Shedding light on skimming

By Tatsiana Khudayerka

The ability to read fast and comprehend texts in English is an important part of linguistic competence. However, the ability to read texts fast in L1 does not automatically transfer to L2 and various strategies and techniques of speed reading should be taught explicitly.

Among known forms of speed reading skimming, or gist reading, defined by Grellet as ‘going through the reading material quickly in order to get the gist of it to know how it is organised or to get a main idea of the tone or the intention of the writer’ (Grellet 1981:19), appears to be the most complex skill as it requires an overall understanding of the text and definite reading competence.

Teachers who want to help their learners read faster and cope with long texts should know how to deal with the following components of skimming in their lessons.


According to Grellet (1981), a purpose is an incentive to read. In real life people read because they have a purpose to read, e.g. for pleasure or information, and expectations of what they are going to read, i.e. they read what is interesting and useful.

Skimming is used to quickly identify the main ideas of a text and it is done at a speed three to four times faster than normal reading. People often skim when they have lots of material to read in a limited amount of time and because they want to ‘get the general picture’ without being too concerned with the details. In the classroom the purpose of skimming is often to verify or reject the prediction made at the pre-reading stage.


From a psycholinguistic perspective on reading, prediction is a core of reading and involves constant guesses that are later rejected or confirmed (Grellet 1981:17). In the classroom we prepare our learners for reading by activating their schemata – the background knowledge (general world knowledge, sociocultural, topic, and genre knowledge) about the topic that can help them understand the text. Schema theory emphasises the pre-existing knowledge and describes the process by which readers combine their own associated knowledge about the topic with the information in a text to comprehend that text (Nuttall 2005:13). Grellet calls this strategy anticipation. She sees it as ‘a psychological sensitizing aimed at making the students think about the subject of the text and ask themselves some questions’ (Grellet 1981:18) to make them aware of what they know, do not know and wish to know about the topic.

Grellet distinguishes prediction from previewing (Grellet 1981:17), which begins before we start reading and is based on various clues that we get when we look at the text and its features. To predict the content of the text we can use its non-linear elements, e.g. its title, subtitles, subheadings, illustrations, layout, tables, graphs, etc.

Content words and eye movement

Gist reading is about getting the ideas of the text by skimming it rapidly and ignoring the grammatical words. When we skim a text, we focus on the content rather than grammatical words that provide structure rather than meaning. For example, consider the following:


Good readers read in groups of words and can identify phrases and develop the skill of ‘chunking’ stretches, or sense groups, of text in this way (Hedge 2008:212). Each chunk is taken in with one fix of the eye (Nuttall 2005:55). Words with higher frequency, i.e. words which are very common, are typically processed more quickly and accurately than words with lower frequency (White et al). Also, a good reader can tolerate incomprehensible vocabulary and understand the gist of the text without it (Ur 2008:148).

Several studies have shown that the reading eye fixates on most content words (especially nouns and verbs) in a rapid series of stops and jumps called fixations and saccades. When fixated, the eye rests for about .25 seconds (250 milliseconds) on a content word and takes in a span of about seven to nine letters to the right of the fixation and three to four letters to the left before it jumps over to the next fixation point (Moats and Tolman 2009).

Another important characteristic of eye movement is that about 10-15% of the time readers move their eyes (regress) back to previously read material in the text.

Saccade size and fixation duration correlate with text difficulty: as the text becomes more difficult, saccade size decreases, fixation and regressions increase. How long the eyes remain in place is influenced by several factors: frequency, meaning, familiarity and predictability of the fixated words; semantic relations between the word and prior words (Moats 2009).


The average reader can read 150 to 250 words per minute. This can be increased given the proper practice and training that our eyes need. Speed increases if the text is dense — when the minimum number of words expresses the maximum amount of information (Nuttall 2005:56). Moreover, learners will cope with the task faster, if the text is comprehensible and interesting. According to Nation (2008), to develop reading fluency, the material needs to be a) well within the learners’ level of proficiency, b) there must be some pressure to go faster than normal, e.g. a time limit.

