Titles, Skimming, & Scanning

There are a few things that can activate active reading: considering the title of a text, skimming the text, and scanning a text.  While these strategies do not help you go into a text in depth, they do “prime the pump,” an idiom which The Free Dictionary defines as “to take action that encourages the growth of something or helps it to succeed.”[1]  Just as people used to prime a water pump to get it to work, strategies to prime active reading help prepare your mind to consider the topic of and ideas in a text; they prepare you to join the conversation.



Read and consider the title. A good title will inform you about the text’s content. It’s always nice if titles are also interesting, catchy, or even clever, but the most important job of a title is to let the reader know what’s coming and what the text will be about. For instance, imagine you’re reading a magazine article entitled “Hidden Nutrients in Unexpected Places.”  You would expect the article to talk about different foods and their nutritional values. You’d also expect to learn about the nutritional value of foods that are not obviously classified as “healthy,” such as dark chocolate, which contains a lot of minerals such as magnesium, iron, and zinc. As a result of considering the title of the article, you might start considering your own food preferences in terms of nutrition, even before starting to read the article. Considering a title is a basic, initial step in active reading, as a clear title will help you think about a topic and relate it to your own experience, so that you start the process of conversing with the text.


Skimming is a useful reading technique, especially if you’re reading possible sources for a research project, or if you’re preparing to read a lengthy text.  Skimming is used to quickly gather the most important information.

When you skim a text, you run your eyes over the text, noting important information. It’s not essential to understand each word when skimming, since you’re reading to get the gist or main idea of the text, not to understand all of the details.

There’s a particular sequence to follow when you skim a text:

  1. Read the title.
  2. Read the abstract, introduction, and/or first paragraph.
  3. Read any highlighted information: subtitles and headings, information pulled out and put into boxes, images and their captions, italic or bold type.  Look for idea relationships among highlighted information.
  4. Read the first and last sentences of each section and/or paragraph to find that section’s main idea. (Main ideas are often presented at the start and end of a section of a non-fiction text.)
  5. Read the text’s final paragraph.

The following video describes the skimming process and offers an extended example based on skimming an article in a professional, academic journal.


Scanning differs from skimming. Scanning is used to find a particular piece of information or an answer to a specific question. Run your eyes over the text looking for the specific piece of information you need. If you see words or phrases that you don’t understand, don’t worry when scanning. When you scan for information, you read only what is needed.

For example, if you’re researching reasons for bans on single-use plastic bags, you might scan articles to see if they contain statistics that will be useful to your purpose.  You don’t need to skim the whole article at this point; you can scan to see whether or not you should move on to skimming and then reading the whole article.

When you scan an article, simply keep in mind the type of information you’re looking for (statistic, date, name, fact). If the text is lengthy or difficult, a preliminary skimming may be necessary to determine which part of the article to scan.

The following video offers a simple, useful summary of scanning.

try it

Base this exercise on Social Stratification & Mobility in the U.S., a chapter from the textbook, Introduction to Sociology.

Skim the title, first & last paragraphs, headings, and images. What information do you get from skimming about what to expect in the chapter?

Scan the article to develop an understanding of the term “intergenerational mobility,” which is a term new to you. What did you learn as the result of scanning?

[1] Definition of “prime the pump” from The Free Dictionary, https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/prime+the+pump. If you’re interested, the entry also provides the origin of the phrase: “In the late 1800s this expression originally was used for pouring liquid into a pump to expel the air and make it work. In the 1930s it was applied to government efforts to stimulate the economy and thereafter was applied to other undertakings.”