Skimming as a Speed Reading Technique

Speed reading is a good way to absorb a lot of printed information quickly, but sometimes you just need to get the gist of what is being written about, without all the details. That's when knowing how to skim text can be helpful.

When you skim a page, you take the main ideas from the reading material without reading all the words. You look for and seize upon words that appear to give the main meaning. Readers skim when time is short or when they need to understand the general ideas but not the particulars of an article or book. Skimming occurs at three to four times the normal reading speed. For that reason, your reading comprehension takes a nose dive when you skim.

Studies show that people read and comprehend text on a computer screen more slowly than they read and comprehend printed material. Readers can’t skim as efficiently on their computer screens either. When you read or skim a Web page on your computer, do so more slowly than usual if you want to read and skim efficiently.

Skimming is taking the most important information from the page without reading all the words. (The term comes from the act of skimming milk, when the dairy farmer skims the cream — the richest material — from the top of the milk before it’s processed.) Strictly speaking, skimming isn’t a reading technique but rather a scavenging technique. You hunt for the choicest information and hope important material doesn’t pass you by.

When you speed read, you skim to the extent that you don’t fixate on all the words. In effect, you weed out some words and focus on the remaining ones. However, skimming takes the notion of passing by some words to another level. In the act of skimming, you focus only on the essential ideas and skip over the insignificant, marginal, and secondary.

The first step in recognizing the essential ideas when you skim is knowing when to skim. Some materials and situations practically require skimming:

  • Needlessly lengthy white papers and convoluted business reports are almost impossible not to skim.

  • Newspapers, with their ready-made word clumps, are designed for skimming.

  • If you’re on a time crunch, you often have to skim because you don’t have enough time to read the material.

Often, a work’s opening paragraphs and the concluding paragraphs present the author’s main ideas. Opening paragraphs often outline what the author plans to prove, and closing paragraphs explain why the author’s proof is justified. Read these paragraphs closely; don’t skim them.

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