SparkNotes Nation

Sparknotes-Fahrenheit 451SparkNotes Their EyesSparkNotes Huck Finn

Amid all the cries that the Common Core Standards are asking too much of us—at least without more time and support—are a smaller but still vocal group of voices that say they’re nothing new. Many of these voices belong to high school teachers who’ve been asking text-based questions for years and requiring students to support whatever claims they make in discussions and essays with evidence. For them, the only new requirement is to add more nonfiction to the mix, which, again, some were doing already, assigning books such as Jon Krakauer‘s Into the Wild and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed.

Many of these teachers do a fabulous job of engaging their students with great literature and building their capacity for critical thinking. But the emphasis on teaching texts instead of readers—particularly on teaching that attempts to direct students toward a particular, pre-determined and/or widely-accepted interpretation of a text—has also had the effect of sending thousands, if not millions, of students to SparkNotes where they can find out what they ‘should’ think without actually reading the book.

This was, in fact, the sad discovery of the head of a high school English department I worked with several years ago, who had asked his students to anonymously fill out a questionnaire at the end of the year after grades were in. His American Literature class had read a wide range of texts that year—poetry, essays, plays and short stories, along with four book-length texts. And for each of those four books he asked the students to put a check beside one of the following four statements.

I read the entire book on my own.

I read part of the book and then turned to SparkNotes.

I only read SparkNotes.

I read neither the book nor SparkNotes.

graded-paper-300x225What he found gave him serious pause. While over 80% of the students read Angela’s Ashes, the first book-length text he’d assigned, less than 20% actually read the last book, The Grapes of Wrath, with the largest percentage just reading SparkNotes, and some not even doing that. What was almost worse was that every student had passed the class, which meant that they’d either doctored or plagiarized papers they’d found online or were able to figure out what they were supposed to think by attending to the cues the teacher gave during class discussions.

And so on the heels of those dispiriting numbers, we decided to experiment with the idea of choice and book groups the following year, with the students actually reading in class then discussing what they read with their peers. We wanted them to read multiple texts, and so we designed a unit using short stories that all had teenage protagonists and were written by American authors, such as Joyce Carol Oates‘s “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?”, Tobias Wolff‘s “The Liar“, and Michael Cunningham‘s “White Angels“. And we asked them to use their groups to consider what the author of each story seemed to be saying about the challenges of growing up in America.

CHOICEWe gave the students a brief description of the stories, let them choose which ones they wanted to read, and formed groups based on those choices. And since it quickly became apparent that many of them had no strategies for talking or thinking about books on their own, we recruited several other English teachers to demonstrate a discussion of Sylvia Plath’s story “Initiation,” which was one of three stories the whole class had read before breaking into groups.

During that discussion, we asked the students to pay attention to what the teachers did—not just their ideas about the story, but how they constructed those ideas. And from what they noticed, we co-created a list of strategies and discussion moves they could use that looked like this:

Text-Based Strategies 2

© 2008 Vicki Vinton, Literacy Consultant,

Noticing and naming what the teachers had done helped many of the students to notice more in the stories they were reading. A group of students, for instance, reading Maxine Swann‘s story “Flower Children,” about a counter-culture couple in the 70’s attempting to raise their brood of children without rules or inhibitions, noticed how often idyllic or utopian exclamations—such as “They’re the luckiest children alive!”—were paired with images of darkness or death. And as they read additional stories, students started noticing patterns across texts, including many characters who longed for the past and many who ultimately felt let down by the people who supposedly cared for them the most. And noticing this, they began to consider what these patterns suggested the different authors might be saying about what it means to grow up.

This process invited students to independently engage in the kind of close reading that is now being promoted by the Standards and to construct their own interpretations based on what they’d noticed. It also allowed them to develop a new appreciation for literature and of themselves as readers, as can be seen in this student reflection:

Student Response 2

BookCaps Study GuideFast-forward now to our present moment when, if search engine terms that bring people to this blog are any indication, close reading and text-dependent questions are on lots of teachers’ minds. Bringing the reading of texts into the classroom rather than assigning them for homework may reduce the reliance on SparkNotes—though they now offer apps for IPhones and Androids, which many students manage to use, despite prohibitions, in class. And lest this seems just like a high school problem, it’s worth noting that new companies like BookCaps are cropping up, selling study guides to books like Because of Winn-DixieBridge to Terabithia and Sign of the Beaver for, as SparkNotes’s motto puts it, “When your books and teachers don’t make sense.”

