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social reading can lead to social learning

Social reading to engage with global issues

Engaging students in discussions about global issues can be challenging in the language classroom. Due to time constraints and uncertainty about how to introduce and facilitate discussions about sensitive topics, some instructors may shy away from asking students to think critically about what is happening in the world around them. Whether within the context of online classes during a global pandemic or a more traditional face-to-face classroom, social reading and annotation can be one avenue for inviting students to discuss global issues within the context of authentic online texts.

This post features an activity used with college-level learners at a university in Japan in 2020. A version of this post was originally published in the Global Issues in Education (GILE) newsletter.

Social annotation & authentic online texts

Social reading and annotation is an activity by which students read and make annotations on top of online texts using a social annotation tool. Students can highlight text, take notes, leave comments or questions, and respond to the annotations made by their classmates and teachers.

This type of social reading and annotation has been found, across various educational contexts, to benefit student reading comprehension (Chen & Chen, 2014; Hwang et al., 2007), meta-cognitive and critical thinking skills (Johnson et al., 2010; Li et al., 2015), and the development of learning communities (Gao, 2013; Bateman et al., 2006; Kalir, 2019). Some findings related to increased learner agency, motivation, and self-reflection were also found (Nokelainen et al., 2005; Reid, 2014; Zhao et al., 2018).

Within the context of a university English academic writing online course in Japan, all of these findings seem relevant. The following paper outlines the implementation of a social reading and annotation activity across two academic writing courses at a university in Japan.

The activity

Students in two academic writing courses were asked to read and annotate authentic English texts online as a part of their courses. A new reading was assigned each week for four weeks, and students used the social annotation tool Hypothesis to engage with the online texts outside of class time. Since the courses were online, this engagement acted as another means for students to interact and participate in asynchronous discussions.

The readings

Readings were chosen based on student interest and current events from sources like The Japan Times, Kyodo News, and National Geographic. Any website with content available for free could be used in an activity like this. Readings selected for the Spring 2019 term explore topics like the Black Lives Matter march in Kansai (and the U.S.), the environmental impacts of the COVID pandemic, and steps firms in Japan have taken to support LGBTQ employees.

Scaffolding the activity

Students received instruction on what annotation is generally and how it might benefit their learning. Then they participated in an ungraded practice annotation activity to get a feel for the annotation tool. They also received some broad guidelines about what kinds of annotations might be useful for engaging with online texts. Since annotations can be organized using tags through Hypothesis, students were encouraged to use the following tags: question, connection, opinion, and vocabulary.

Social reading routine

Each week, students were asked to read one online article and make annotations. They were also encouraged to read it again and respond to the annotations that others made on the texts. After two weeks, students discussed the readings during a synchronous class meeting. The purpose of this discussion was to encourage a deeper understanding of the texts and to empower students to help each other understand the issues presented in the texts.

Wrapping up the activity

After the in-class discussions, students were asked to choose one of the online texts to use as a source for a summary paragraph. In past iterations of this activity, students were asked to write summary and response essays in which they summarized the text and then responded with what they thought about the issue or described how it connects to their own experience.


Through this activity, students are able to collaborate with their peers and teachers as they delve into various global issues. Based on a preliminary analysis of student perceptions of this activity, they seem to find it interesting to read about the perspectives of their classmates related to these topics:

“I thought it is interesting to read my classmates comment or question. I could learn many things from student’s comment. I felt this study method is good for us to improve writing skill and imagination.”

“I’m glad to know other students opinions and thoughts about this problem. I think we should share each opinion and discuss about it, so it was really good opportunity for us to do so.”

“Discussing the articles was interesting because I could hear other opinion. I don’t have opportunity to talk about social problems even if I’m interested in and I want to talk about. It is good opportunity to talk about the article.”

Students also seem to be engaging with the topics of the texts in meaningful ways and connecting to their own personal experiences:

“Reading 2 is about Black Lives Matter. After read this article, I thought about racism issues in Japan….In addition, “to know” is important to think about racism issues.”

“Reading 2, this topic is very timely and I often see on instagram #blacklivesmatter. I was able to understand more deeply to read this article and it make me think about discrimination. I don’t experience racial discrimination so I can’t understand completely but it’s important for me to know it.”

Finally, students commented on being able to think more deeply and critically about the issues discussed in the online texts:

“This activity gave me opportunity to think deeply for some problems which were in this world.”

Final thoughts

Social reading and annotation can be a method for inviting students to interact and discuss relevant global issues within their language classes. This type of activity is an opportunity for teachers to introduce global issues into the language classroom in a meaningful and purposeful way. Through social annotation tools, like Hypothesis, students can share their opinions and personal experiences related to the topics in the texts. Finally, they can also ask questions, engage with new vocabulary, and learn more about topics and issues impacting people around the world.


Bateman, S., Farzan, R., Brusilovsky, P., & McCalla, G. (2006, November 8–10). OATS: The open annotation and tagging system. Paper presented at the Third Annual International Scientific Conference of the Learning Object Repository Research Network, Montreal.

Chen, C-M. & Chen, F-Y. (2014). Enhancing digital reading performance with a collaborative reading annotation system. Computers & Education, 77(67–81).

Gao, F. (2013). Case Study of Using a Social Annotation Tool to Support Collaboratively Learning. Visual Communication and Technology Education Faculty Publications, 21.

Hwang, W.-Y., Wang, C.-Y., & Sharples, M. (2007). A study of multimedia annotation of web-based materials. Computers & Education, 48(4), 680–699.

Johnson, T.E., Archibald, T.N., & Tenenbaum, G. (2010). Individual and team annotation effects on students’ reading comprehension, critical thinking, and metacognitive skills. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(6), 1496–1507.

Kalir, J. (2019). Open web annotation as collaborative learning. First Monday, 24(6).

Li, S.C, Pow, J.W.C., & Cheung, W.C. (2015). A delineation of the cognitive processes manifested in a social annotation environment. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 31(1), 1–13.

Nokelainen, P., Kurhila, J., Miettinen, M., Floreen, P., & Tirri, H. (2003). Evaluating the role of a shared document-based annotation tool in learner-centered collaborative learning. Paper presented at the Advanced Learning Technologies. The 3rd IEEE International Conference.

Reid, A.J. (2014). A case study in social annotation of digital text. Journal of Applied Learning Technology, 4(2), 15–25.

Zhao, N., Gao, F., & Yang, D. (2018). Examining student learning and perceptions in social annotation-based translation activities. Interactive Learning Environments, 1–12.

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