Review by Patricia Monticello Kievlan, Common Sense Education | Updated November 2016

Actively Learn

Empowering social ereader keeps kids actively, independently engaged

Subjects & skills
  • English Language Arts

  • Communication & Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking
Grades This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
Common Sense says (See details)
Teachers say (15 Reviews)
Common Sense Privacy Evaluation

The privacy evaluation process categorizes edtech tools into the following three tiers:

Use Responsibly

Indicates that the service meets the minimum criteria and more research should be completed prior to use.

Use Caution

Indicates that the service does not clearly define the safeguards to protect student information.

Not Recommended

Indicates that the service does not support encryption or lacks a detailed privacy policy.

Pros: An easy-to-use tool with excellent Common Core-aligned lessons built right in.

Cons: More science and technical texts would round out the site.

Bottom Line: Far beyond the average ereader, this tool helps students connect and stay engaged while teachers easily measure progress.

Using Actively Learn is a practical choice that can help you manage an otherwise complex part of teaching. Within the tool, discussions about a text can develop organically, and participation may seem more sincere. Reluctant hand-raisers might enjoy the option of responding in the margins. For example, say your class is reading Catcher in the Rye, and one kid wonders, "Why is Holden so lonely?" They can add that question to a Layer, and the class can have a self-directed or teacher-led discussion on this student-proposed topic. This process might not be second nature for every student, so be ready to teach and model some good annotation skills.

As you use the platform more regularly, have your students take over as the question-askers, annotators, and discussion-starters. In essence, aim to create a more student-centered, student-led reading experience. Rely on your own expertise to help students chunk readings, and keep adding questions along the way, as you deem appropriate. While best for more text-based subjects like language arts and history, the platform can be good in science, as well. Actively Learn is all about sharing, responding, and diving deep into a text, all of which are great ways to build kids' literacy skills.

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Actively Learn is an interactive ereading platform (and Chrome app) where students can highlight and annotate text as they read. What's more, it lets teachers assign texts to students, and groups of students, so that whole classes can read, annotate, and interact around a text. The site contains thousands of free ELA, science, and history texts, from "The Portrait of Dorian Gray" to George Washington's Farewell Address. Don't see what you want? Teachers can upload any text of their choosing, from online articles to your own media. You can also use, rent, or buy copyrighted materials through the platform (depending on the version you're using).

Most titles include what Actively Learn calls "Layers" -- Common Core-aligned discussion questions -- for kids to interact with. These detailed, engaging, standards-aligned questions and multimedia make it easy to chunk readings and draw kids into the text. Also, kids can add their own questions, ideas, and annotations to spark class interaction, although this could be challenging for students with less experience in digital reading. It's also possible for teachers to monitor their students' progress, or even see kids' notes as they're writing in their own "copies" of texts. The app's developers continue to add features that improve the reading experience on mobile devices and tablets, such as language translation, tools for differentiation, and dyslexic settings; the flexible text-to-speech features are especially supportive for ELLs and students with reading disabilities.

Full Disclosure: Actively Learn and Common Sense Education share a funder; however, that relationship does not impact Common Sense Education's editorial independence and this learning rating.

Kids aren't usually allowed to write in their books, but they'll feel really empowered with Actively Learn as they digitally annotate and respond to questions right inside a text. Kids' options here seem boundless: They can annotate, edit, share, and collaborate -- all around what they're reading for class. They can also view their progress in proficiency and vocabulary reports. Throughout, kids are engaged not just in reading the texts, but also in the thinking processes that surround this type of active reading experience. It's the kind of interactive tool that, if used well, can open up some deep, high-quality communication among everyone in a class.

Overall, in terms of text selection, it's great to see so many excellent public-domain classics available in one place. That said, the majority of the stock texts here are for English and history -- the platform could bulk up its science section a bit to address the demand for CCSS-ready informational texts and readings. Also, it would be nice to see a bit more variety in terms of the media options available inside the texts; video or audio assets could help students connect their reading to the broader world, though teachers can do this on their own. Some more video-based support might also be a help to a variety of educators. What if users could watch expert teachers model some best practices around how to help kids engage with a text while using the platform? With all that said, Actively Learn's (mostly) free service is a stellar tool for teaching kids to become active close readers and critical thinkers.

Overall Rating

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?

Learning feels engaging and active with layers of questions and features that let kids annotate and communicate with peers. Options for engagement and collaboration abound, but teachers will need to model this process for students.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?

Kids can go deep into a text with Layers, empowered as they add questions and reactions into the margins. Students can check rubrics, data, and teacher responses, too, but it would be nice if they could also work in groups or pairs.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?

Videos and a help center cover site use, and setup is fast and easy. Though it's primarily text-based, there's an option to add multimedia that may make texts more accessible to a wider range of students, including ELLs.

Common Sense Reviewer
Patricia Monticello Kievlan Foundation/nonprofit member

Teacher Reviews

(See all 15 reviews) (15 reviews) Write a review
Featured review by
Christi C. , Classroom teacher
Classroom teacher
Wise Primary School
Wise, United States
Amazing Platform for Differentiated Reading
Overall I felt that this platform was wonderful for providing struggling readers with opportunities to feel successful. This platform allows teachers to personalize the reading experiences and provide students with choices. Having the opportunity to tailor reading selections to meet student needs is crucial for growth and development. I am now able to provide students with better opportunities to develop and enhance their reading vocabulary. I can assess student understanding and mastery of key ...
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