Guest Post: Building Literacy with Actively Learn

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By Lesley Burdine, Technology Integration Coach at Clarksville-Montgomery County School System

(NCCE welcomes Lesley to the NCCE Tech-Savvy Teacher blog)


Have you ever found that digital tool that when you use it with students all of a sudden faces brighten and learning begins to blossom? As you step back you think to yourself, “I thought this had potential, but I never imagined this!”  This happened for me several years back with Actively Learn in a low socioeconomic classroom where fourth graders had comprehension levels from kindergarten to seventh grade. They were reading the Emancipation Proclamation and it was my hope that Actively Learn could bridge the gap for the struggling readers.  Little did I know that it would do much more. This powerful tool afforded us a collaborative learning experience that empowered all learners to read and write in the most engaging way. Students quickly became peer scholars providing helpful notes that served as scaffolding for others and the rich dialogue and accountable talk that ensued was amazing. Students could not stop reading and responding to text. On this day, learning was authentic and purposeful and students grasped the true power of literacy. Hope you enjoy this blog post and are motivated to explore the many ways that Actively Learn can help you to increase student engagement in reading, comprehending, and responding to text.  

Shannon Davenport, NCCE | Director of Professional Learning


Like Shannon, I experienced just what a game-changer Actively Learn can be for both teachers and students.  Almost three years ago, in my tenth year of teaching, the Academic Coach at my middle school used Actively Learn to facilitate an after-school professional development on close reading and checking for understanding during instruction.  Looking back, it was clear that she used it simply to whet our appetites and spark our curiosity for this powerful tool that we’d never heard of before. Methodically, she first allowed us to actually experience Actively Learn as a student.  Instead of printing out copies of a professional article about increasing literacy and asking us to read it silently and be prepared to discuss, she imported the article into Actively Learn and embedded checks for understanding throughout the text which “chunked” into more manageable and comprehensible pieces (which was VERY appreciated if you can identify just how tired teachers are on a Thursday afternoon immediately after school).  Quite frankly, from that moment on, I was SOLD! I remember returning to my classroom that day right after the meeting and immediately beginning to Google, research, and dive right into using Actively Learn for my 8th grade U.S. History students. This tool was a natural fit for my subject area and content considering the significant amount of primary source texts that students were exposed to and required to read and comprehend well enough to answer higher-order questions based on them.  I can remember just how frustrated I would get when I realized that students were not performing well on district assessments, not because they didn’t know the U.S. History content, but because they lacked the literacy skills to enable them to answer such higher-order questions based on primary source excerpts. (Insert: Actively Learn!) Actively Learn enabled me to import texts from our district’s approved list of primary sources and build in scaffolding, extra help notes, annotations, etc to support student understanding of these texts.  Likewise, I was able to embed various checks for understanding throughout these texts to ensure students were understanding what they read AS they read it (rather than days/weeks later) and provide them with real-time feedback that would help them identify what, where, and how they might have struggled with comprehension. I witnessed students making drastic gains in comprehension, literacy, and critical thinking skills through occasional use of Actively Learn that enabled them to increase their achievement on unit, district, and state assessments and demonstrate growth in both my class content and their overall literacy.  The next school year I became a Technology Integration Coach for our school district and found out that our district purchased a subscription to Actively Learn that would enable all teachers in our district to have full access to the reading platform. Fortunately, I am able to share the power of Actively Learn with the teachers, schools, and the district I support and serve through coaching, professional learning opportunities, and conferences.

What is Actively Learn?

Active Learn studentActively Learn is a digital tool that engages students in reading and writing by leveraging the power of digital collaboration. Teachers can easily distribute text whether it be an article from a website, Google Documents, or pdfs.  In order to increase student engagement, accessibility, and accountability, teachers can:

  • Chunk the text into portions
  • Embed checks for understanding throughout the text
  • Insert text, image, and/or video sidenotes to provide scaffolding
  • Provide hints and/or model responses for students when checking for understanding
  • Provide real-time, subjective feedback to students
  • View assessment data in real-time
  • View student statistics like time spent on a text, amount of notes taken, and/or number of times they looked up words while reading
  • Provide “extra help” for designated students
  • Browse the library for pre-created activities, select, modify, and assign them to their students.
  • Create quizzes to be automatically graded.

Students can engage with the text in the following ways:

  • Active Learning Student 2Take interactive notes that the teacher can view   and respond to
  • Enable Accessibility features such as font style and dyslexic settings
  • Listen to the text being read aloud
  • Translate the text to another language
  • Ask the teacher questions
  • Scaffold text with media to increase comprehension
  • Request to revise initial response
  • View, read, and/or listen to teacher sidenotes provided
  • Browse and use the independent reading library

Active Learning Students 3

Actively Learn is deeply grounded in reading pedagogy and offers a host of professional learning opportunities for teachers around strategies such as asking higher-order questions, strategic annotation, close reading, accessibility, providing effective feedback, and more.


Ideas for using Actively Learn?