Other factors that can hinder a reading process include poor vision, small print, lack of interest and purpose, subvocalizing (pronouncing the words while reading), finger-pointing and regressive eye movement (returning to prior parts of a text), etc. (Nuttal 2005).

In the classroom

As a teacher, I have found the following activities particularly useful:

  1. In order to help learners grasp a better overall understanding of the material they have read a teacher selects a 3–5 paragraph text that has an important main idea and using an OHP displays the first paragraph of the text. The students read the paragraph fast and write a 20-word summary in their own words. When they have finished, they write a 20-word class summary. Their individual summaries will aid them in this process. Then the teacher reveals the next paragraph of the text and students generate a summary of 20 words that encompasses the first two paragraphs. The teacher continues this procedure paragraph by paragraph, until the students have produced a 20-word summary for the entire reading.

  2. This activity provides learners with practice in skimming and understanding the main idea of the text. Learners gain confidence in reading for gist by dealing with paragraphs step by step. Writing 20-word summaries help them delete trivial information, select key ideas, and express how they have understood the main idea of the text in their own words. By reading fast students are forced to discard unnecessary and unimportant information so that they may focus on what is significant for them to understand and remember.

  3. To help learners get rid of poor reading habits a teacher projects a text on the board and asks students to read it from the slide within a time limit. There are several advantages: the projected text holds readers’ attention and enhances concentration, it is impossible for students to use finger-pointing, and a teacher has complete control over the readers’ speed.

  4. Highlighting the content words by making them bigger or using bold works well to consolidate learners’ understanding of how their eyes and brain work when they skim a text. A teacher sets a gist task and time limit. The learners read the text as fast as they can and focus on the content words. It helps them notice that they can understand the main idea of the text if they focus only on the content words. By fixating only on them, learners reduce their reading time and increase reading speed. Alternatively, the teacher uses the same procedure, but the grammar/unknown words are deleted from the script. This should help consolidate the features and provide extra practice and challenge of understanding the gist of the text (Nuttall 2005:65).

  5. In order to encourage students to use non-linear elements of the text (title, pictures) and their prior knowledge to predict its content, a teacher provides the students with several prediction tasks. First, they discuss the title of the text and what it might be about and tick possible ideas, which they might find in the text. Then the teacher reveals the pictures and the students might reconsider or narrow down the options they have chosen. Then with the help of the teacher they agree on the final subject and discuss its various aspects. The activity employs the variety of non-linear text elements and provides thorough guidelines before the learners start reading the text. The teacher helps them expand their knowledge of the topic by providing a variety of pre-reading tasks. Before they read the text, they have a clear picture of the topic and the possible content of the text.

To conclude, I strongly believe that using these simple activities regularly will help your students become faster and more confident readers.


Grellet, F. (1981). Developing reading skills. Cambridge: CUP.

Hedge, T. (2008). Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. Oxford: OUP.

Moats, L. & Tolman, C. (2009). Excerpted from Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS): The Challenge of Learning to Read (Module 1). Boston: Sopris West.

Nation I.S.P. (2008) Teaching ESL/EFL Reading and Writing. NY: Routledge.

Nuttall, C. (2005). Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language. Oxford: MacMillan.

Silbesrtein, S. (1994). Techniques and Resources in Teaching Reading. Oxford: OUP.

White, S. et al. Eye Movements During Reading and Topic Scanning: Effects of Word Frequency. School of Psychology, University of Leicester

Ur, P. (2009) A Course in Language Teaching. Cambridge: CUP.

Author's bio: Tatsiana Khudayerka has been an English teacher at IH Minsk since 2007. Her academic background includes an MA in Education from Belarusian State Pedagogical University, and the Cambridge Delta (2016). She has taught a variety of levels and courses. Her professional interests include motivating students and helping them become autonomous learners, teaching Business English and CPD.