Cliffs Notes and Book Summaries – Not Just for Cheaters!
As long as there have been literature courses taught in schools, there have been students looking for short-cuts to avoid long reading assignments. One of the most well-known of these shortcuts (right behind “rent the movie”) has been Cliffs Notes. For decades, students have sought out the infamous black and yellow paperbacks as a way to condense large readings into shorter, more manageable bites while picking up some key thematic and discussion elements along the way (…to help cover the tracks of their ruse).
With the advent of the internet, free sites like SparkNotes and PinkMonkey cropped up as comparable alternatives to Cliffs Notes (although Cliffs Notes have since joined the digital age as well) and quickly rose in popularity with students of the digital age. Teachers knew to look out for Cliffs Notes (many of my high school English teachers had copies on hand to try and make sure their assessments were Cliffs-proof), but the new internet alternatives gave a new angle on the old summary-reading ploy. In time, teachers began to catch on to these alternatives as well. The more popular sites found themselves trapped behind school district firewalls and the age-old game of cat-and-mouse between teachers assigning reading assignments and students looking to duck them continued on.
However, what is it about using book summaries that is really so wrong? I would argue, as someone who has taught literacy and literacy-related courses for the better part of a decade, book summaries can actually be a crucial instructional tool to help students comprehend texts. If I assign a text, my expectation is that my students will read it. That being said, I also provide students with scaffolds and supports to help them comprehend the complexities of the text they read. I know not all readers are on the same level and that a key component of literacy education is to promote success by limiting frustration. So while I do create a lot of my own supports for students or tutoring clients, there are times where one of the best options is (gasp!) Cliffs Notes.
As a teacher or a tutor, there is nothing wrong with using book summaries to help a student. After all, Cliffs Notes and the products like them were never explicitly created to be tools for cheating (regardless of where their sales came from). The key is to ensure book summary products are used as support to review after reading the corresponding text. When I use book summaries, they are always sandwiched between readings of the original text. This way, the reader has context to apply the breakdowns within the summary and then can go back and apply their learning to the original text.
So there it is; a teacher just said it was OK to use Cliffs Notes…as long as you do so responsibly! However, if Cliffs notes and book summary sites aren’t providing enough support for you or your child’s success in a literature course, consider using free database at The Knowledge Roundtable to find a tutor in your area specializing in comprehension and literacy skills.