Jane Birkenhead, April 14 2022

TOEFL and IELTS Reading Terms Explained

Many TOEFL and IELTS resources talk about the different skills that are required for reading. They often focus on skimming and scanning, and don't separate these skills, which can cause confusion. Many test-takers don't really understand what these terms mean, while others believe that they should always skim and scan - and do both at the same time regardless of their objective. 

Both skimming and scanning are essential skills for TOEFL and IELTS reading but there are other equally important reading skills that you should practice as well. 

This is my guide to help you understand these terms so that you will know exactly how they can help you, and how they can be used in your studying for TOEFL and IELTS reading. 


These are the 5 main reading skills that you should understand and be able to use.

1. Previewing a Text

This means looking at the heading or title of a text, and its layout, to get an overall idea of what the text is about. Do this before starting to read. 

It's an important skill because if you can anticipate the content, then the text will be easier to understand.

2. Predicting Content and Structure

This means using your knowledge of the topic (from the headline or title) to guess / predict what the text will be about. Do this just before starting to read. This prediction activates subject-specific vocabulary which allows you to read faster, so it will help you to make more sense of the text.

Both previewing a text, and predicting content and structure are part of pre-reading. The next 3 skills are used while you read a text.

3. Skimming for Main Ideas

Now we come to the 1st of the widely used terms in reading resources. When you skim a text or a paragraph, you read it quickly to get an idea of the overall topic, or its gist, and how it's presented. When you skim, you look for main ideas rather than specific details. Skimming helps with understanding what the author is going to focus on in the text or paragraph.

4. Scanning for Key Information

This is the 2nd term that's used a lot in reading resources. But what does it really mean and how does it differ from skimming? 

When we scan, we search for specific facts within a text. This is the most important skill for TOEFL and IELTS reading. It's important because you need to be able to pick out and understand keywords to answer the questions quickly.

Study tip: The way I remember these 2 terms is like this:

SKIMMING = finding the gist (the main meaning) of a text -> skIm and gIst both contain the letter I

SCANNING = looking for facts in a text -> scAn and fActs both contain the letter A

5. Intensive Reading

This means very carefully reading a text, or part of a text, and making sure you completely understand it. You should aim for 98% - 100% comprehension of the material you are reading. 

Use this skill in some TOEFL and IELTS reading questions when you want to understand exactly what the author means. You need an excellent knowledge of grammar and vocabulary for this skill.


All these skills are important in TOEFL and IELTS reading. You don't have to do them all but you should choose the ones you need, depending on what you are trying to achieve.





Written by

Jane Birkenhead

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