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The Ways We Read: Skimming

How We Read

When I was in Middle School, I thought there was just one kind of reading—moving the eyes from left to right over all the words until you ran out of words. I puzzled over the few adults I knew (like my own mom) who would re-read books. I treated books like a shallow tourist treats foreign countries, “Oh yea, I’ve been there. I have a stamp in my passport and a sticker on my suitcase!” I didn’t know it at the time, but I was skimming across the surface of almost everything I read, without using skimming as a tool for a specific purpose.

Thankfully, I had many patient teachers who slowly opened my eyes to the Four Levels of Reading. They don’t really correlate with the Four Types of Reading; those four types go back to the Ancient Greeks. This system is a theory I’ve basically developed on my own (who knows how many others have thought of it or expressed it better already). I will, however, explain how I think the four levels correspond with and work alongside the four types.


The four types of reading arise from the purpose of our reading and the content itself:

  1. Skimming: the skimmer wants to come away with a rough outline of the piece
  2. Scanning: the scanner is looking for a particular piece of information; if there’s an index, she’ll use that.
  3. Reading: the reader starts at the beginning and moves to the end; he wants to experience everything the author has to present, in the way the author wants to present it. This is most like the movie-watcher, seeking to experience the vision of the director.
  4. Ruminating: the ruminant wants to digest or analyze the piece to gain something deeper than information, usually knowledge and occasionally even wisdom when it can be synthesized with his own experience.

Below, I will set forth an epic simile that I use with my students every year to help them discern when to use the appropriate kind of reading.


I generally use one of two analogies—comparing knowledge either to our interaction with the ocean or with an animal. I’ve used the ocean one longer, and built on it over the years, so I’ll stick with that one. Additionally, I’m grew up in Southern California, so the ocean metaphor speaks more strongly to my memory. There are many ways to enjoy the ocean; each of these ways is not only a means of recreation or leisure, but it is also an increase of our experiential knowledge of the ocean. When we approach a new work of literature, read its back cover, admire the art on its front, we are standing on the sand and observing the ocean.

We only become skimmers when we interact with the ocean just a little bit. We may walk in the shallows with our pants rolled up. We could water-ski across the top, feeling the salt sting our eyes and tasting it in our mouths. Ultimately, we’re experiencing the ocean itself, not just observing it and guessing saltiness, wetness, or depth.

When I want my students to grasp the sense or outline of a book, short story, chapter of a textbook, I encourage them to read the first and last sentence of every paragraph. They can do this for two or three reasons. First, a good writer actually treats each of his paragraphs as complete rooms. There is at least one door and the room contains only things appropriate to that room. So, reading the first and last sentence of a paragraph is like peeking into a room. You only need to peek to see if it’s a bedroom, bathroom, or closet.

A secondary reason is a means of overview when taking in a lot of (often dry) information. This can be true for everything from instruction manuals to poorly-written history textbooks. Ultimately, though, any student should be able to outline a passage just by reading the first and last sentence of every paragraph.

Skimming also acts as a productive form of review, not just for the plot itself but also for the chronology of events. It’s impossible for a student to re-read 12 chapters the night before the quiz. It is commendable, though, to go through as much of that material as possible again—reading the author’s own words—and focusing only on his topics and conclusions.

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