How to Teach Students the Skill of Preview Skimming for Improved Reading Comprehension

Focusing on the first sentence can help students revise knowledge and deepen understanding

We all know that students understand content and retain knowledge better when they review what they’ve learned before moving on to the next topic. Design Question 3 focuses on helping students deepen their understanding by making them compare what they once thought about the content to what they think about it now.

Preview or overview skimming is a great way to implement this classroom strategy. Just as the name implies, with preview skimming, teachers direct their students to skim over informational text, limiting their attention to only the first sentence of each paragraph. For example, you may ask your students to create subheads that paraphrase these first sentences. Then, have them use the lists they created to revise their knowledge. This exercise can also serve as a check for understanding.

Another way to introduce preview skimming to your students:

  1. Have them fold a piece of paper into thirds horizontally, making three columns. Alternately, you can give them a pre-printed three-column table.
  2. In the first column, students record either the first sentence of each paragraph or their paraphrased version of it.
  3. In the second column, they write what they believe that sentence is saying or a phrase that identifies the important key message in that sentence.
  4. In the third column, students write their revised understanding of the sentence.

This exercise is fun and effective because it allows for flexibility. Not only can students’ answers vary, but teachers can also use chunking content into digestible bites in whatever way is most appropriate for the developmental skill level of the group or complexity of the information.

Preview Skimming In Action
Research indicates that more than 50% of the time, the main idea of a paragraph is in its first sentence. The skill of Preview skimming, which requires students to highlight (or, in the example above, record) the first sentence of each paragraph, can help those who are struggling with reading comprehension because it reduces the amount of text they must process at any given time. It also teaches students how to strategically attack larger, more complex informational text.

Now, have the students check the rest of the paragraph to see how accurate they were. In the third box, students can model how they extracted key information from the text. Go through the text, showing them how to focus on key parts and phrases, skipping some of the less important details.

It may help to explain that when an author writes informational text, the details that follow the first paragraph tend to be reasons why and examples. Be sure to release the ownership of doing this work to the students. Whether they work in pairs, trios, or groups of four, this process helps them pick out the more important portions of the text and lets them practice among peers before they eventually face the responsibility of defending their own thinking (Marzano Design Question 4).

At the end of the lesson, have students form collaborative work groups to test their thinking. Based on the content, you may ask them to:

  • Develop a list of key pieces of information that they felt were being emphasized during this activity
  • Link that critical content to the learning goal for the unit
  • Exchange lists with other groups and have them remove less important words and add things they may have missed, using Post-it® notes
  • Review their changes or additions with each other and justify, discuss, and share their rationale

Collaborate, Justify, and Defend
To conclude this lesson, have the students communicate what they learned. Ask them what helped to clear away confusion as they revised what they previously thought in the middle column. This activity requires students to collaborate, justify, and defend what they think about the content, using examples from the learning experience.

When students practice working together to revise their thinking, not only are they gaining a deeper understanding of the material, they’re also fine-tuning a level of maturity that they’ll eventually need as adults in the workplace. Overview or preview skimming can help prepare them for a wide array of career options while improving their reading comprehension skills.

Have you tried overview skimming in your classroom? We would love to hear about your experience. If you have any additional exercises to share, please tell us about them in the comments below.


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