5.1 Article - Scan reading and reading in detail

What is scanning?

The following definition of scan reading is taken from the Cambridge Learner Dictionary:

to quickly read a piece of writing to find a particular piece of information:I scanned the travel brochures looking for a cheap holiday.

Let's imagine you are only looking for holidays which are under £1000.  When you look at the travel brochure you will only stop and read more if you see a price below that amount. You are scanning for a price below £1000. 

You might also scan a telephone directory to find the number of a company whose name you know, or a TV guide to find out when your favourite programme is on.  Note that in the case of the latter, looking for your favourite TV programme, you probably know what approximate time of the day it is on and what channel it is on.  This information helps you to focus your search on one particular area of the text.

Imagine I want to check if my favourite programme, Midsomer Murders is on television tonight.  I know that when it is on TV, it is always on in the evenings. So I know that when I scan I will be looking at the section of the TV guide which contains the evening schedule:


Now I can scan the TV programmes from the top left of the area highlighted, moving across and then down until I find the programme I am looking for:

Tv guide 2

Similarly, if you skim an IELTS reading passage before you look at the questions, you will be able to focus your search for information on particular areas of the reading passage. Note that now I have located the programme, I may read in more detail the information about the episode provided to see if it is one I have seen before, if if it sounds like an interesting episode.

Scanning in the IELTS reading test

In the IELTS test, scanning is also used to locate specific pieces of information fro the question rubric.  These may include:

  • dates
  • numbers
  • names of people, companies, countries, etc
  • phrases or other key words
  • synonyms of key words

You may need to use scanning in many different types of IELTS questions, including multiple choice, true/false/not given and summary completion. Here is an example of a multiple choice question from a reading passage about the English language that requires you to scan for a number:

Choose one answer from A-D for each question.

11) According to the article, how many native speakers of English are there?

A) 750 Million
B) 375 Million
C) 150 Million
D) 350 Million

Reading in detail

After scanning for a number you should read the area of text carefully to ensure you choose the correct answer.  There may be distractors. Consider the section of text which contains the answer to this question:

English is well established as a global language. It is the most widely spoken language across the world. There are about 375 million people who speak English as their mother tongue, and 750 million people who speak it as a second language. A great amount of communication in English therefore takes place between non-native speakers.

There are two numbers here so we need to read the sentence carefully, or in detail, to check the answer.  If we underline the key words in the question before answering them, it can help us to identify the answer.

11) According to the article, how many native speakers of English are there?

Here a knowledge of synonyms or paraphrase (explaining the same meaning or concept using different words) helps. We can match key words in the question to synonyms or a paraphrase in the reading passage:

native speakers = people who speak (a language) as their mother tongue.

It is clear from reading this in detail that the answer is B) 375 million.

In this case, the information we need comes after the number. However, be aware that sometimes the information can come before the word, number or phrase that you are scanning for.

Last modified: Monday, 20 May 2019, 6:35 AM