ECONOMIC & SOCIAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Productive reading
Why spend time and effort reading a particular text?
Distinguishing between support and ‘front-line’ literature
How can you identify fit-for-purpose support texts to read in full or selectively?
Advance check: suitable support literature for your identified reading purpose
How can you identify fit-for-purpose front-line texts to read in summary or in depth?
Advance check: suitable front-line literature for your identified reading purpose
Scrutinising the efficiency of your academic reading habits
How efficient are you as a reader in your academic studies?
Reading strategies: scanning, skimming and intensive reading
Taking risks with your reading time and effort
Making the most of your reading time and effort: towards an effective compromise
Scanning a short text for specific information
Skimming long texts
Writing effectively
Arguing convincingly
Mapping your field
Literature reviewing
Reviewing the literature systematically
Developing proposals
Skimming long texts 


Of the three main reading strategies, skimming is perhaps the most difficult one to learn for your academic studies. It may seem odd to read only some parts of the text in order to gain an overview of it all. You have to accept the risk that you might miss something important, whereas reading intensively guarantees that nothing is missed. But skimming can save you a lot of precious time! Scanning has only a modest goal - to locate specific information - and when reading texts electronically, searching for keywords and phrases is quick and easy.

As with all academic reading, it is important to be clear why you are investing time in trying to learn something from a text. If you know why you are engaging with this text, you can decide which reading strategy to use at the outset. Maybe you will change strategy later if, say, initial skimming of the text shows that it is centrally important to your enquiry. 

You can help yourself become an expert text skimmer if you use as an ‘advance organizer’ your increasing familiarity with the structures for developing the overall argument in academic texts that are most common. You can always expect to find keywords in the title and in the section or paper headings. You can also always check likely places for a summary or overview, such as:

·        the abstract for many academic journal articles

·        the first and last paragraph of the introduction section and the conclusion section in a journal article or book paper

·        the first and last paper of a book

You can start your skimming in these likely places, then move on if you want more detail to other sections or papers.

A complementary technique that can prove useful in helping you gain an overview of a long text is to skim the reference list, to get a sense of the literature that is informing the text at hand. As you read more texts in a particular area of enquiry, you will gradually become familiar with ‘landmark’ texts that are widely referred by authors, and also of the range of theoretical positions and relevant empirical studies that have been carried out. A quick skim of the reference list for each new text in this area will give you an impression of what the contribution of the text is likely to be.

Here is a long text skimming exercise, based on an extract from a paper about the business strategy of the low-cost airline ‘easyJet’. We are going to invite you to skim the text to answer several questions, but first we suggest you consider where you might go to get your answers without having to skim the whole text. Suppose you are interested in learning about business strategies in changing market conditions, and you have come across this paper. You wish to answer the following questions for your study – where might you go to skim for your answer to each question?

  You can access the text by clicking here.

Questions to answer by skimming the paper

Whereabouts in the paper I might start skimming

  1. How is this paper relevant to my study of business strategy?

 

  1. What are the broad areas connected with business strategy that the paper covers?

 

  1. What was the business strategy like in the early years of easyJet?

 

  1. What are the main features of the low-cost business model?

 

  1. Why might easyJet’s business model have to change?

 

  1. How successful has easyJet’s model been in trying to attract business travellers?

 

 Also see Distinguishing betweeb support and front-line literature

Here is the answer we obtained to each of these questions and where in the paper we found it.

Questions to answer by skimming the paper

Our answer to each question

Where we found our answer

  1. How is this paper relevant to my study of business strategy?

The paper examines the business model of easyJet. Although it has been very successful, changes in the business environment indicate that it is time to alter the existing business model.

Introductory section

  1. What are the broad areas connected with business strategy that the paper covers?

The paper describes the historical origins of easyJet and the basis of its business model. The authors question whether the business strategy needs modifying following changes in the business environment.

Section headings

  1. What was the business strategy like in the early years of easyJet?

The early years of easyJet were dominated by Stelio’s personality which informed the company’s culture of playfulness and fun. He was impressed by the Southwest business model and sought to replicate it, to great success.

Historical Origins section

  1. What are the main features of the low-cost business model?

The main principle is to have the lowest operating cost in the industry. Reliance is placed on direct sales with on-line booking, instead of travel agents. Onboard refreshments have to be purchased. Staff are less well paid than those working for conventional carriers.

Basic Low-Cost Business Model section

  1. Why might easyJet’s business model have to change?

EasyJet may be compelled to alter its approach due to more low cost carriers entering the industry, adjustment of conventional carriers’ strategies that start to impinge on the market, and the rising price of oil.

Concluding section

  1. How successful has easyJet’s model been in trying to attract business travellers?

Evidence is limited but easyJet appears to have been successful, at least in Stansted and Luton.

Concluding section

Since skimming can save so much time, be ready to use this reading technique when attempting to gain an overview of a text or parts of it.

But be efficient! Help yourself by first considering what you know about common structures of different forms of text. Use this knowledge to think where you are likely to find summary information, then try these places first.