If a person reads for gist then they are necessarily losing something. Otherwise they are just reading. If I read faster than normal, then I ignore parts of the text –I miss bits out. These bits may be important, they may not. I just take my chances.
Often with skimming students are told to read the first and last sentences of a paragraph; or the first sentence, or the first and second sentences. Sometimes they are told to “run their eyes over the text” whatever that means. This advice might work at times but other times it may not. Would it work with the paragraph directly before this one? I think it possible could for a test question like “what is this paragraph about” but probably not for understanding the text.
I have heard it argued that these techniques could be useful for EAP students looking through texts and trying to find useful ones in a hurry, or trying to locate relevant sections in a book, but students will almost certainly not be doing these things under timed conditions. They’ll probably while away many pointless hours in libraries reading the wrong books, -much like native speakers do. It’s also quite likely that once the “don’t use a dictionary –just get the gist” bullies are out of the picture and the students successfully make it onto their courses, they’ll probably sit there (sensibly in my opinion) with a text in one hand and a dictionary in the other slowly trying to make sense of whatever tortuously dull and impenetrable academic text they are unlucky enough to find themselves having to read.
In fact, and rather ironically, these skills seem to be most useful for doing English reading tests. That is we, the EFL community, design tests which require students to employ reading skills they probably already know and then ‘teach’ them these skills in order for them to pass the tests we wrote! Genius! Perhaps we should also invent writing upside tests and tests of underwater listening.
Don’t teach grandma to suck eggs
Skimming and scanning are at times, very useful; so useful in fact that every person who comes from a culture with a written language already knows how to do them. Arguably though they are more useful to teachers than to students as they give us something to teach. Thornbury notes:
Very quickly, skimming/scanning became an end in itself, and teachers were misled into thinking that, by having students skim or scan texts, they were developing the skill of reading. How often do you see this expressed as an aim in examined lessons: “To develop the sub-skill of skimming a text for its gist.”
In defence of Skimming and Scanning
There aren’t many defenders of skimming and scanning these days but one article written by Phillip Kerr could possibly be described as a “defence” but that wouldn’t really be accurate as Kerr lists criticism and then suggests that there might be some reasons why it might be OK to use them:
1. They aren’t very difficult and they don’t take much time and so they might motivate students to feel like they have achieved something.
2. Well-designed skimming and scanning activities can help students to decode and create meaning in a text.
3. The skills are short and though not perhaps helping students learn to read, may give them some impression about the text.
4. Good for tests
Number four has been already been discussed. Number two is the idea that these skills belong to the psycholinguistic model of reading, criticised by Paran and Grabe. sampling a text is not how most people read, most of the time.
But don’t feel sorry for these skills. Feel sorry instead for the poor students who are forced to do them, and the poor teachers filling up their DELTA lesson plans with skimming and scanning targets. Isn’t it time we stopped teaching students to do things they can already do?