Train ESL students to speed read – Reading quickly vs. Skimming

When I observe teachers delivering reading lessons, they often hand out a page of dense text to their students, set a gist task, and set a time limit of anywhere between 30 seconds to two minutes. For a scanning task, time limits are often too generous, allowing students to read every word of the text which defeats the purpose of scanning. And yet, invariably, students let out a collective groan when the teacher sets a time limit. “Teacher, need more time!” is the most common response. And the teacher says, “Read the text quickly!” 

Here’s what I’m thinking sitting at the back of the classroom:

  1. Do students know how to read quickly?
  2. Can they read the assigned 200 words in 30 seconds?
  3. Do they know they don’t have to read every word of the text for the given task?
  4. Has the teacher taught them skimming, scanning and speed reading in previous lessons?
  5. Have students been taught scanning skills, in case these haven’t been transferred from their L1?
  6. When reading for detail, are they aware of strategies to deal with unknown vocabulary?

In all probability, the answers to the questions above is the same – NO.

So what is it that you can do to teach skimming skills and speed reading? Here are some techniques I use:

Reading vs.skimming

Firstly, most students are bewildered by the instruction “Read quickly”. Really, what the teacher wants them to do is skim the text but in the absence of having been taught the skill of skimming and how it differs from reading (which is sequentially, one word after another), they proceed to read word-by-word anyway, usually getting to the middle or end of the first paragraph when the teacher declares their time is up. This means they still haven’t looked at the text in a global sense, they don’t know how it’s organized, they don’t know how it flows, and they don’t know anything about the text apart from what they managed to read and digest (often, there is a schism between word recognition and comprehension levels) in the allotted time.

Teach your students to skim read by teaching them to identify keywords. Keywords are content words – for beginners and low-level elementary students, I simply use the term: ‘big words’, or at higher levels: ‘nouns, verbs, adjectives, question words’. Display a passage on the board and elicit the ‘big words’ from them, highlighting as students call these out. Select a small number of keywords (there is no magic number – depends on the size of your text and complexity of sentences) to highlight per line, to demonstrate that students need only to focus on a few words per paragraph in order to skim read it.

Next time, I’ll talk about raising learners’ awareness of eye movement to develop faster reading skills.

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