3 Essential Previewing & Skimming Strategies

Effective previewing and skimming techniques to read more books

previewing and skimming, scanning techniques

Previewing is one of the three basic speed reading techniques and allows to extract essential information from reading material before digging into details. The previewing strategies mentioned below are particularly suitable for non-fiction material but can also be applied to fiction books. These methods are suitable for all ages.

What is Previewing or Skimming and Scanning?

Would you watch a movie without seeing the trailer before you head to the cinemas? Sure, why not. I like to be surprised. However, often a trailer will give you a good hint what the movie is about and whether it’s worth watching or not. It’s also fun to watch. The same applies to previewing or skimming and scanning material. You skim a text to have quick look, see if you like it, but also get a quick understanding of the main ideas.

When you preview you can choose from three major strategies. These are

  • Reading key sentences
  • Scan for name and numbers
  • Scan for trigger words

A fourth one taught by instructors and teachers such as Ron Cole is called novel previewing. I may cover this in a future post, but for now will focus on methods for non-fiction content.

Previewing Strategies – Overview

  • Reading the title
  • Previewing sub-headlines
  • Reading the back of a book
  • Skimming indexes or contents
  • Checking for images, graphs or tables
  • Scanning bullet lists and bold words
  • Realizing everything that pops up by default

1. Previewing key sentences

Reading the first sentence of a paragraph often delivers a quick snapshot of the paragraph’s main idea.

How does it work? A common writing tip is to reserve one paragraph for each idea. Another one is to place the most relevant information first. Hence, an ideal paragraph bears the key information in the first sentence and introduces further details in the following ones. Alternatively, the last sentence could include a summary that actually carries the main idea.

From my experience, it works pretty well, though I don’t read all sentences and often stop after a few pages or paragraphs and move on to the next block or chapter. I do this in favor to be able to recall their basic concepts. When I started I had trouble remembering the first sentence once I’ve read the 20th.

An assignment below will tackle this issue and provides exercises to improve key sentence reading and recalling.

2. Skimming and scanning for name and numbers

Most texts have names or numbers, which relate to facts, people or places. It’s not important to get all the facts in the right order while previewing. However, I always found it useful to know where and when a story takes place, who is involved and what the main fact is about.

To start scanning move your index finger across the page either in zigzag or serpentine style. You may quickly recall the name or number a few times. Then read the full text picking up all other details to complete the image. The assignment offers some exercises.

3. Previewing trigger words

I learned this technique a few years back when I read a book by Paul Scheele called Photo Reading. The idea is to speed through an article or book and look for the main keywords. They should pop up when you fly over a page and mainly relate to nouns or compounds. This article would refer to previewing, name and numbers, key sentence or fast reading strategies as trigger words.

The best way to get started start is by reading the title, the back of the book or the contents. Having a general interest won’t hurt as well. This approach will automatically reveal two or three main triggers and helps your brain to narrow on a topic. It’s cooking and not car insurances for example.

Then fly through a book. Imagine sitting on a sightseeing plane. You get the big picture from above, pick a few interesting spots (triggers) and when you return from the trip you read for more details.

Assignment Previewing Strategies

1. Skimming key sentences. Choose any book of interest. Read the first sentences of each paragraph. Recall the main ideas by visualizing the concept. Start with 4 or 5 key sentences. Master it. Increase the numbers by one and so on. Recalling 10 sentences will already give you a lot of information before reading.

2. Scanning names and numbers. Choose an essay or article and scan for names and numbers. Stop for each fact a few seconds and reflect or even say it. Now read the material and see what happens and whether the previewed facts will make themselves visible again.

3. Scanning trigger words. Choose articles or books for this exercise. Preview the title, headlines, content or summaries. Jot down the triggers. Skim through the material and stop at points of interests or words that pop up. Jot them down. Those are your trigger phrases. Articulate questions of what you expect from the author and what should be answered.

Previewing, Skimming and Scanning – Conclusion

What are your secret previewing techniques or skimming and scanning strategies? Please let us know in the comments below. And, whatever it is you do to preview a book in order to decide it is worth your time or a waste of your resources you already apply a combination of skimming and scanning strategies.

Most people read the title, the content or the back of the book intuitively, however, the aim of this post is to encourage you to go one step further and see previewing as flying over an unknown landscape to get your bearing and then look forward to exploring the jungle in more detail. When done precisely, previewing may also allow you to extract all the important information without actually reading the book in full-length.


Enjoy learning! Want to get serious about your reading skills? Read this review about the best speed reading software and consider starting a course.

Did I miss anything? You can add more skimming and scanning strategies in the comment section below!

Photo Credit: Creative Commons 3.0 FlickR / John Smith “una nos lucror”


  1. Abebe Yalew says:

    I used those speed reading strategies when I was in high school. Specially when the tests are over loaded, I just highlighted all the page to remember what I had in my brain. This speed reading techniques increase our memory capacity to get ideas across quickly. I like short reading methods.
    Thanks for your detailed explanation , it is really helpful.

  2. Very helpful technique. Thank you

  3. mahboba akbar says:

    very helpful technique thank you.

  4. Very helpful reading techniques. Thanks a lot.

  5. Flora Rapemae Akoeasi says:

    Very helpful indeed to use this reading technique especially when assignments are loaded.

  6. Very very helpful cramming for test, especially for a subject that you just dislike. My studying time has decreased tremendously since I’ve been using these previewing techniques.

  7. Jennifer D. says:

    I used some of these technique in high school and college while preparing for term papers and tests. Of course, I didn’t realize I was using speed reading techniques at the time. But I bet most students do employ these.

Comments are closed.