Actively Learn: Exploring Digital Social Reading, Young Adult Literature, and Global Issues with Your Students

By Sofia Guzzon, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice

Sofia Guzzon

Actively Learn is a digital reading platform designed for young adults which can be useful for foreign language learners of English. The platform includes a large amount of ready-made content in English and can be sorted on the basis of the text difficulty level (in this way the reading materials are ideal for L1 English students and for EFL learners as well). Actively Learn displays a series of resources like articles, short stories, poems, videos, and books from a variety of different genres, such as argumentation, exposition, drama, literary nonfiction, and more. Specifically, the materials available are related to English Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies. The platform is exceptionally versatile and rich in terms of topic variety and engagement. Additionally, Actively Learn offers teachers the opportunity to upload their own content to the platform, opening it up for use with the teaching of languages other than English as well.

Name of the tool Actively Learn
Primary purpose Digital Social Reading platform for young learners 
Cost Most materials are free, but some book licences and subscriptions need to be bought in order to access premium features.
Ease of use Easily accessible via PC or smartphone. Activities based on the texts are highly customizable and appealing. Appropriate for autonomous reading.

Using Actively Learn to Promote Reading and Discuss Global Issues with Your Students

Actively Learn is the ideal platform to help your students discover a new passion for reading. Students can read on any device (PC, laptop, or smartphone), when and where they prefer. Activities are designed to be interactive through links to web pages, social network profiles, videos, audio, and pictures. The design of the platform aims to disincentivize shallow digital reading by providing settings that promote interactive engagement. For example, students and teachers can share comments or notes about the texts on the margins. 

Why use Actively Learn with your students?

  • Boost EFL digital reading skills: While reading, students can highlight texts with different colours, add comments and media on the margins, make annotations, or answer questions prepared by the teacher. The platform is designed to provide linguistic support, so students can select a word and look for its definition or select a sentence and see its translation. There is also the possibility to listen to the text and the settings can be adapted for people with disabilities. 
  • Promote student social engagement, individual empowerment, and self-reflection: The reading material of the platform provides content that will stimulate reflection about adolescence and personal growth. Young Adult Literature books, with their characters and adventures, can really speak to teenagers: these stories display tools that teenagers can use to face everyday challenges at home, at school or with friends. In addition, the platform materials focus on global issues such as climate change, gender equality, mental health, justice, and more. Reading is indeed the main source of knowledge, this is why it can become a tool to have success against life problems and boost individual empowerment.

Transforming “The Giver” by Lois Lowry in a Digital Social Reading Experience in Actively Learn

Here I will give an example of how you can transform a young adult literature classic such as “The Giver” by Lois Lowry into a digital social reading activity. The following project was designed for high school foreign language learners of English participating in a summer online book club. The book is appropriate for students at a B1+ level (on the CEFR scale, which corresponds to Intermediate Mid or High on the ACTFL scale). The book “The Giver” is available inside the Actively Learn platform. It is possible to access the entire book by buying a licence, and once you have a teacher licence, you can also add prompts to the text.

“The Giver” talks about the teenage life of the 12-year-old Jonas, who lives in a strict and dystopian society where there is no freedom. This story is rich, with many themes and symbols that reflect the reality in which we live. One of the major themes is the control of the population’s collective memory, which is manipulated to subjugate all members of society: memories of the past, especially negative ones, are in fact a source of knowledge and wisdom that could impact stability. Another important thread is conformity and the lack of individuality or self-expression: no difference means no conflict, no discrimination no competition. A last theme is the total control of the climate.

This is how the reading activity was structured: 

Phase 1: Pre-reading (in class) Phase 2: While-reading (summer online social reading via laptop or smartphone) Phase 3: Post-reading (in class)
Goal: students familiarise themselves with key ideas and terms of the book, build background knowledge, and activate a critical thinking process. Goal: improve reading abilities and comprehension, boost autonomous reading, develop digital reading skills, and stimulate self-reflection together with reflections on global issues through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Goal: reflect on the content of the book, share ideas, and suggest possible solutions for everyday issues. 
  • Digital social reading activity in Actively Learn on the text of “The Giver”.

