Plagiarism is not a new educational issue; however, it is definitely a more tempting offense for the emerging reader and writer today. Plagiarism feeds on insecurity, impatience, and reader detachment from the reading process. For as long as I have taught high school English and writing classes, plagiarism has been a necessary topic of discussion.
Regardless of the level of student, teachers like me have run across student writing that just does not sound like it originated in the mind of the student doing the writing. If teachers are having students write often, it can be easy to spot plagiarized content because we can become acquainted with students’ voices in their writing. Students have the habit of copying and pasting content from websites into a Word document, the same one they will use for an essay; this can result in them losing track of what they have stolen from an online text and what originated in their minds.
I do not think students set out to steal another’s writing. Most of the time the reason students plagiarize is because they have not read a text actively and / or lack the confidence to trust their own analyses of what they are reading. Oftentimes, I think students are just experiencing information overload and do not know where to start. Being overwhelmed with the reading process will naturally make the writing process insurmountable. Enter SparkNotes, Shmoop, eNotes or Gradesaver.
The Internet is an amazing resource, but it can both help and harm students from becoming critical thinkers, readers, and writers. It is not tough to determine if a student is guilty of falling into the plagiarism trap unless the student has become a master of paraphrasing. What ensues after any suspicion regarding plagiarized content is often a simple Google search. It is as easy as typing in a sentence into Google and seeing if that same sentence appears in another writer’s literary analysis or on any number of study guide websites like SparkNotes.
The best method for fighting plagiarism is direct instruction on the power of active reading whether that be fictional or nonfictional reading. Teaching Internet research skills is critical as well. I talk to students ad nauseam about the fact that the writing about what they read begins the moment they begin reading. From the first page to the last page of an article, scientific journal, or novel, they must be thinking about their thinking when reading; otherwise, they will have no original thoughts with which to write an essay or research paper. They will have no other options but to produce plot summary or copy and paste information.
As I wrote earlier, plagiaristic tendencies do not discriminate between the struggling, regular-level, or AP student. I recently had some incredible, and informative, discussions with some AP-level students this semester regarding their challenge to stay away from online sources and find confidence in their own critical thinking about what they read for class. “I have to work hard not to go online to find out what a reading means,” said one of my senior students. During the final unit of the semester in AP Literature and Composition, he said he finally started using other strategies like re-reading to determine overall meaning of what he is reading instead of hopping online to read what someone else thinks. Mind you, this young man performs original rap songs and spoken word poetry in front of the entire school with a confidence reserved for professional performers. Still, he admitted to spending the majority of his high school years giving in to reading frustration and self-doubt.
Another student I spoke with talked about how hard she worked on her latest analytical essay. She also said she had to work just as hard to not peak at SparkNotes and to, instead, trust her own analyses. I have said all too often how thankful I am that I did not have to contend with the temptation of going online in order to check if my insights and analyses were “right” when reading for school. Plagiarizing was easier to avoid in those days seeing as one had to sit down with a physical book and either choose to write down word for word the information or paraphrase it. There was no option for the quick copying and pasting of information.
Like most issues, the best defense against plagiarism is honest communication, direct instruction, and modeling. We want these young people to become critical thinkers. We want them to be literate. We are all walking around with more access to information than at any other time in history. I truly believe that we all have a card to play in this adolescent literacy game. Young people are reading. They are reading a lot on their phones. They are often reading in isolation. They connect with people and content at a surface level. They do not read in-depth nor do they read inquisitively.
My plan as an educator is to continue to model my own curiosity about content and engage students in conversations about content. Discuss. Question. Seek answers. Find connection. I will show them that our thoughts about content can become the ideas we include in our writing. I will guide them to consider what they know and want to know so that when they research topics they begin first with their ideas and questions. If students begin with their original ideas and explore how what they think connects to what they are reading, there will be no need to steal content.
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