Be a Selective Reader, Not a Speed-Reader

You are probably going to have many more reading assignments than you can possibly read. For many students, the solution is to take a course, or buy a book, on speed-reading. Speed-reading, though, is perhaps the most passive form of reading there is. Most speed-reading methods encourage you to flip pages as fast as possible by reading only small sections of the text, such as the middle column on the page. The advocates of these methods claim that you do, in fact, comprehend everything you read this way, and that as long as your eye sees words on the page, you can “read” them.

The problem with this method is that you don’t have the opportunity to think about what your eye sees. And if you don’t think about the material, you are not going to absorb it. That means it can be all too easily forgotten. You probably won’t be able to use the assigned reading material to answer questions on an exam.

How to Skim a Text

Rather than not read a text at all, you may decide to skim it. Skimming a text doesn’t mean you just read it at a slightly faster pace than usual. It is really a form of selective reading.

The best way to skim a text is to do the following:

  • Read introductions, conclusions, and summary paragraphs. You should read the introduction and conclusion of each text in their entireties, as these paragraphs usually outline the most important points covered in the text. You might also look for “summary paragraphs.” These are paragraphs within the text that summarize smaller sections of the text rather than the whole thing. If a text is divided into topics and subtopics, each with its own heading, these sections might have their own introductions and conclusions. As you skim, be on the lookout for terms such as, “in conclusion,” “to sum up,” and “therefore,” that indicate the author is summarizing various points.

  • Read first and last lines of paragraphs. If you go through a text and read just the first and last line of each paragraph, you will actually get an adequate concept of what the text covers. The first line of many paragraphs will introduce the topic covered, while the last line will often summarize the contents of the paragraph or serve as a transition to the next paragraph. As you read first and last sentences, you might come across a line that indicates a paragraph is particularly important or intriguing. If that happens, go ahead and read the entire paragraph.

  • Look at illustrations. Just as first and last sentences of paragraphs often sum up key points, pictures, charts, and diagrams usually correspond to key information conveyed in the text. Look over all of these and read the captions that explain them.

  • Read all words and phrases that are set in boldface or italics. If the term is unfamiliar to you and seems significant, read the entire sentence as well.

However, don’t fool yourself into thinking skimming is a thorough reading. Skimming is just that: lightly going over an assignment and gaining a general overview. It’s what to do if you’re in a pinch and should not be your overall strategy.

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