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Surveying The big picture

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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. Surveying a text is another example of such a skill (skimming and scanning are two others). This page explains what surveying is and what parts of the text are needed.

What is surveying?

The literal meaning of survey is to take a broad look at something, such as a piece of land, to see what the main features are or how valuable it is. Surveying a text is similar in meaning to this. It is a broad look at a text, focusing on the general aspects rather than details, with the main purpose being to decide on the value of the text, to determine whether it is worth reading more closely. If it is, then you can proceed to read in an appropriate way, such as skimming for the main points or taking notes. If it is not valuable, then discard it: there are too many texts available, and you will not have time to read them all.

What parts of the text should I look at?

As surveying looks at the general aspects of a text, it is similar to skimming, and you will need to pay attention to some of the same main features of a text, for example the title and introduction, in order to understand the gist and assess whether the text is relevant. In addition, however, you will also need to consider other aspects such as who the author is (is the writer an expert?) and when it was written (is it recent?) in order to decide if it is a credible source. These are examples of critical reading skills which are used in evaluating a text. Other aspects, such as information in graphics such as charts or diagrams, may also be useful. In short, when surveying a text, the following will be important (note that not all texts contain all of these, e.g. many texts do not have abstracts or section headings).

  • Details about the author
  • Date of publication
  • Title and sub-title
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Conclusion
  • Section headings
  • Graphics (charts, diagrams, etc.)

Note that when surveying a text, unlike when skimming, it is not usually necessary to read the first and last lines of each paragraph, especially for longer texts. This would take too much time, and does not match the purpose - you only need a very general understanding of the main ideas in order to assess relevance.


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

Area OK? Notes/comment
I understand what surveying is.
I know which aspects of the text are useful when surveying.
I know why these aspects are important (e.g. information on the author helps to assess credibility).


Wallace, M.J. (1980) Study Skills in English, 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wallace, M.J. (2004) Study Skills in English, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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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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