For years, teachers have fought a losing battle with students who insist on reading Sparknotes – or their equivalent – in place of a designated text. There is a vast arsenal of excuses that educators draw from to discourage this practice. Some use extrinsic motivation, such as grades, by insisting that the unit test will include questions far too specific for Sparknotes to be of assistance. Others use more creative (read: malicious) methods – such as the dreaded “Worksheet,” in which students must answer dozens of questions as they read in order to appease the teacher’s suspicions of negligence.
As an educator who has, in moments of weakness, resorted to each of these strategies, I can say from experience: neither approach is particularly effective. The former is a hollow threat – after all, if tests were truly so specific that they only included information Sparknotes overlooked, then there is a good chance that even those students who read diligently would suffer for not remembering the insignificant minutiae of the text. The latter is slightly more effective because it requires students to use the book to answer questions; however, someone bent on cutting corners could easily skim the assigned reading for answers to questions without truly being immersed in the context of the writing.
Furthermore, these means of manipulating students into doing their work not only fail at their chief task, but they also have the far more insidious repercussion of stripping the reading process of any elements that produce a sense of joy or discovery. A student reading Lord of the Flies through the lens of what material will be tested will miss the dark beauty of Golding’s descriptions of the pig hunt and the ironic tragedy of the dénouement. A student reading only to answer teacher-generated questions will not be generating questions of his or her own about the story and its relationship to real-world individuals, communities, and cultures. In both cases, the student’s experience is mis-educative in that the individual’s growth and desire for further reading experiences are distorted, stifled.
So if these options are ineffective and possibly detrimental, what is to be done in the battle against Sparknotes? Providing more dynamic and reflective assessments than traditional tests and worksheets is a good start. But perhaps there is an even more important idea to consider: What if all this time that educators have waged war against the tyranny of Sparknotes, they have been fighting the wrong battle? Perhaps the fact that students read these condensed summaries and analyses in place of the actual text is not the problem, but rather, a symptom of a more serious disease that has gone untreated for too long: We have lost the understanding of why we read.