Prompts could be divided into categories that refer to thematic threads inside the plot: coming of age, society, environment, literary features, characters, main idea and message, and personal thoughts. The interactive material and the questions are aimed at helping students reflect on the text and on how the literary content allows for the exploration of real world issues. The main topics that could be addressed are mental health, environmental issues, climate change, equality and racism, and hunger.

  • In-pair discussion about three favourite aspects of the book.
  • Class discussion and summary of the book with the teacher. The teacher may prepare some questions to guide the class conversation. 

All these prompts have been added as notes on the margins inside the Actively Learn Platform. Each of them was connected to a word or a sentence inside the text to guide students during their reading. Example of prompts in the book “The Giver” by Lois Lowry:

Picture 1 - Multimodal prompts - coming of age. quote: I can see that it was a dangerous way to live. question prompt: Do you think that feelings are always easy to handle? Wht do you do when you start feeling overwhelmed? Check out this Instagram page with title 9 ways to cope with big emotionsquote: the memory There are many types of memory, with infographic that has text on it. Types of memory: sensory - Holding sensory info (e.g. sounds, smells) very briefly. 1 second; working - manipulating info and helpful in remembering details of a task; short-term - allows us to recall a brief string of info (5-9 items) for ~30 seconds; episodic - long-term memory of autobiographical info (e.g. events from childhood); semantic - long-term memory for general knowledge (e.g. what words mean); procedural - long-term memory that helps us perform tasks (e.g. riding a bike); @positively therapy
Picture 1 – Multimodal prompts – coming of age

Students can explore mental health content by having a look at two Instagram pages curated by experts in the field: Therapy in a Nutshell@positivelytherapy.

Picture 2 - Multimodal prompts - society; quote: sameness - In your opinion what do they mean by "master Sameness"? what is the ultimate goal and why? Answer the questions and then have a look at the video. Below the text there is a video with a woman speaking and a drawing. quote: there had been a time when flesh had different colors. Two of these men had dark brown skin; the others were light. Why do you think there is no differentiation in skin colour in this society? Watch the video and write down one idea that caught your attention. Add a comment down below. below the text there is a video that is called "The Myth of Race". quote - The population had gotten so big that hunger was everywhere. What do you know about hunger in the real world? Answer the question and watch the video. below is a video called "Business Beyond - Global food supply: A broken system?"
Picture 2 – Multimodal prompts – society

Students can learn more about equity, equality, racism and social inequalities such as poverty and hunger through videos that constitute a source of authentic material. Here are the videos used in the prompts: Equity vs Euality, The myth of race, A world going hungry? How conflict and climate change disrupt global food supply.

Picture 3 - Multimodal prompts - environment - quote: I wish we had those things. Jonas is experiencing nature for the first time. Think about the moments when you are in a natural environment. What do you usually appreciate? Follow the link in the text and hear the sounds of nature in different areas of the world. Below is an image that says "Hear me while you can". quote: climate - Watch the video. Think about the new climate-friendly habit that can become part of your daily routine. Think about a challenge that you can set at home, at school or with your friends to involve other people and make your new habit grow inside the group. Add a comment with your idea. Below is a video that says: Vox: meh... and has the picture of a person on the left and a polar bear on an ice sheet floating in the water on the right. quote: Before Sameness, Before Climate Control. Humans have a significant impact on climate. But we can try to control our habits to respect the environment and take care of it. Technology can be very helpful! Here are a couple of apps that have been designed to help people stay tuned. Have a look. Do you already use pro-sustainability apps? Which ones? Below this are links and images from two apps: We Don't Have Time and Earth Hero.
Picture 3 – Multimodal prompts – environment

Students can learn more about the environment by listening to the sounds of nature in different parts of the world (Here me while you can), by using apps to track their daily climate-friendly habits (We don’t have timeEarth Hero), or by watching explanatory videos in English (Why humans are so bad at thinking about climate change video).

