Reading for specific details: clarifying the terminology for receptive sub-skills

17th July 2019

Reading for specific details: clarifying the terminology for receptive sub-skills


by Lee Mackenzie
Associate ELT-Consultant
“Reading for specifics and reading for detail is the same”, my co-tutor pleaded, taking a sip of her beer.

“I´m not sure I agree”, I replied, downing mine.

It was week three of a CELTA course. We were double-marking CELTA candidates´ written assignments. They had just completed the skills-related-tasks assignment – also known as “assignment three” – at the back of a dim-lit restaurant after a hard day of input sessions, guided lesson planning, lesson assessments, and teaching practice feedback.

Our disagreement has no doubt been played out before between other CELTA tutors on previous courses, and no doubt will be played out on countless more in the future. But who is right? Are specifics and detail the same?

I would like to suggest that there is a clearly defined difference between reading for detail and reading for specifics, and that candidates can also articulate this difference.

Example 1

Let us take the example of a person who has a nut-allergy. This person does a lot of reading when they go to the supermarket, but s/he does not read for detail. That is to say, s/he doesn´t read for “full understanding” of the texts on every product s/he picks up, but rather only “scans” for the specific phrase: “this product may contain nuts”.

Example 2

A second example might be of a person who wants to buy a used dishwasher, but her budget is only 50 pounds. There may be numerous ads in the newspaper about used dishwashers, but this person wouldn´t read all of them for detail: they would merely be scanning for the following words: “dishwasher – second hand – 50 pounds”. The ad may include a great deal of other information such as the condition, whether repairs are necessary, or whether delivery is included, but this person would only read for “full understanding” after locating the specific information mentioned above in the ad.

To help clarify the confusion between specifics and detail it is useful to read for detail the description of these sub-skills in books which are often considered core texts on CELTA courses. Consider the following quotes:

“Skimming and scanning are both ‘top-down’ skills” (Scrivener 2005, p. 185).

“We may start by having students read for gist and then get them to read the text again for detailed comprehension. They may start by identifying the topic of a text before scanning it quickly to recover specific information” (Harmer 2001, p. 215).

“When reading for detail, we expect students to concentrate on the minutiae of what they are reading” (Harmer 2007, p. 69).

In articulating the difference between top-down and bottom-up, Harmer writes that “it is the difference between looking at a forest, or studying the individual trees within it” (2001 p. 201) I would therefore argue that reading for detail is a bottom-up task since “we want students to concentrate on the minutiae of what they are reading”, whereas, as Scrivener points out, scanning is a top-down task. As quote 2 suggests, scanning is done “quickly”, but when we read a text for detail, we generally do not read it quickly. For example, when a candidate receives feedback on their CELTA skills related tasks assignment which informs him/her that they have to resubmit (perhaps because they haven’t clearly articulated the difference between scanning and reading for detailed comprehension), we wouldn´t expect them to read it quickly but carefully and slowly, “studying the individual trees”, so that they fully understand what they have to do in order to pass the assignment. It may be helpful at this point to quote two CELTA candidates on a recent CELTA who do a really good job of articulating this distinction:

“When people come across a text, they tend to use top-down approaches (e.g. scanning or reading for gist) instead of bottom-up approaches (e.g. reading for detail)”. (CELTA candidate B)

“The text also intends to enhance the learners´ ability to read for specific pieces of information by answering questions that would require a closer look at the content of the text. This would improve one´s scanning skills, which are necessary when an immediate goal, as opposed to detailed comprehension, needs to be achieved by the learner…some students are misguided and believe that texts in foreign languages need to be understood to the full, as though the comprehension of important information depended on the understanding of all the words they see”. (CELTA candidate B)

One reason that tutors don’t usually make a distinction between scanning/extensive/top-down and detail/intensive/bottom-up tasks is that they feel it´s too difficult for candidates to understand the difference. The examples above suggest that this is not the case, at least for stronger candidates. Another reason for not making a distinction is simply because “it´s not that important”. Clearly, one implication for setting up scanning and detail tasks is that the former should take less time than the latter, which might mean we give learners a time limit for the former while it may be counter-productive to give a time limit for the latter. Another implication is that a CELTA candidate may actually have to resubmit an assignment or not get the higher grade during an assessed lesson because they don’t clearly articulate the difference between scanning and detailed comprehension.

Summary and Suggestions

The following table provides a useful summary of the differences between the two sub-skills we have discussed in this article. This might be useful in conceptualizing the difference between these two sub-skills:

Usually done fast

Done to locate a specific piece (or specific pieces) of information in the text

Requires as much time as is necessary

Done to gain “full understanding” of the text


A useful activity could be to get teachers to categorise the bullet-pointed terms under the relevant headings. This would allow them to more clearly conceptualise the difference between these terms.

A second suggestion is simply for tutors and teachers to read from more than one source, since different authors, as we have seen, can provide an enhanced understanding of a particular issue. It might therefore be useful if recommended reading lists on CELTA courses therefore went beyond the “key texts” that are typically recommended to candidates when writing their assignments.


Harmer, J. (2001). The Practice of English language teaching. (3rd ed.). Longman.

Harmer, J. (2007). How to teach English (2nd ed.). Harlow: Pearson Longman.

Scrivener, J. (2005). Learning teaching: A guidebook for English language teachers(2nd ed., Macmillan books for teachers). Oxford: Macmillan.

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