I bet most of you think that reading in English isn’t the most difficult thing in the world. We do it quite often and we also read in our native language so reading in English might seem to be more or less the same. But what happens when you need to read a text in an exam? Is it still a piece of cake? I’d dare say that quite a few people struggle with reading comprehension and text analysis when they take English exams (e.g. IELTS, First, Advanced, etc.). This is because in the exam it’s not enough just to understand the passage, you also need to show the ability to work with that passage. Sometimes you have to see all the nuances in the language. Sometimes you are expected to notice connections between the different parts of the text. And in this blog post I’m going to outline the most typical reading strategies/types and some tips which will help you master them.
Ready? Steady? Read!
Skimming a text means that you read it quite quickly just to get your head around it. You ignore all the tiny details and don’t focus on grammar aspects. You don’t even try to read each and every word (e.g. if you tried doing this in IELTS, you’d waste a lot of time!). The main aim of skimming is to understand what the passage/ each paragraph is about. This will help you understand all the details later on. You might need to skim even before reading the exam questions. How can this be done?
- Focus on reading lexical words and ignore grammar words. To put it another way – read the words that bear some meaning (usually nouns, verbs, adjectives) and forget about the rest, i.e. prepositions (on, off), articles (the, an), auxiliary verbs (does, did). That way you’ll speed through the text and still get the gist.
- Try reading just the first sentence of each paragraph. This is usually the topic sentence and hence will give you a bigger picture of the whole paragraph.
Scanning a text means that you read it more carefully in order to find answers to some specific questions. It’s what you do when, for example, you’re at a railway station and try to find out which platform your train leaves from. You don’t read all the numbers and destinations but quickly scan the information displayed on the timetable board. Scanning is easier once you’ve done skimming – this way you know more of less where you should be looking for the correct answer. How does one become a top-notch scanner?
- Circle key words in the question and keep them in mind while scanning (it’s not that easy!). Think of synonyms for the key words – they’re more likely to appear in the passage.
- Try using your finger to focus your attention on the text – scanning can be tiring and you can get distracted easily.
UNDERSTANDING NEW WORDS
While reading, some people stumble over words they don’t understand and try to figure out their meaning before they move on with their reading. Please, don’t do that in your exam :). However, if you’re desperate to know the meaning of an unknown word you can do the following:
- Look at the context, i.e. what’s before and after the word you don’t understand?
- Look at the context again and think which part of speech the new word represents. Is it a noun or maybe a verb?
These strategies might not give you the exact meaning but you’ll have a better idea of what information the word conveys. I wouldn’t suggest trying to Google the meaning of a word during an exam. The supervisors wouldn’t exactly be delighted to see that!
Examination reading strategies are a very contentious issue; one debated on constantly. It seems that different approaches really do appeal to different people. What works for you? What reading strategies do you use? We’d love to know! Write them in the comment section below.