Sparking a debate

To use SparkNotes or to actually read the book? That often is the question among students when a new book is assigned in English class. With the many online tools readily available, it seems to be an easy choice whether or not to actually read the book or to just read a quick summary on SparkNotes.
SparkNotes was originally created in 1999 as a study guide of sorts for Harvard students. Now, SparkNotes is full of online chapter summaries, paragraphs explaining the overall plot, character analysis and even quizzes at the end to “test your knowledge.”
“SparkNotes is a resource in its simplest form,” English IV Honors and AP Literature teacher Heather Bent said. “It can be useful, but sometimes I think it dumbs down things way too much.”
But does just reading SparkNotes end up doing more harm than good?
“I feel like you’re cheating yourself if you just read SparkNotes,” sophomore Madeline Schmitz said. “I don’t mind when other people use them, but I would never personally read them.”
Teachers have to ensure that their tests and quizzes have to be an equal amount of detail-oriented and plot-based questions. SparkNotes just provides a general idea about a book and leaves the student without much detail. In more demanding classes, students need more information than would be found in a “short and sweet” summary.
“Freshman and sophomore year, I didn’t even read the books, I just read SparkNotes,” senior Kelly Carpenter said. “During junior and senior year I started actually reading the books since in AP, the discussions are in depth and you won’t know what you are talking about if you don’t actually read the book.”
Socratic circles and other class discussions also require a deep knowledge of the book for full participation. Plot-based summaries typically do not help the student fully understand what is going on in the book. Books eventually become harder to comprehend from just a plot based view; further analysis is required to get the full aspect of the book. If a student comes into a discussion with little to no detailed information, they may seem like they do not know much about the book.
“I think SparkNotes used to help me if I needed a general idea, but now that I am in more advanced classes they expect you to know more about the book and read the text more in depth because otherwise it really doesn’t cut it,” senior Anna Diatzikis said.
Whatever level students are, whether standard, honors or AP, they are all required to read books of varying levels of difficulty. As students move on into college level AP classes or higher level honors classes, they are expected to read more at a quicker rate than students who may have chosen a standard English class.
“It might just be ‘senioritis’ but I have had little motivation to read the books sometimes when they are assigned in class,” Diatzikis said. “During freshman and sophomore year, I could read SparkNotes and get as on all of my tests, but if I continued [just reading SparkNotes junior and senior year], I would obviously fail.”
Juniors and seniors are coming into the final stretch of their public school careers so they might have to have more than a little push to read their assigned books. Cue the extra credit book checks during class and pop quizzes. The last thing a student wants is a pile of zeroes in the grade book to sink their grade quicker than the Titanic.
On the other hand, some students look to SparkNotes as a clarification tool not because they had lack of motivation or time but to help them better understand what they have just read.
“If I don’t understand what I’ve read, it’s easy and only one click away and I can get a quick summary,” junior Amanda Moberg said.
It is a split decision whether or not teachers condone the use of SparkNotes. They are a helpful tool but only when used for clearing up a questioned topic during a time crunch. Certainly it is not suggested to have all knowledge based off of what is read on SparkNotes.
“I think that if they use it as a tool it is fine, in my opinion, if the student reads the chapter summary on SparkNotes and then reads the chapter [to clarify] afterwards,” English IV Standard and AP Literature teacher Vicki Browne said. “Because I promise you that they will not pass my quiz if they just read SparkNotes.”
However, many students get by without reading the book. They end up getting passing grades on their quizzes and tests just by reading SparkNotes.
“I usually get all A’s on the tests and quizzes [without reading the book] because SparkNotes gives me a good enough understanding of what is going on in the book, but I do not get perfect scores all the time; sometimes I need more details,” senior Sarah Whipple said.
While juniors and seniors are familiar with the site, few freshman or sophomore students know what SparkNotes are. This could be because they have not had an encounter yet with a book that they dread when they simply crack open their backpack for a piece of paper.
“I do know what SparkNotes are; sometimes my teacher endorses them since she says that they are a good way to study,” freshman Hannah Kelley said. “Not many of my classmates use them or know what they are, but I have found that SparkNotes really do help when I am out of time or when I do not understand something.”