What’s the first thing you do when you open an IELTS reading paper? Do you go straight to the questions, read them through, underline key words, and think of possible synonyms and paraphrasing that you might see in the text? Or do you read the first thing you see, which is (usually) text 1? I’ve taught IELTS for several years, and been an IELTS invigilator for a few, and seldom have I seen students and candidates do the latter. On the rare occasions a student or candidate does read the text first, it quickly becomes clear when watching them that they are generally reading the text intensively, trying to take in every word and sentence.
Ask any IELTS teacher, or consult any IELTS study book, and they’ll tell students that what they should do when they open the cover of the reading booklet is to read the first thing that appears – most often text 1 – and read it by skimming. Read the title and subtitle. Read paragraph headings, if there are any. Read the first and last sentence of each paragraph, and make a note of the main idea by the side of each. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve practised this strategy in class, only to have students panic and revert to the actions mentioned above when in test mode. “I don’t want to waste time skimming! I need to answer the questions quickly,” they’ll say, or “I have to understand the whole text before I can answer the questions, right?”
So why do teachers and books bang on about skimming the reading texts first? Simple – it really is more efficient, and really can save you time. The average IELTS reading text contains between eight and ten paragraphs. If the answer to the question you’re on is in paragraph nine, that’s a lot of text to read in not a lot of time. Instead of reading through every paragraph to find the answer, you can just glance at your notes and pinpoint the section you need to read. The time you save by not reading through multiple times to find the sections you need more than covers the time you’ve spent skimming and making a map of the text, which could end up making all the difference to your band score. How? Well, if you struggle to finish all the questions and resort to guessing the last few answers, that extra time could mean an extra couple of accurate answers, and so an extra couple of points, and so could bump you up an extra half band. And if you do manage to answer the questions in time, well the extra few minutes can be used to double check answers and pick up on any potential mistakes, therefore increasing your point, and potentially your band, score.
But what about the need to understand the whole text? In general English classes, reading the whole text is encouraged. Most comprehension questions and reading activities require students to have read and digested the text. Is this not the same for IELTS? Think about reading in your own language. When you’re reading an article online, or in a magazine, do you read it intensively straight away – or do you skim through it first to get the gist, then read more carefully if you’re interested? Most likely, you do the latter – and this is the approach that’s best suited to IELTS reading. You don’t need to take in the whole text in order to successfully answer the questions.
“Ah, but,” you may be thinking, “sometimes there’s a global understanding task. Surely I must read and understand the whole text to answer that correctly?” Well… no. In addition to using the heading and subheadings, and your notes on the text, you really only need to read the concluding paragraph(s) in detail to complete that task.
Now, there’s another reason why it’s a good idea to practise your skim-reading skills for IELTS. Chances are that if you’re taking the test, you’re likely planning on studying or working in an English-speaking country. Once you’ve skimmed your way to IELTS success, those skills can be transferred to your work or studies. Need to research your thesis and there are twenty chapters and articles that might be useful? Skim them to weed out the irrelevant! Got fifty emails at work to sift through and only ten minutes to do it in? Skim them and prioritise! I could go on (but I won’t). Skim-reading – it’s not just for IELTS!
In short, if you want to maximise your reading efficiency for IELTS, and life in general, then develop those skimming skills. You’ll be glad you did!