Connection to ISTE Standards for Students and Teachers

Retrieved from

“…Actively Learn has really helped my students. I teach inclusion classes and also have struggling readers that do not have an IEP. The reading tools that Actively Learn has built in give these readers the ability to better comprehend text. Actively Learn takes some of the fear out of reading for these students. Students can have the text read to them as they read with text-to-speech function. They can look up words they don’t know with the define function. There is even a translation function built in for ELL students. I think Actively Learn makes struggling readers feel more secure and can build their confidence when it comes to reading. Even my advanced students struggle with some vocabulary that we would consider “grade-level”. I have noticed a decrease in my students’ vocabulary comprehension over my years of teaching. Actively Learn can help even my advanced students build their vocabulary and better comprehend what they read.”

-Kenneth Freeman, Clarksville High School U.S. History Teacher, Clarksville, TN

ISTE standards

“I was introduced to Actively Learn three or four years ago. Since I started using it in the classroom, I have seen my students become more involved in their reading experiences. One of the most beneficial things Actively Learn provides is the ability to challenge my high achieving students and support my struggling readers at the same time. As a result, I use Actively Learn almost exclusively for the required readings in U.S. History.”

-Kenneth Freeman, Clarksville High School U.S. History Teacher, Clarksville, TN

ISTE Analyst

I create standards-based questions for the standards we’re currently working on and spiral back to previously taught standards…I especially like the tagging feature. It allows me to tag questions based on standards so that I can identify which standards most need to be retaught based on the assessment data. I also like the feature that tells me how long students spend reading. This feature gives me an idea of who is rushing or not reading the texts carefully...The main reason I use Actively Learn is to increase student engagement and provide access to high interest texts that I can select based on students’ individual needs. It allows students to work at their own pace and to have a virtual “me” asking them questions throughout reading texts.

Tracy Bramel, 2nd grade Teacher, Moore Magnet Elementary School in Clarksville, TN


“I typically grade student submissions in real-time to give them instant feedback which helps them see whether or not they are reading and comprehending the text correctly.”

-Kenneth Freeman, Clarksville High School U.S. History Teacher, Clarksville, TN


Begin leveraging the power of Actively Learn!

  1. Actively LearnSign up for a free account.
  2. Learn from Actively Learn’s Professional Learning Center.
  3. Read Actively Learn’s research report, “Stop Skimming, Start Learning:  How to Ensure Every Student Reads for Depth”.
  4. Set up your first class account.
  5. Prepare a text using Actively Learn’s Literary and Informational Text Library or use your own text from the Internet or a PDF
  6. Invite students to your class with an easy-to-use class code.
  7. Allow students to use all the Accessibility tools to individual the text to meet their learning style.
  8. Develop a community of literary citizens by using all the collaborative reading features.
  9. Watch a love for reading and writing grow within your classroom!


Teacher Testimonials


Active Learn Teacher 1“My 6th grade team and I typically use Actively Learn to assess student understanding of a text. We write a 5-10 question quiz to assign at the end of a text. It is very user-friendly, which is why it is our online assessment tool of choice. It makes it easy to grade and see which standards students struggle with the most.”  

Jamie Best, 6th grade RLA Lead Teacher,

Rossview Middle School in Clarksville, TN



Actively Learn Teacher 2“Coming from a primary classroom and teaching fourth grade reading for the first time this year, I was overwhelmed as to how to engage students in reading. After talking with our Technology Integration Coach about my needs in the classroom, she suggested that I try Actively Learn, modeled a lesson using it with my students, and coached me through my own lesson with them. I could see their engagement and connection with the texts. I can honestly say that I can’t imagine a week without using Actively Learn in my classroom. It has been a game-changer because it is so easy to use and better enables me to monitor my students during close reads. Also, I can assign articles and import them from the web quickly.  Actively Learn allows me to assess student comprehension and provide them with timely feedback which is the best feature of all.”

Jennifer Hicks, 4th grade Teacher, Moore Magnet Elementary School in Clarksville, TN


“I decided to use Actively Learn because I can’t be with every student at once. There just isn’t enough time in the day for me to provide the guided comprehension I’d like to provide to each and every student. Actively Learn allows me to upload differentiated texts and questions based on my students’ needs. Actively Learn is easy to use. I’ve used a couple of videos posted by Actively Learn. My students enjoyed the change from texts. The videos self-pause for questions.

Tracy Bramel, 2nd grade Teacher,

Moore Magnet Elementary School in Clarksville, TN

lesley burdine

Lesley Burdine

Technology Integration Coach

Clarksville-Montgomery County School System


Co-Hosting the Upcoming ISTE EdTech Coach’s Webinar

Lesley has been an educator for 11 years.  She spent 10 years at the middle school level teaching Reading, U.S. History, Inclusion, and Reading Intervention.She now serves as a Technology Integration Coach supporting, training, and coaching middle and high school educators in the effective integration of technology into research-based instructional practices to enhance, improve, and transform teaching and learning.  


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