I believe that unless we make room for diverse interpretations built from what students notice—and focus as much on teaching readers as texts and on thinking as much as on answers—it’s highly probably that students will continue to rely on SparkNotes or find alternatives to beat the system, because they’re actually resourceful and smart. They read us as closely as we’d like them to read texts, trying to figure out what we want in order to give it to us. And I think that means that if we truly want to students to construct their own meaning and not just take on established ideas that are available at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen, we may need to take a closer look at what messages we’re sending out about what we really want from them.

17 thoughts on “SparkNotes Nation

  1. Vicki,
    What do you think of the idea of using Spark Notes as scaffolding for some students? In other words, read the Spark Notes summary of the chapter, then read the actual chapter. For lower level readers that we are trying to “scaffold up” to their “text complexity band” I find this can sometimes help with comprehension. It’s like Google Earth, first they take the view from higher up in space to get a lay of the land with the Spark Notes, then they zoom in with the actual text to appreciate the details.

    • As you may suspect, Dinah, I think using SparkNotes as a scaffold means that we’re teaching the text, not the reader. Yes, it can help them understand the text, just as reading a back blurb or taking a picture walk can, but I don’t believe it builds their sense of agency as a reader. My preference is to use a “Simple Text, Complex Task” approach, which would mean letting them try on the complex thinking that’s required by the Standards in an accessible text and then slowly work toward more complex texts, building on the students’ strengths, not their deficits. Tom Newkirk says something similiar in a postscript to his book “Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones,” that’s available online ( He argues that rather than forcing more complex texts on students, we might better build up their ‘real reading power,’ which will eventually give them the stamina and confidence needed to tackle challenging texts, by giving them “abundant practice with engaging contemporary writing that does not pose a constant challenge to them.” Of course, this can be a hard sell in NYC right now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

  2. Vicki
    This is a wonderful blog entry. In some way, it relates to my latest early childhood blog entry on TRUST. Giving students choices implies having trust in them. Giving teachers the freedom to let students make choices implies having trust in teachers.

    Thank you for this entry. I will share it with teachers!

    • I fear that I sometimes feel like a broken record, Renee. Give students more choice! Let them do more! Trust them and trust yourselves more! It’s just so hard in a current system that, as you write in your great post Beat of a Heart (, is more focused on performance-based tasks and assessments than trust, belief in children and community. The students in Steve Wilson’s classroom were clearly performing in ways that would stand up to any rubric or assessment, but it was a natural by-product of a classroom built around trust, belief in children and community. Why is that so hard to see?

    • Thanks so much, Sharon. And having stopped by your website, I’m really intrigued with the work you’re doing—and having just bought the book Bomb myself, with the texts you’ve chosen. Would love to learn more at some point.

  3. Love the teach the reader not the text idea. Reading and thinking go hand and hand but kids need to learn ways to get their thinking started. Your suggested discussion topics were great. Bravo!

    • I did this work a few years ago, and it was interesting to look at it now and see that that list the students came up with based on hearing their teachers talk is completely in line with what I’ve recently been called text-based strategies, which in contrast to some of the standard comprehension strategies, such as connections and predictions, keep students in the text rather than pull them out of it. But, yes . . . if we focus more on the reader than the text, we not only help them get more from the text but we help them see the thinking work that can be transferred and applied to other texts, which I think is critical if we’re really serious about students being independent.

  4. Your line, ” Bringing the reading of texts into the classroom rather than assigning them for homework may reduce the reliance on SparkNotes” is what we have been doing for the past 18 months. I agree; they are comfortable with the reading they did in class and do not look outside for support as much as they did earlier. Usually we give over 15-20 mins during an 80 minute block. For assigned texts, we may do an introduction with an audio text to get the “voice” in a student’s head, particularly if the text is challenging (“Frankenstein”)or has dialect (“Huck Finn”). For independent reading, we give them choice. The reading in class, that dedicated quiet time, may be the only time they do any reading at all.

