Teachers Love How This Online Reading Platform Fosters Deeper Learning

Media Literacy

Teachers Love How This Online Reading Platform Fosters Deeper Learning

from Actively Learn by Achieve3000

By Kelli Anderson     Apr 2, 2019

Teachers Love How This Online Reading Platform Fosters Deeper Learning

Like many educators, Christy Stanley wants her students to practice close reading and deep learning. But she is up against a far more seductive habit. “We have a generation of skimmers and scanners because these kids are always on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat,” says Stanley, director of humanities and healthful living for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City school district in North Carolina. “They don’t know how to slow down their reading.”

Three years ago, Stanley’s district discovered a powerful ally in its quest to get kids to pause and really process what they’re reading. After a few of the district’s schools participated in a pilot program with the digital reading platform Actively Learn, Stanley got a look at teacher surveys and other program details. “I was impressed,” says Stanley. “I’ve been in public education for 20 years, and I don’t say that often. What we were hearing from teachers was, ‘I would really hate to be without this next year.’”

Stanley, a former ninth-grade English teacher, often thinks about how different her pedagogy might have been—or, as a student, how much deeper her learning might have gone—with access to Actively Learn’s sequenced sets of texts and other materials designed to provide historical context and achieve depth in a particular topic. When reading Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl,” for example, students can also explore related material, from the Maya Angelou poem “Caged Bird” to Nazi propaganda posters. “As a student, I’m not just reading the book,” says Stanley. “I’m learning conceptually about how these things fit together.”

Stanley spoke with EdSurge about the features she and the teachers love about their district’s reading platform, including the ability to curate content, build scaffolds, and embed standards-aligned questions throughout a text. She also discussed the importance of deeper learning and the challenges of facilitating it, and the necessity of making learning visible in order to see if and how students are processing information.

EdSurge: What led your district to adopt a digital reading platform?

Christy Stanley: When one of our instructional coaches brought the program to our attention a few years ago, we had already identified a need to better prepare students for digital reading. In North Carolina, we have transitioned all of our state assessments to online. So we needed to ask, “What does digital or online reading look like, feel like? How do we prepare students to do that more actively? How do we get students to translate skills like annotation to digital reading?” Actively Learn offered many ways for our kids to read more widely and deeply with digital text.

How does the platform work?

In a nutshell, it allows teachers to create content. And it allows them to assess and provide feedback in real time around the metacognitive strategies kids are using—or not using. It reveals students’ thinking, which I think is so powerful. The only way you can know if students are understanding what you’re teaching is to get them to talk about it or write about it. The Actively Learn platform provides opportunity for both approaches. The program’s ASR framework—Activate, Support, Reveal—is all about how to activate students’ thinking, how to build in support for that, and how to get them to reveal their thinking. This is critical in any content area, because that’s how you unpack misconceptions.

Another strength is that the program puts grade-level content in front of children. It allows teachers to put in—and eventually remove—the appropriate scaffolds for children on any given text. For example, let’s say the reading is about the Fourth of July and why we celebrate Independence Day. If I’m from another country—and we have lots of children from all over the world in our district—that has no context for me. As a teacher, I can embed videos or add pictures of the Statue of Liberty or things about the Declaration of Independence to build background knowledge. Then I add standards-aligned questions about the content throughout the text. Through the students’ responses, I can see if there’s a weakness in terms of a particular standard.

Students in Actively Learn have access to a variety of support features such as scaffolding notes, embedded media, translation into more than 30 languages, an embedded dictionary, text-to-speech and dyslexic mode.

How does your district use it?

It’s very much choice-based for our teachers. Right now, it’s used primarily in our four middle schools and three high schools. English, social studies and science are our highest users. We also have a good handful of world language teachers who utilize it.

The platform is really multifaceted and can meet a multitude of needs. It can be a repository for your district curriculum. Not only does it allow you to upload and house your resources, it allows you to curate content. What they have is very robust, and it’s constantly being updated with their text sets and independent reading.

An example of an Actively Learn assignment with embedded questions and scaffolding notes.

How does Actively Learn engage students?

One way is that students can’t move further into the passage until they answer a question, so it forces students to read, stop, think and process as opposed to letting them just go straight to the end before answering questions.

As a student, I can take notes within the text. I can look up vocabulary words. I can have text translated into myriad languages. I can use the dyslexic feature to change the text’s margins and spacing, font size or color.

As a teacher, I can number the paragraphs and chunk the text for some of my readers who need that. I can embed videos or pictures or related documents to make it much more engaging. When you have things to click and you have to stop and answer questions, it keeps the brain working more than just passively reading.

Actively Learn differentiates supports for students who need extra help, offering text-based features that let them access the same rigorous assignment as their classmates.

Why is that important?

In education we talk a lot about rigor. I believe you increase rigor by increasing the opportunities for speaking and writing—because that is the only true way to unpack what you know about something. Students need to either talk to me about it, or write about it.

In the sense of learning things deeply, part of our task as educators is to build background knowledge for students—particularly those who don’t come from literacy-rich backgrounds—through exposure to a variety of texts, images and videos. That helps them create connection. Brain research tells us you have to have something to anchor new learning to. You can’t learn new things in isolation; you have to make a connection to something you already know for it to really become part of your working knowledge.

Why is deeper learning difficult to achieve?

So much of learning is wrapped up in metacognition. That means it is happening inside your head. The only way as a teacher I can help you learn better and deeper is to see what you’re doing. If you’re doing a math problem, you can show me your work. Your misconceptions become very clear.

But with silent reading—I don’t know what processes are going on in a student’s mind unless I create structures to make their thinking visible. Actively Learn allows us to do that.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up