The pros and cons of Sparknotes

By Mark Gorte
off the record

No matter how many students complain, whine, or argue, they will always be required to read the “classic” literary pieces of time. Whether it is Old Man and the Sea or the romantic Romeo and Juliet, reading these books requires a lot of time and memorization of random facts. There are students who would do anything to read as little as possible, and for those students their savior comes the in the form of the World Wide Web. More specifically, the websites of Sparknotes and Shmoop.

Sparknotes is a website that provides study guides for subjects like literature, poetry, history, film, philosophy, math, health, physics, biology, chemistry, economics and sociology. Sparknotes also has content and services related to the SAT, ACT, and AP testings. Adding to the wealth of information is a section students can use to search for colleges. The most popular use of Sparknotes is their chapter summaries, which give users the basic outline of a story. These quick reads are becoming more and more popular with students since the site’s launch in 1999. However, contrary to many teachers’ beliefs, there are students who actually read the assigned books.

“I would say that I use Sparknotes to better understand what I’ve already read,” junior John Brandon said. “I use it more as a study guide.”

Brandon isn’t the only frequent user of Sparknotes or Shmoop. Sophomore Michael Nigro uses such websites as a crutch in case he forgets to read, or doesn’t finish his assigned reading.

“Well, I read parts of the book but I’ll go to Sparknotes if I don’t read the full chapter or the full section I was supposed to,” Nigro said.

The easiness of reading one page over thirty becomes more and more appealing. And once one has gotten themselves into the habit of using Sparknotes regularly, it can be hard to break away from its grasp. In fact, Nigro claims the last time he actually read an assigned book was in seventh grade.

Using Sparknotes or Shmoop alone without actually reading the book isn’t always the best way to get a good grade. Some students like Brandon think that teachers are aware of what is on Sparknotes or Shmoop and construct their quizzes and tests around information not given out online.

“I think the quizzes [teachers] write you can’t use Sparknotes for,” Brandon said. “Even if you use it, without reading it’s not that useful.”

This especially comes into play when a teacher asks specifics about a chapter, such as a quote or a minor detail that occurred in the chapter.

“You get the basic plot of the story,” junior Emma Trager said. “But anything beyond that is lost.”

Trager is familiar with the online “study guides” but she avoids using either Sparknotes or Shmoop. Trager would rather take the time to read the book, because she is looking out for herself down the road when the talk of tests begins to emerge in the classroom.

“If you use Sparknotes you’re not getting important details, and the symbols you’re going to need to write a paper,” Trager said. “In the end, you’re not going to know everything you need to know to write a paper.”

Students aren’t the only ones who know about Sparknotes. English teachers throughout DHS are more than up-to-date on Sparknotes. And each teacher has their own opinion of the online study guide.

“Sparknotes can be a valuable resource for students, but not a supplement for reading the real text,” English teacher Sarah Hechlik said. “I would never encourage it over reading the text itself. All emotional quality is left out of a Sparknotes summary. You don’t get the same feeling, or the author’s intentions.”

For those students who think that teachers can’t tell if they read Sparknotes instead of the book then they are unfortunately incorrect.

”I can totally tell when a student is solely using Sparknotes,” Hechlik said. “They can’t or don’t reference specific quotes in their notes, they only regurgitate Sparknotes ideas and analysis, their discussion lacks detail and usually they have a harder time writing essays about the book because they have to go back and search for passages or ideas that aren’t ‘obvious’ or ‘common.’”

In reality, virtually every high school student will submit to the allure of Sparknotes at least once. If only to help clear up a confusing chapter, these websites can be a valuable tool. But to get the full effect of a story, reading the book is a definite must. Even if the student must sacrifice their time, it will pay off in the long run.

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