    • So good to hear this happening in other high schools! And so interesting that the Common Core may have actually helped bring reading back into the classroom beyond the early grades. Of course we want kids to experience some classics, but my experience—and perhaps yours as well–is that they engage in those texts far more readily if they have opportunities to also read books they can more immediately connect with and find more relevance in. And I’ve also worked with high school teachers who open the door to students questioning canonical texts by framing the reading around an essential question like “Does Huck Finn have anything to say to us today?,” which also gives kids a choice to talk back to a text not just take it on.

      It would be interesting to know, though, whether or not the last 18 months have had any effect on whatever kind of standardized tests your students take. I hope so.

  5. Yikes! Study Guides for Winn Dixie and Sign of Beaver — two of my favorites — how sad! I couldn’t agree with you more about having kids negotiate meaning of texts on their own and with others in discussion. We can’t keep “telling” them what the book is about and what it means. AND we definitely need more choice in Jr. and High Schools if we want to turn kids into lifelong readers. Helping them plod through “To Kill a Mockingbird” is not going to support them in developing a reading life of their own. I love how you had the teachers discussing (fishbowl-style) while the students observed them naturally discussing the text.

    • Sad and distressing, isn’t it, to think of fourth and fifth graders feeling the need of study guides? But almost everyday that I look at the search engine terms that bring people to the blog I see people googling something like this: “What is the main theme of Sarah Plain and Tall”. And I fear that those may be teachers—teachers who feel under the gun to have the ‘right’ answer and who don’t trust their own ability to engage with a text, perhaps because they felt they couldn’t see what their own teacher saw in “To Kill a Mockingbird” way back in middle school. It’s why carving time out to read with teachers is as important as reading with students. And, perhaps, the biggest thing the students who watched that fishbowl discussion got out of it was that their teachers didn’t have the story all figured out. They needed to think and talk about it, throwing out ideas that weren’t yet completely formed and developed. And teachers need to experience that, too.

  6. I too have battled with Spark Notes. I have struggled between the classics and choice. I now give students about 15 minutes of reading time each day (in a middle school blocked language arts class) to ensure that they are reading. I often make the rounds with my clipboard to talk to different lit groups around the room and work withmy strugglers. Other times, I sit in lit groups and ask questions in the groups like I am a student while we are all reading. I think the bottom line is that in today’s society, it is not that kids can’t read, it is that they don’t read. Now, I could make the arguement that my son has been reading for the last hour as he has read his text messages. This is where their reading time is going today. Thoughts?

    • It’s interesting to note that Tom Newkirk came to the same conclusion that you did in his marvelous article “Speaking Back to the Common Core” ( that it’s not that kids can’t read, it’s that they don’t. He attributes that to kids being ‘overmatched’ to texts–i.e., that they’re thrust into harder texts before they develop the stamina and the engagement to do so, which is also what sends them to SparkNotes. Having them read in class while you’re moving around the room and sitting with groups certainly helps. But I think it’s also really important to strike the right balance between great YA literature and classics. If we think that thinking is more important that knowing the canon, kids can engage in the same kind of thinking around, say, The Hunger Games as they might in Animal Farm or Lord of the Flies. And if they’ve truly thought deeply about those YA books–and developed a sense of themselves as thinking readers–they’re more apt to be open to a classic or two, especially if we don’t get overly pious about them and allow students to talk back to those texts, perhaps the same way your son talks back to his friends.

  7. Vicky,
    A colleague and friend recommended that I check out your blog, and I’m so glad I did! What you are saying about teaching the text instead of teaching the reader really resonates with me. As a former high school English teacher and current secondary literacy coach, I see this so often in the classrooms where I work.

    In fact, I even wrote about this on my blog in this post:

    Thank you so much for this insightful post. I may refer to this thinking in my work with teachers!


    • Ditto the thanks! I’m in a high school this week which is struggling to balance independent reading with the CCS push back to canonical written-by-dead-white-men texts (which, as Randy Bomer points out in ways that completely echo you, is a conversation that was put to rest years ago in academia). I want to share your point about accountability with them and also recommend Book Love by Penny Kittle to you, which is as impassioned a plea to help high school readers develop their own reading lives as any I’ve ever read. My hunch is you’ll love it.

  8. Pingback: Where Have All the Readers Gone? | To Make a Prairie

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