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The Use and Abuse of Cliff's Notes

Updated on September 28, 2016
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

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Commentary

There is something dishonest about Cliff's Notes; however, it's not in terms of cheating. The yellow-and-black, annotated booklets are great guides for developing reading comprehension skills for a complex novel. It seems to work well after a student has read a chapter in a book and uses the booklet to get a clearer understanding of the story's plot. Also, teaching methods such as anticipatory reading (getting to know what's going to happen in the story before you actually read it) seems to work well with some of the questions it offer.

Despite its usefulness, it is one of the most abused learning tools in the American public school system. Overambitious students swamped with school work use them as a substitute for reading the entire novels. Others, looking to avoid reading all together, use them without ever opening the book it was meant to demystify. For this reason, a helpful booklet has become the bane of high school English classes across the country. And, as a result, Cliff's Notes - while not academically dishonest as a learning tool - fosters dishonesty.

A cartoonist's take on Faust, if condensed like a typical Cliff's Note booklet
A cartoonist's take on Faust, if condensed like a typical Cliff's Note booklet | Source

Most students in high school view those four years as the last step before adulthood. Many will consider college while others will try to find a trade to pursue as graduation day approaches. Still, there are requirements students must meet before this day approaches.

Most, if not all, high schools require four years of English. That's more than any other course offered through the school system. And, as a result, an ever increasing amount of reading is needed to pass them.

In California, an English class standard (set by the state) will call for at least two or three novels to be read by the end of each year. This doesn't take into account summer reading lists, the amount of short stories, and supplemental reading assignments. For a high school student taking six to seven courses in math, science and social studies, the workload can be daunting. Many will look for short-cuts to remedy this situation.

Cliff's Notes were not designed to be short-cuts. They were available to students as a means to help them comprehend and understand stories such as Nathanial Hawthorne's The Scarlett Letter, Herman Melville's Moby Dick or William Shakespeare's Hamlet. These stories are some of the finest example of English literature. And, they are some of the most complex stories in the language, as well. Cliff's Notes for these stories helped to demystify some of the symbolism, character development, word usage and figurative speech used by the authors. The booklets broke chapters down into easy-to-read outlines by offering guided questions and definitions of vocabulary and literary terms.

Cliff's Notes were not designed to be short-cuts. They were available to students as a means to help them comprehend and understand stories such as Nathanial Hawthorne's "The Scarlett Letter," Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" or William Shakespeare's "Hamlet."

However, these booklets worked too well. They became substitutes rather than supplements. From honor-roll students to students with special needs, Cliff's Notes became the unofficial "cheat sheet" for their English classes. Most often, the students stopped reading the novels and relied heavily on the booklets. They thought they were getting an edge. However, the consequences usually showed its ugly head later on in life.

Dependence on Cliff's Notes may help a student get through the tedious task of reading, but it doesn't improve their reading skills. If one is to improve his or her reading skills, they will have to dive into the novels, plays and other form of literature that the Cliff's Notes attempt to explain. There's no real way around it. They need to see the language and terminologies in action. They need to read about the plot, get to know the characters, and ultimately, find the themes on their own.

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All stories have meanings:. While Cliff's Notes help with the other parts of reading comprehension such as plot and characterization, it does nothing to help the student understand what the author's message is. This is something totally dependent on the reader. The reader's interpretation and understanding the author's intent is part of reading. And, it's tough to find this out when all you have is an outline and few defined terms. Reading comprehension, in terms of finding a theme goes much deeper than that.

When students rely heavily on Cliff's Notes rather than the actual stories, they miss something in their education. The student may pass the course in which he or she used Cliff's Notes, but they didn't learn how to decode a story's complex array of figurative language, themes, plots and other literary terms. It's a hollow victory for these students, for they passed the class but didn't learn the rules.

There's no telling what type of future these particular students will have; they'll probably struggle in college, avoid reading all together, or get into the habit of finding short cuts for everything just to get by. That's not learning. And, despite how powerful a tool Cliff's Notes can be, its misuse deems it dishonest.

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Changes may affect Cliff's Notes Use

For years, secondary school curriculum and standardized tests focused on content of the material rather than on essential skills such as the use and identity of literary devices, rhetoric, or grammar. Lately, there has been a change. With Common Core and the new slate of standardized tests, skills are being emphasized.

What does this mean for Cliff's Notes? It may mean English teachers may rely less on the events that occurred in a literary novel than they previously did. And that means Cliff's Notes summaries will not be as popular among savvy students. The one exception may be its reference to symbolism in the books.

Additional Information:Cliff's Notes Not For English Only

The focus of this commentary centers on the its use for English classes. Actually, Cliff's Notes publishes booklets for nearly every subject area including the various types of math, social studies, and science.

In many cases, these booklets are resources for facts and formulas pertaining these subject areas. For these subjects, Cliff's Notes are a valuable resource.

© 2014 Dean Traylor

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    • Chris Neal profile image

      Chris Neal 2 years ago from Fishers, IN

      Pretty good. An example or two of the sort of thing that Cliff's does not help with would help to round out the article, but well-written. Good job.

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