Picture 4 - Multimodal prompts - literary features and main idea and message - quote: But the most conspicuous difference was the books. Follow the link and have a look at this Instagram post. Does any of these places resemble what Jonas is describing? Which image can you best associate with the description? Below is an image of a large library with caption: Stuttgart Library, Germany; quote: He forced his eyes open as they went downward, downward, sliding, and all at once he could see lights, and he recognized them now. The sledge, the hill, and the lights are important elements of the story. What do you think they symbolize? How do you imagine this scene? Find a painting that could be associated with the author's description and post it here. Below is an image that looks like an icy landscape.
Picture 4 – Multimodal prompts – literary features and main idea and message

Students can use their imagination and try to connect text descriptions to places they know or to paintings they have seen (see this Instagram post about the world’s most beautiful libraries). This is how digital prompts can visually stimulate and engage them during the experience. 

Platform Access and Use

When you enter Actively Learn, you can create a free teacher account that gives you access to most of the materials on the platform. Teachers can then create their virtual classrooms where all the assignments will appear. 

To create a digital classroom inside the platform, click on the hamburger menu on the top left of the screen and select the “plus” button in correspondence with “classes”. At this point, a window will open where the teacher is asked to provide a name for the classroom.

Picture 5 - Creating a classroom inside Actively Learn - Add a new class: To start a new class, enter the info below: Class name (up to 40 characters), Grade level, button that is labeled "Submit"
Picture 5 – Creating a classroom inside Actively Learn

When the teacher opens the text in Actively Learn a toolbar appears at the top. Here, it is possible to modify the settings, add questions and notes inside the text, and access the table of contents. On the right, there is a special button to see the student preview and it is also possible to have Actively Learn read the text out loud. The teacher can choose the colour of the background, the font style and size (with some suggested fonts that are more accessible for students with disabilities), the page numeration, and more. The teacher can also see all the questions and notes together and move freely between chapters of the book.

Picture 6 - Editing bar - Test settings, Mark assignment as quiz, Report test error, Remove questions by section, Remove all questions and notes, View notes, View questions, Title Page, Contents, Copyright, Dedication, Introduction, Chapters 1-8. There are options for "Grade" and "Student preview"
Picture 6 – Editing bar

It is possible for teachers to add notes on the margins of the text and question boxes at the beginning or at the end of each chapter. Notes on the margins can be used by the teacher to add digital prompts (links, videos, or audio that students can access while reading) and can be used by students as well to add comments and ideas about a passage. Notes can be connected to one word or to an entire sentence of the text. In addition, notes created by all users are always visible to the others, in this way students can see the comments of their peers. At the beginning of each chapter, an instruction box can be added by the teacher to give guidelines or state a pre-reading question. Similarly, at the end of the chapter, there is a button to add a comprehension question. The question could be a short answer, multiple-choice, or poll. Students answer directly by typing their answer in the box window (see student view). 

This is how notes on the margins appear inside the platform:

Picture 7 - Adding notes on the margins - on the left is the text. some text is selected. Some comments are visible from the instructor, and then there is a panel that allows categories for themes to be chosen to mark various passages by theme.
Picture 7 – Adding notes on the margins

This is how question boxes appear inside the platform:

Picture 8 - Question box - teacher view - questions can be: short answer, multiple choice, poll, drawing, classifying. We can see some text that the instructor has entered in. Teachers can also add or edit aligned standards. We can see an example multiple choice question.
Picture 8 – Question box – teacher view
Picture 9 - Question box - student view - Question 1 - 10 points - So far the description has been rich in details. Identify 5 words inside the chapter that are significant in terms of style to set the mood and the scene. Click to answer. Buttons that are labeled: Save draft, and Submit.
Picture 9 – Question box – student view

If you do not want to use one of the texts available in Actively Learn, or if you teach a language other than English, there is the possibility to import files in your classroom space. See a quick tutorial on how to import and edit your own files in Actively Learn. 

Conclusions and Further Directions

Strategically incorporating new technologies in foreign language classes improves students’ digital awareness, communication skills, and critical thinking skills. Digital reading is now part of our daily experience, and knowing how to approach it is an essential skill to master in 21st-century educational environments. Given that literary works mirror real-life experiences and challenges, students have the opportunity to share their thoughts about daily life and also contemporary global issues, finding new motivation to become active and responsible citizens.

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