Literature Study Guides: Supplements NOT Substitutes!


Think you can skip the book and go straight to the literature study guides or CliffsNotes? Not so fast! Check out tutor Matthew H.‘s advice here…


Many high school and college students will use some form of literature study guides during their schooling. These can be really useful tools when implemented appropriately. Unfortunately, too many people view them as a way to avoid doing the assignment rather than as a way to understand the material better.

First of all, let’s discuss the structure of most literature study guides. The general format (keep in mind that this will vary by brand) begins with a brief overview of the book’s major themes, a plot synopsis, short character descriptions, chapter breakdowns/analyses and ends with a dissection of quotes and key points. Important questions to keep your focus on the actions and impact of the literature will be included throughout the guidebook. This is clearly a great tool that presents the key concepts of the book or play in an easy to digest, accessible way. However, if you solely rely on a guide, you are going to be cheating yourself out of a fully fleshed out understanding and appreciation of the reading.

Why is that? Remember that study guides essentially are condensed versions of the original writing. That makes for a great reference, especially when factoring in all of the additional background details they may provide, such as the historical perspective of when the work was written. While this type of guidebook in and of itself is particularly helpful in honing in on specific elements, it never will replace the complete experience of reading a book and drawing from your personal experiences after emotionally connecting to a character or story.

This is why literature study guides should be supplements and not substitutes to reading!

I know what you’re thinking: “But the whole point is so I can free up my time. If I use that on top of doing the actual reading, I’m adding more work instead of less!” It’s true that students have increasingly more homework, projects, extracurricular activities, studying for SATs, the list goes on and on. While using a literature study guide after doing the reading may seem redundant, it actually will end up saving you more time in the long run.

If you opt to skip out on the reading and solely use an abridged version instead, you are not going to be able to connect to the reading in a substantial way to answer every question in class. You might feel like it’s enough to pass by, but if you are tested on the material, you may not be able to provide enough depth to earn a high mark. You even might have to retake a quiz or test to ensure a higher GPA, and that’s only if your teacher or professor allows it. Either way, it’s a big hassle.

Here’s how you should go about any reading:

  • First, use the synopsis and thematic overview portions of your study guide to know what to look for in terms of the general plot and ideas.
  • Next, read the book! If it’s a longer play or novel, break up your readings piecemeal by chapters or scenes. As you’re reading, write down any questions you have regarding the characters, their actions, and anything else. Be sure to take notes on any obvious symbolism or something that jumps out at you.
  • Once you’ve done that, you can use the guidebook to answer your questions and see how much of your own commentary matches theirs. If you spend some time to read the assignment, the literature study guide will clarify anything you weren’t sure about by introducing new concepts or reinforcing the ideas that you already came up with on your own.

In short, literature study guides like CliffsNotes or SparkNotes are good tools in addition to but NOT instead of the reading. They can provide you with another perspective that you might not have considered before, as well as affirm what you already thought. Either way, they will help you out tremendously when applied correctly. Use one (and your brain) today!

MatthewHMatthew H. provides tutoring in various subjects both online and in New Milford, NJ.  He recently received his MA from NYU with a background in Sociolinguistics and related research. Learn more about Matthew here! 




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