Reading & Literacy

Reading to Students Online Provides a Sense of Normalcy, Teachers Say

By Madeline Will — March 30, 2020 4 min read
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Every day, Hannah Haskell reads a chapter of Harriet the Spy to her 3rd graders. She used to read the book to students during snack time. Now, she reads the chapters online, as her students tune in from their own homes.

Haskell reads the book live on Google Hangouts, but saves the recordings in her Google Classroom so students can listen whenever it fits into their schedules. One student told her that he listens to it before he goes to bed at night.

“I thought that would help them maintain some type of classroom culture, even though we’re online now,” said Haskell, who teaches at Trumansburg Elementary School in Trumansburg, N.Y. "[Daily read-alouds have] been something we’ve established as a community, as a part of their routine every day—it gives them some sense of structure. ... It’s been a nice way to be in communication with them and see each other, because I know I miss them so much.”

As schools across the country have closed their doors for weeks, months, or through the end of the school year due to the coronavirus outbreak, more and more teachers are reading to their students from afar. As school districts scramble to get online learning systems up and running, virtual reading sessions are a way for educators to provide a sense of normalcy and connection to their students.

“This is precisely the kind of reassuring connection most needed right now,” tweeted researcher and professor Leslie Siskin. “And a bit of a break for family carers.”

Here are some tips on how to implement a successful virtual read-aloud.

1. Consider copyright concerns. If a book isn’t in the public domain (meaning, published before 1924), experts typically recommend that teachers and librarians obtain permission from publishers before reading the book online. However, publishers—including Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins Children’s Books, Disney Publishing, and Scholastic—have relaxed the usual required copyright permissions during the coronavirus pandemic.

The School Library Journal has rounded up the new policies from publishers, most of which ask teachers to note that they are reading with permission from the publisher at the beginning of the video and to delete the recording by the end of the school year. Even J.K. Rowling has granted an open license for teachers to post videos of themselves reading the Harry Potter books on their schools’ secure networks or closed educational platforms through the end of the school year.

2. Let your students interact with the story from afar. Many of the video platforms that teachers are using to record themselves reading allow students to comment, ask questions, share thoughts, or submit responses to a prompt. (But make sure you are carefully evaluating these platforms first to ensure they will not lead to any student data privacy problems.)

Janeen Spradlin, an elementary school principal, tweeted that her teachers have set up private Facebook groups for their classes, where they are doing read-alouds, phonics lessons, and other reading instruction via Facebook Live and videos. The teachers will ask open-ended questions about the story, and parents will record their students’ answers and post them in the group.

Teachers could also ask students to draw a picture or write a response to the story, and then photograph their work and upload it to the school’s online platform.

3. Invite a “mystery reader” to read to your students, too. Some teachers have added some extra excitement to the daily readalouds by inviting a surprise guest.

In addition to school staff members, some teachers have also tapped parents to serve as mystery readers—including their own.

4. Point students to read-alouds by celebrities and children’s book authors. If your students are eager for even more stories, many children’s book authors are reading their books online. Celebrities from Oprah to Josh Gad (who voices Olaf in Frozen) have gotten in on the fun, too.

For more videos of read-alouds, check out these lists from We Are Teachers, author Kate Messner, and the Indianapolis Public Library.

5. Let read-alouds be a chance for students to reconnect with their teachers and classmates. Many students are missing their friends, teachers, and daily routines. Having a regular read-aloud gives them “a sense of normalcy or consistency,” one parent tweeted.

And some video platforms, like Zoom, let students see their classmates who have logged on, too.

“You can tell that the kids are so excited when they see their teacher log on or their friends log on because their face lights up and they start waving or they’ll point to their mom like, ‘Look, they’re right there,’” 5th grade teacher Kristin Gainer told the news site PennLive. “You can definitely see that they’re loving it.”

Image of Hannah Haskell, via Twitter

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.

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