18 February 2014

The Sparknotes problem

I know I haven’t written a real post for a while… Although I’ve managed to resist getting swept into the polar vortex, I couldn’t resist getting caught in a vortex more of my own making — namely, my ACT grammar book. You know, two-and-a-half years is LONG time to have a book sitting on your plate. I didn’t actually realize that until I finished the last revision I could stand to make after approximately 35 hours of revisions in in four days (cumulating in a formatting change that forced me to change every single page reference in the entire book. At midnight) and suddenly discovered that I could actually start to deal with everything I’d been putting off for weeks and weeks while I pondered the eternal question of whether the following sentence really did provide the most appropriate transition between paragraphs.

Like, you know, writing blog posts. Which I acknowledge have been shamefully sporadic.

At any rate, I now feel compelled to share this little problem, which is becoming more and more of an irritation in my tutoring.

When I start working with a new student, there are a few questions I normally ask: What foreign language do you take and what have you covered? What are you currently reading in English class, and what have you read in the past year or two? Do you read books/newspapers on a regular basis?

You see, my mistake has been to assume that even if students don’t read on their own, they’ve actually been doing the reading that they’re assigned in English class.

Increasingly, however, I realize that my question should really be this: how often do you actually do the assigned reading for English class, and how often do you just go on Sparknotes.com and read the summaries?

Or perhaps more cynically: do you ever do the assigned reading for English class, or do you just go on Sparknotes and read the summaries?

The first time a student told me she’d gotten an A- in English class without ever reading any of the books (at a fairly rigorous $40K+/year Manhattan private school, incidentally), I was mildly taken aback. The second time it happened, a bit less so. Now, I’ve (sadly) come to expect it, even from straight-A students.

A friend of mine who teaches AP French now spends most of her prep time trying to find readings that can’t be looked up in translation online. I think that pretty much says it all.

Aside from the obvious question of what on earth could actually be going on in English class that would allow students to get perfect grades without doing any of the reading (lots of extra credit???), this is starting to pose some real problems for standardized testing.

Now to be fair, I actually think that Sparknotes is a pretty good resource. I find the summaries and analyses to be quite accurate and thorough, and they offer very solid guidance for someone who needs to understand basic themes, characters, etc.

It is not, however, a substitute for reading actual books.

In terms of school, that might not be apparent. If students can glance through Sparknotes, ace the quiz the next day, and bullshit a few comments to ensure that all-important participation grade, there’s no apparent drawback to that method. The fact that they’re not actually learning anything would seem to be irrelevant.

The problem only shows up when they hit the SAT or the ACT. Suddenly, they’re being asked to read texts much more challenging than, well Sparknotes, and there’s no way to whip out an ipad look up the answer. Having minimal experience with unfamiliar vocabulary, for example, they don’t know how to use context clues to figure out what they don’t know. The experience of struggling with a text is entirely foreign to them, and the feeling of winning its meaning even more so. (Why bother if it isn’t easy, right? And who would, like, write in that weird way anyhow?)

What truly concerns me, however, are the truly head-spinning conversations I’ve had with parents who in one sentence openly admit that their child goes on Sparknotes for every English assignment, and in the next express their utter bewilderment over why that child (a straight-A student) just cannot seem to raise his score, no matter how many practice tests he takes.

Gee, I wonder…

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