Why Cliffs Notes Should Not Get Homeschoolers An Automatic F

Homeschool moms, here are some thoughts about why Cliffs Notes should not get homeschoolers an automatic F.

Why Cliffs Notes Should Not Get Homeschoolers An Automatic F

Why Cliffs Notes Should Not Get Homeschoolers An Automatic F

When I was in high school, I had an English teacher who gave out automatic “F’s” to any student who was caught with Cliffs Notes in his or her possession.  I walked in mortal terror of every using a literature summary or study notes.

Now I teach literature to high school homeschoolers, and I actually encourage the use of literature summaries and study helps websites like www.cliffsnotes.com or www.sparknotes.com for my students in certain situations.  Want to know why?

The point of assigning books to our homeschool students is to:

* stretch them as readers (with material, vocabulary, and style they may not have encountered before)

* encourage them as critical thinkers (learning to understand and evaluate what they are reading)

* inspire them to write about ideas or character types with whom they connect

Some of the books I choose for my homeschooler to read may be thematic material he is ready to embrace, but the vocabulary or the writing style may be difficult for him.  Do I want him to give up just because of those obstacles?  Of course not!

Supplemental resources (like summary websites) are simply that:  supplemental.  They do not replace reading the book.  They do not stand alone.  But if they provide the confidence and tools for the successful completion of a difficult work of literature, why would I penalize a student for using them?

The key is integrity.  If a student says that he has read a book, he must actually have read that book, not just a summary (or watched the movie).  If he required help to successfully read and understand that book, is his accomplishment any less?  Has his integrity been compromised?

If he is able to understand the book reading it alone, that is ideal.  I only recommend going to a summary after wrestling with a book first.

Why Cliffs Notes Should Not Get Homeschoolers An Automatic FWe are wise to also consider that time is viewed differently for our children’s generation than it was for ours.  Where I rode my bike to the library to look up information for a research report, my children Google the keywords and start from there.  The idea that using a literature summary is cheating simply doesn’t make sense unless the child is substituting the summary for the actual book.

The goal is understanding of the literature at hand.  If my student has been raised with character and integrity, I can feel confident to place at his disposal tools that will aid in his understanding…regardless of what my high school English teacher thought about literature summaries like Cliffs Notes!

My vlog deals with this question….check 7 Sisters’ channel out!

What do you think about online literature summaries?


By the way, our EBookstore has three different levels of Poetry Writing Guides.  They take the fear out of introducing your homeschool student to poetry writing!

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Why Cliffs Notes Should Not Get Homeschoolers An Automatic F


Sabrina Justison

20+ year homeschool mom and curriculum developer for 7SistersHomeschool.com. Fred's wife. Writing, drama, music, blogs, kids, shoes, coffee, & books in varying orders on various days. He is God, He is good & He loves me.

9 Replies to “Why Cliffs Notes Should Not Get Homeschoolers An Automatic F”

  1. I’ve found myself encouraging students to seek additional resources as well, citing that’s exactly what’s expected of me out in ‘the real world’. If I run into a stumper of a problem at work (I’m a database programmer/analyst), my boss will be much happier if I take the initiative to do some research & find out how other folks have solved a similar problem, rather than silently struggling on my own. In my situation I’m being a better steward of my time (and therefore the company’s money) if a bit of research means we reach a solution more quickly. That’s not exactly the same thing as struggling to understand a piece of literature, but hopefully not too far a stretch! Agree 100% with Sabrina on integrity – read the book first, don’t start with the Cliffs Notes. Even books I struggled through back in high school had parts that were interesting & kept my attention, but probably would not have been quite as gripping had I read the summary first.

    • What a great point, Brian! And the parallel is a good one — at work, it is your job to solve problems in your field. A student’s job is to learn the material assigned to him or her. Thanks for articulating the point that a student is a better steward of his time and effort if he learns from work others have already done before him, rather than beating his head into the wall indefinitely!

    • I think you make a great point, Brian. However, if I may, I’d like to disagree on one teeny-weeny point. You said, “Read the book first.” For some people, I think reading a summary first helps prepare for the book. They sort of know the gist of the story and don’t get lost if it’s a deep or complicated piece. I know we all agree, the integrity is in the actual reading of the book, no matter when or how we use the supplement.

  2. Whenever we are reading lit from earlier than 1900, we check the online Sparknotes periodically (especially if we hit something we don’t have a clue about).

    BTW- Love the picture of the poor guy who missed his jump- I sometimes feel that way!!

  3. Great tips Sabrina!

    Three of my 4 have struggled with reading one way or another. One is so concerned about his integrity that we both had to beg him to use supplemental resources. When he finally did, the literature made so much more sense to him and he now actually lists Tale of Two Cities as one of his favorites!

    So grateful that we have all these resources (including, you, Sabrina!) and that they are so readily available.

    • It’s a shame that academic integrity has fallen so far in our world today that our kids sometimes OVER-compensate for the cheaters around them by being afraid to accept help!

      I am always reminded to accept help when I remember Jesus’ disciples….who had been taught the fine points of prayer from the cradle as God-fearing Jews….who came to Jesus and said, “Teach us to pray.” They knew there was more than they were understanding, and they wanted the Man who raised the dead with His prayers to clue them in!

  4. For students who struggle with reading comprehension, summaries (or the movie) can be a great help to understanding the book.

    • I have seen kids really benefit from watching a movie version, too, because it builds their confidence. They find all sorts of things “wrong” in the movie, and then it’s easy to point out that they only knew those elements were “wrong” because they’d understood and remembered so much from when they read the book!

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