Website review by Amy Lauren Botula, Common Sense Education | Updated April 2014

CliffsNotes

A decent support for understanding reading, but not a replacement

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Grades
7–12 This grade range is based on learning appropriateness and doesn't take into account privacy. It's determined by Common Sense Education, not the product's publisher.
Subjects & Skills
English Language Arts, Critical Thinking
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Pros: A skeleton key to many of the texts students find difficult, these guides offer a great balance of analysis and summary.

Cons: The somewhat jumbled design, and limited support for struggling and reluctant readers, could discourage.

Bottom Line: Sometimes it’s OK to make friends with the enemy; there's potential to support students as they decipher challenging texts.

The more you model using CliffsNotes as a guide, the faster it'll lose its allure as a shortcut to genuine reading. Show students how to use the guides (among other resources and strategies) when encountering unfamiliar or potentially challenging texts. You can also encourage the site's use for support and clarification throughout the reading process.

Model for students how to use overviews and chapter summaries to create context and purpose before they read. Show them how to look for context clues that will help once they're reading on their own. Share the guides' character lists as part of a prediction activity. The critical essays could be used as models for writing (though you can probably find some better examples elsewhere) -- highlight for students how the writer discusses specific themes, symbols, or characterization. You might also encourage students to use the site's quizzes to check their own understanding of what they've read.

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The CliffsNotes site features online study guides -- in a similar vein to the classic paperbacks of the same ilk -- for contemporary and classic literary works. There are also resources for test prep, as well as an entire section devoted to Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. Most of the site's guides are free to access, with some options for purchase or download.

Over 300 titles are available in the site's literature section, ranging from contemporary favorites like The Hunger Games to classics such as Absalom, Absalom! and War and Peace. Guides offer book overviews, detailed summaries and analyses, character analyses, critical essays, and glossaries and quizzes. A few of the guides feature audio overviews. There's also a downloadable app version for tablet and mobile users.

When it comes to CliffsNotes, "guide" is the operative word. With effective teacher facilitation, students could come to see the site's study guides as a valuable support to their reading and analysis, rather than a replacement. Teacher facilitation is paramount here. The site's ad-riddled design and lack of hierarchy in text presentation could easily discourage and distract, especially for reluctant readers who may find the site as confounding as the originally assigned text. Proper teacher modeling -- demonstrating strategies on how to navigate the guide -- could prevent some of that frustration.

The only interactive feature are the quizzes available at the end of each guide. On the plus side, they do report the score, highlight incorrect answers, and indicate correct responses.

Overall Rating

Engagement Would it motivate students and hold their interest? Is it visually appealing? Would it inspire teachers to try something new or change their instruction?

Kids may think it's a shortcut, but once there they'll find the texts just as dense as most required reading -- amid oddly placed and distracting ads.

Pedagogy Does the tool help teachers promote a more student-centered experience? Will students gain conceptual understanding or think critically? Does it deepen teachers’ pedagogical thinking?

The site offers over 300 free study guides for classic literature and contemporary favorites. Guides go beyond summaries and provide support for analyzing characterization, motifs and symbolism, themes, and structure.

Support Can students and teachers get assistance when they need it? Is it created with people of different abilities and backgrounds in mind? Is learning reinforced and extended beyond the digital experience?

While the site is itself a reading support, there are few features to help readers navigate the on-site experience. Some guides have audio options and downloadable apps, but reluctant or struggling readers may still need assistance.


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