CliffsNotes Guides Revised in Bid To Impress Tough Critics: Teachers

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — November 08, 2000 2 min read
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Their loyalty among students well-established, CliffsNotes are being revised to combat their long-standing reputation as little more than cheat sheets and to court the approval of some of their toughest critics: teachers.

The new versions of the popular study guides to Shakespeare and other literary works include more commentary on the characters, literary themes, and authors.

They also provide discussion questions and recommendations on related film and Internet resources. Some of the revised editions are even written by veteran high school English teachers.

“Many of the titles have not been revised in quite a few years,” said Greg Tubach, a publishing director for IDG Books Worldwide, which bought CliffsNotes from founder Cliff Hillegass in 1998. The company, based in Foster City, Calif., also publishes the popular series of For Dummies instructional books.

“We now have more resources to make CliffsNotes better ... to include new types of criticism ... and to respond to what and how high school teachers are teaching,” Mr. Tubach said.

In the updated notes on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, for example, readers will find historical perspective on the era in which the story is set, more background on the author, and commentary on the circumstances surrounding his death.

Complete Texts

The title list has been expanded to about 300, including nine additions this year, and some of the guides to William Shakespeare now include the full text of his plays. CliffsComplete, an expanded version of CliffsNotes, provides commentary alongside the text and includes descriptions of the characters and their relationship to each other, glossaries, and plot summaries.

Since they were first published in 1958, CliffsNotes have acquired a stigma among English teachers, who fear that students use the guides as substitutes for reading assigned texts. But with more than 100 million copies sold, banning the guides apparently has proved futile for many teachers.

John R. Heineman, a teacher at Lincoln High School in Lincoln, Neb., and the state’s “teacher of the year” this year, said that many teachers have conceded that the notes can be a useful resource for students, particularly for more difficult tomes.

“CliffsNotes can be a valuable tool as a supplement,” said Mr. Heineman, who has been teaching for 17 years. “Unfortunately, a lot of students believe they just have to read CliffsNotes, and that’s enough. They can offer insights, but they are not a substitute for reading classic literature.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2000 edition of Education Week as CliffsNotes Guides Revised in Bid To Impress Tough Critics: Teachers


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