Learning Objectives

  • Use previewing as a reading strategy

Reading Strategy: Previewing

What It Is

Previewing is a strategy that readers use to recall prior knowledge and set a purpose for reading. It calls for readers to skim a text before reading, looking for various features and information that will help as they return to read it in detail later. Think about the word itself in parts. “Pre” is prefix that means “before” and the word “viewing” is to see. You are quite literally thinking about how to see before you read

Why Previewing Matters

Movie marquee with a message that reads "see you soon."

Figure 1. Think of previewing a text as similar to watching a movie preview.

According to research, previewing a text can improve your comprehension (Graves, Cooke, & LaBerge, 1983, cited in Paris et al., 1991). You set a purpose for your reading to help you prepare for what’s coming next.

Depending on the genre, or the kind of reading, your approach to previewing may vary: 

  • To preview nonfiction, find out what you know about the subject and what you want to find out. This also helps to understand how an author has organized information.
  • To preview biographies, determine something about the person in the biography, the time period, and some possible places and events in the life of the person.
  • To preview fiction, determine characters, setting, and plot. Preview to make predictions about a story’s problems and solutions.

How To Use Previewing 

To preview a text before you read, first ask yourself whether the text is based on reality or true events (nonfiction) or if it’s creative story (fiction).

  • If the text is fiction or biography, look at the title, chapter headings, introductory notes, and illustrations for a better understanding of the content and possible settings or events.
  • If the text is nonfiction, look at text features and illustrations (and their captions) to determine the subject matter and to recall prior knowledge, to decide what you already know about the subject. Previewing also helps you figure out what you don’t know and what you need to learn.

How to Preview

Think of previewing a text as similar to creating a movie trailer. A successful preview for either a movie or a reading experience will capture what the overall work is going to be about, generally what expectations the audience can have of the experience to come, how the piece is structured, and what kinds of patterns will emerge.

Scanning and Skimming


The technique of scanning is a useful one to use if you want to get an overview of the text you are reading as a whole – its shape, the focus of each section, the topics or key issues that are dealt with, and so on. In order to scan a piece of text you might look for sub-headings or identify key words and phrases which give you clues about its focus. Another useful method is to read the first sentence or two of each paragraph in order to get the gist of the discussion and the way that it progresses.

hand holding a pen over an open book

Figure 2. Identifying sub-headings and key words as you scan a particular text can help you to get an overview of the bigger ideas and themes.

Scanning is also used to find a particular piece of information. Run your eyes over the text looking for the specific piece of information you need. You may run your eyes quickly down the page in a zigzag or winding S pattern. If you are looking for a name, you note capital letters. For a date, you look for numbers. Vocabulary words may be boldfaced or italicized. When you scan for information, you read only what is needed. If you see words or phrases that you don’t understand, don’t worry when scanning. 

Using internet tools such as a search bar or Ctrl + F can be useful when scanning. Some tips for scanning:

  • Scan for titles, headings, and subheadings
  • Scan the first sentence after each heading
  • Scan any supplemental material at the beginning or end of the text, such as chapter outlines, chapter objectives, discussion questions, or vocabulary lists


Skimming is used to quickly gather the most important information, or “gist” of a text. Run your eyes over the text, noting important information. Use skimming to quickly get up to speed on the basic content coverage; it’s not essential to understand each word when skimming. As you skim, you could write down the main ideas and develop a chapter outline. Some tips for skimming:

  • Skim the first paragraph or introduction
  • Skim the last paragraph or summary
  • Skim the abstract (if provided)

When you preview, you look for signposts by making a note of graphic aids such as figures, tables, charts, graphs, and images. You can get a lot of information about the reading itself if there are images included. You may also want to note typographical aids such as bold-faced or highlighted words and phrases. Previewing engages your prior experience, and asks you to think about what you already know about this subject matter, or this author, or this publication. Then anticipate what new information might be ahead of you when you return to read this text more closely.

Watch It

This video explains the advantages of previewing a text and how to do it successfully.

You can view the transcript for “How to Preview a Text” here (opens in new window).


Try It