Reading skills for academic study: Skimming for gist

Exercise 3

Read the first and last paragraphs in the following text.

Adaptive control of reading rate

One important factor in reading is the voluntary, adaptive control of reading rate, i.e. the ability to adjust the reading rate to the particular type of material being read.

Adaptive reading means changing reading speed throughout a text in response to both the difficulty of material and one's purpose in reading it. Learning how to monitor and adjust reading style is a skill that requires a great deal of practice.

Many people, even college students are unaware that they can learn to control their reading speed. However, this factor can be greatly improved with a couple of hundred hours of work, as opposed to the thousands of hours needed to significantly alter language comprehension. Many college reading skills programmes include a training procedure aimed at improving students' control of reading speed. However, a number of problems are involved in success-fully implementing such a programme. The first problem is to convince the students that they should adjust their reading rates. Many students regard skimming as a sin and read everything in a slow methodical manner. On the other hand some students believe that everything, including difficult mathematical texts, can be read at the rate appropriate for a light novel. There seems to be evidence that people read more slowly than necessary. A number of studies on college students have found that when the students are forced to read faster than their self-imposed rate, there is no loss in retention of information typically regarded as important.

The second problem involved in teaching adaptive reading lies in convincing the students of the need to be aware of their purposes in reading. The point of adjusting reading rates is to serve particular purposes. Students who are unaware of what they want to get out of a reading assignment will find it difficult to adjust their rates appropriately. They should know in advance what they want.

Once these problems of attitude are overcome, a reading skills course can concentrate on teaching the students the techniques for reading at different rates. Since most students have had little practice at rapid reading, most of the instruction focuses on how to read rapidly. Scanning is a rapid reading technique appropriate for searching out a piece of information embedded in a much larger text - for example a student might scan this passage for an evaluation of adaptive reading. A skilled scanner can process 10,000 or more words per minute. Obviously, at this rate scanners only pick up bits and pieces of information and skip whole paragraphs. It is easy for scanners to miss the target entirely, and they often have to rescan the text. Making quick decisions as to what should be ignored and what should be looked at takes practice. However, the benefits are enormous. I would not be able to function as an academic without this skill because I would not be able to keep up with all the information that is generated in my field.

Skimming is the processing of about 800-1500 words a minute - a rate at which identifying every word is probably impossible. Skimming is used for extracting the gist of the text. The skill is useful when the skimmer is deciding whether to read a text, or is previewing a text he wants to read, or is going over material that is already known.

Both scanning and skimming are aided by a knowledge of where the main points tend to be found in the text. A reader who knows where an author tends to put the main points can read selectively. Authors vary in their construction style, and one has to adjust to author differences, but some general rules usually apply. Section headings, first and last paragraphs in a section, first and last sentences in a paragraph, and highlighted material all tend to convey the main points.

Students in reading skills programmes often complain that rapid reading techniques require hard work and that they tend to regress towards less efficient reading habits after the end of the programme. Therefore, it should be emphasised that the adaptive control of the reading rate is hard work because it is a novel skill. Older reading habits seem easy because they have been practised for longer. As students become more practised in adjusting reading rate, they find it easier. I can report that after practising variable reading rates for more than ten years, I find it easier to read a text using an adjustable rate than to read at a slow methodical word by word rate. This is something of a problem for me because part of my professional duties is to edit papers that I would not normally process word by word. I find it very painful to have to read at this rate.

(Skills for effective study, by J. Monaghan, Longman, 1979, pp. 18-23.)

Notice how reading these sentences gives you a good idea about the meaning of the text. If you need more details, read the text again.