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In academic contexts you will have much to read, and you will need to use various reading skills to help you read more quickly. Scanning a text is another example of such a skill (skimming and surveying a text are two others). This page explains what scanning is and how to scan a text.

What is scanning?

Scanning a text means looking through it quickly to find specific information. Scanning is commonly used in everyday life, for example when looking up a word in a dictionary or finding your friend's name in the contacts directory of your phone. Scanning and another quick reading skill, skimming, are often confused, though they are quite different. While skimming is concerned with finding general information, namely the main ideas, scanning involves looking for specific information.

How to scan a text

Before you start scanning for information, you should try to understand how the text is arranged. This will help you to locate the information more quickly. For example, when scanning for a word in a dictionary or a friend's name in your contact list, you already know that the information is arranged alphabetically. This means you can go more quickly to the part you want, without having to look through everything. For this reason, skimming can be a useful skill to use in combination with scanning, to give you a general idea of the text structure. Section headings, if there are any, can be especially useful.

When scanning, you will be looking for key words or phrases. These will be especially easy to find if they are names, because they will begin with a capital letter, or numbers/dates. Once you have decided on the area of text to scan, you should run your eyes down the page, in a zigzag pattern, to take in as much of the text as possible. This approach makes scanning seem much more random than other speed reading skills such as skimming and surveying. It is also a good idea to use your finger as you move down (or back up) the page, to focus your attention and keep track of where you are.

Searching vs. Scanning

Sometimes you may be looking for an idea rather than scanning for an actual word or phrase. In this case, you will be searching rather than scanning. Skimming the text first to help understand organisation is especially important when searching for an idea. It is also useful to guess or predict the kind of answer you will find, or some of the language associated with it. In this way, you still have words or phrases you can use to scan the text. As such, searching is part skimming, part scanning. For example, if you are reading a text on skin cancer and want to find the causes, you would skim the text to understand the structure, which might be a problem-solution structure; you might already know that exposure to sunlight is one of the causes so you might scan for 'sunlight' or 'sun', and because you are looking for causes you might scan for transition words such as 'because' or 'cause' or 'reason'.


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Below is a checklist for scanning a text. Use it to check your understanding.

Area OK? Notes/comment
I understand what scanning is.
I know how to scan.
I know the difference between scanning and searching.


McGovern, D., Matthews, M. and Mackay, S.E. (1994) Reading. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Slaght, J. and Harben, P. (2009) Reading. Reading: Garnet Publishing Ltd.

Wallace, M.J. (2004) Study Skills in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Next section

Find out about another speed reading skill, surveying a text, in the next section.

Previous section

Go back to the previous section about skimming.


Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 03 February 2022.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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