Common Sense Review
Updated March 2013

SparkNotes

Study aids for required texts can help struggling readers
Common Sense Rating 3
Teacher Rating (1 Teacher Review) 3
  • Teens can read details about plot, characters, themes, and more.
  • In addition to the 50 works included, teens can download information on hundreds of other works of literature.
  • Access the full library while connected to the internet through Wi-Fi; download for off-line access.
  • Fifty commonly-assigned works are automatically included in "My Library"
  • SparkNotes tries to keep a high school-hip vibe, and encourages teens to check-in via Facebook.
Pros
The list of titles available is exhaustive.
Cons
Some students may take advantage of the resource in lieu of reading an entire work, missing out on a full understanding of the literature.
Bottom Line
Used properly, students can boost comprehension and gain insights for class discussion; teachers can be aware of the contents to gain greater insights into their students' analysis.
Amanda Bindel
Common Sense Reviewer
Classroom teacher
Common Sense Rating 3
Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return? 3

Teens may find SparkNotes a useful complement to their studies, but there's nothing particularly engaging in the design of the app. The classic works themselves are what makes the content engaging.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer? 2

SparkNotes doesn't explicitly guide teens in critical thinking or forming their own ideas. Still, it may help boost understanding -- when used as a supplement -- as teens wrestle with challenging texts.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students? 3

The information included for each work is extensive. Although there aren't any tutorials or help features, the app is quite easy to navigate.

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How Can Teachers Use It?

The titles included cover most reading lists, with works ranging from middle school novels like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Bridge to Terabithia, and The Giver to classics like The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, Shakespearean plays. There are also some more contemporary works like The Kite Runner and The Da Vinci Code, among poetry and short story selections as well.

The site's discussion guides are decent, though not exhaustive -- teachers could glean ideas for in-class analysis and activities. Teachers may also want to be apprised of the site's analysis for any works they've assigned -- it may help them assess their students' originality and ensure academic honesty.

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What's It Like?

SparkNotes, owned by Barnes & Noble, offers free study guides for hundreds of literary works on its website. The app version is preloaded with 50 works, including poetry, Shakespearean plays, and novels that frequent high school reading lists, like 1984, Brave New World, The Canterbury Tales, and The Odyssey. When connected to Wi-Fi, students can also access the site's entire library titles, easily downloading them to their device for off-line access.

Each title includes a plot overview, background information about the author and the work, a character list, and analysis, including explorations of themes, motifs, and symbols. Students can read a detailed chapter-by-chapter summary, explanations of important quotations, and lists of key facts and study questions.

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Is It Good For Learning?

When it comes to literary study guides, SparkNotes offers some of the most in-depth analysis when compared to other free and low-cost offerings. If teachers can ensure kids fully experience the texts by reading themselves -- perhaps through in-class reading -- then the information available through SparkNotes can really help students make sense of, and think more deeply about, the literature they're reading.

Often, when students have a preliminary understanding of a text's plot and characters, they're more easily able to understand the original text, especially in cases where the language and text complexity prove to be challenging. Students may even find inspiration in some of the ideas they read, bringing their own insights into class discussions and analytical writing.

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