What’s so bad about SparkNotes?

“SparkNotes” seems to be a dirty word in the English classrooms of Lincoln-Way Central. It seems as if almost any teacher frowns upon students mentioning they’ve been using the website, or one of its close relatives (Shmoop, CliffsNotes, etc). But why is that? Is it truly detrimental to a student’s education when they turn to these online resources?

Sparknotes is an online resource for students to help clarify readings—mostly literature, but the site offers guides on several other subjects. Typically, students utilize it in their English classes for help during novel units. The website presents options to look at summaries, analysis, and  “no fear” plain english translations of each chapter. Many students use some combination of these options, or opt to use each one before going into class. These provide a sense of security with the readings—when used as a supplement, they can increase understanding in exactly what happened in the novel, and fill gaps that may have been missed amongst the flowery language. As put by junior AP language student Kendall Santoro, “I do believe [SparkNotes] is beneficial as it provides a clearer perspective that can aid a student…it did offer me a clear understanding of the chapters and I felt prepared going into class the next day.”

Furthermore, SparkNotes cannot truly be used for cheating. English classes aim to measure a student’s understanding of literary and rhetorical techniques. On simple plot-based quizzes, a student could slide by with using online summaries, but in most class discussions, tests, and essays, literary skills are needed to succeed that can’t be gained by checking a webpage. When teachers look down on this valuable resource, they fail to realize that good students cannot falsify high scores with SparkNotes—they use it to fill gaps so they can more successfully learn and analyze.


Response from Lincoln-Way English Teachers:

I feel that Sparknotes can be a valuable tool if used as a supplement to reading and class instruction.  Students who may be struggling with comprehension may find it helpful to read Sparknotes first so they have a sense of what the chapter/section is about and then read the chapter.  It is frustrating that students use the word “Sparknote” as a verb they feel can be interchanged with “read” (i.e. “I’m just going to Sparknote the chapter tonight.”) Although Sparknotes can be used as an aid, Sparknotes should never replace reading from the text itself.  Nothing worthwhile can be captured by simply getting the “Sparknotes” version.

-Lisa Yanule, English Department Chair


I think Sparknotes can be used productively in two ways: when a piece is difficult (like Shakespeare) and students’ need an overview of what is happening before they read, I think it can be valuable. The same goes for students who simply have great difficulty in reading. I think Sparknotes is also useful as a way to reinforce what a student just read. As a student, I remember wondering, “Did I read that correctly?” in connection with a difficult text (probably Shakespeare). I think the key here is that Sparknotes is used to reinforce literary concepts, not replace reading the text.

-Lisa McAllister, College Writing and English I teacher

Regarding sparknotes, etc., I think they are a decent way for students to confirm what they have already read. Some of the literature in our curriculum is difficult and if students have evening reading, for example, and they are unsure of something they have read, yet want to be prepared for class discussion the following day, sparknotes can often be helpful. However, students at Lincoln-Way should understand that their teachers know what sparknotes offers and plan assessments accordingly.

It is never a good idea to use sparknotes exclusively as a substitute to reading. That would be like saying you’ve been to Europe because you once saw a youtube video about Paris. There is no substitute for truly experiencing literature, just as there is no substitute for travel.

If you’re looking to sparknotes as a short cut, you’re really only cutting yourself short. I wouldn’t advise…

-Sara Davy, AP Literature and English I Honors teacher


Because we often read together or use audio to listen to chapters to different texts, if students want to confirm their comprehension with  Sparknotes, I do not object. Especially with Shakespeare and struggling readers, students may need to take the time to verify their understanding.

-Karin Dunn, English I and II teacher