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How Online Book Read-Alouds Can Help Students' Literacy and Connection During Social Distancing 

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 (Joe Paradise/YouTube)

The night before a safer-at-home order was issued in her Wisconsin town, all Pernille Ripp could think about was getting to her books. When her middle school opened for a few minutes the next day, the seventh grade English teacher and creator of the Global Read-Aloud grabbed all the books she could from her classroom library, before the school closed for the foreseeable future. 

In class Ripp read aloud to her students often, not just for academic purposes but as a way to bond and connect with students. But in this new world, where Ripp and her students are in their separate homes in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, she would need to connect with students digitally instead.

“I went to my classroom and grabbed a ton of books I could read aloud to my students online,” Ripp said. “I thought that this might be it for the rest of the school year.” 

Schools have shut down to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and safe-at-home and shelter-in-place orders are currently keeping more than 55.1 millions of students out of school, at least until the end of April. Since many districts didn’t have a digital learning plan in place for an event like a global pandemic, they are scraping together varied approaches of online learning that are evolving as the situation changes. In the wake of massive school closings, much of the online learning curve for parents and teachers has become a kind of do-it-yourself experiment. 

Teachers across the nation are turning to digital read-alouds not only to keep student skills sharp, but to forge connections while they’re apart. Instead of gathering around the rug or a “lit circle” for a story like they used to do in class, some teachers are gathering students on the “virtual rug” of a Zoom conference call or Instagram Live to continue reading books to them. Online read-alouds allow teachers to provide students with a daily dose of literacy—and maybe even some laughs. 


Once it became clear that schooling was moving online, publishers like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Simon & Schuster, Disney, HarperCollins and many others moved quickly to relax their rules on reading books via livestream or YouTube to accommodate teachers and students during this difficult time.

Most publishers are now granting access to educators, as long as they follow a few rules that vary among publishers. (Find the complete list of publishers’ permissions and online reading rules here.)

Key guidelines include mentioning at the top of the video that the book is being read with permission from the publisher, and keeping read-aloud recordings to school sharing platforms that are private. If a private sharing app isn’t available publishers recommend making the YouTube video “unlisted” and available only for students.

Ripp admitted she had never done any read-alouds before using YouTube or FaceTime or Zoom, but was ready to try it anyway—even if it took her a few times to figure it out. “When we read aloud we connect,” Ripp said. “It doesn’t have to be perfect right now. We’re striving for connection, not perfection.”

Benefits of Reading Aloud 

Reading aloud to kids—even older ones who could easily do the reading themselves—offers multiple benefits.   

According to research, read-alouds provide academic boosts to developing readers. They help develop young children’s phonological awareness and “emergent literacy ability,” boost vocabulary, and develop word mastery and grammatical understanding

A 2008 review in the Archives of Disease in Childhood assessed that "Reading aloud to young children, particularly in an engaging manner, promotes emerging literacy and language development and supports the relationship between child and parent.” 

Reading aloud also improves comprehension by building background knowledge—especially if the reader stops to check for understanding. A recent small study out of England showed that teenagers who had challenging books read aloud to them had greater reading comprehension than when they read them on their own.   

Back in the 1970s, journalist Jim Trelease found that reading aloud to his own children not only cultivated vocabulary and background knowledge, but also forged a love of reading as a shared family activity. His popular book now in its seventh edition, The Read-Aloud Handbook, shares research and best practices for both parents and educators.

In the book, Trelease goes into detail of all the cognitive and academic benefits that reading aloud to children provides. But it’s perhaps his words on the emotional benefits of what reading aloud does for families and relationships that feels so pertinent in this time of quarantine, isolation and social distancing.

“We read to children for all the same reasons we talk with children,” Trelease wrote. “To reassure, to entertain, to bond, to inform or explain, to arouse curiosity, and to inspire.”

Making an online read-aloud worth watching 

Educators say that compared to many of the other academic tasks moving online, reading books aloud can be relatively easy. It’s been one area that teachers can do themselves just by accessing a few tools on their laptop or smartphone. 

Facebook’s page of easy-to-use tips for authors also provides great advice for educators wanting to do “live book clubs” using Facebook Live. Instagram also offers a tip sheet for creating an Instagram Live as well. 

But some educators may want to do more. When fifth grade teacher Joe Paradise of Westfield, New Jersey, made a fun, funny read-aloud version of Chapter Two is Missing for his quarantined students on YouTube, he began getting requests from other educators to show him how he did it. 


Paradise then created a YouTube video of how he created the read-aloud and shared with his educator friends. The “ball started rolling,” he said, and the video—which was far from polished—was shared more than 3,000 times in the first twenty-four hours. 

In the video, Paradise walks educators step by step through how to make an engaging video: how to read so their voice can be heard, and how to ensure the pages can be seen. His main message to teachers is to avoid getting overwhelmed by all the tech available, and keep it simple.

“We’re building the plane while it’s in the air,” Paradise said of teachers trying to adjust to online learning. “The advice I’ve taken is from Vicki Davis the Cool Cat Teacher, and that’s to integrate [technology] like a turtle: level up each day and learn one new thing, and get great at that.” 

Resources for read-alouds for all ages

Ripp’s plan for now is “Friday night read-alouds with Ms. Ripp.” She’s going to read her teenagers more picture books in the same style as some of their favorites from class this past year, like Frybread and We Don’t Eat Our Classmates. Picture books, she said, lighten the mood and spur discussion.

But other educators, as well as celebrities and even the authors themselves, have offered some read-aloud gems for kids of all ages to enjoy. Here are just a few:

  • On Monday, March 30, Kwame Alexander began a daily read-aloud (and read-along) of his novel The Crossover at 10:30 am EST, Monday through Friday, on Instagram Live
  • R.J. Palacio, author of Wonder, has a read-aloud of the first chapter available on YouTube.
  • Josh Gad, the voice of “Olaf” from the Disney Frozen movies, is reading books aloud on his Twitter feed
  • Country star and Imagination Library founder Dolly Parton is hosting a “Goodnight with Dolly” story time on the Imagination Library Facebook page, Thursday nights. 
  • is offering a 21-day read-aloud challenge for parents and kids. 
  • We Are Teachers put together the great, big list of more than 50 authors doing online read-alouds of their books and other activities. 
  • Publishing company Penguin Kids is providing a “live story time read-aloud” every week day at 11 am EST on their Instagram page
  • YouTube channel Storyline Online has tons of celebrities doing read-alouds, from Betty White to Rami Malek to Oprah.  
  • Nonprofit Unite for Literacy offers read-alouds in both fiction and nonfiction in multiple languages. 
  • KidLitTV offers both video and podcast read-alouds. 
  • NASA astronauts are doing Storytime from Space

Ripp has also compiled her own list of read-alouds on her blog. On her Friday night read-aloud online, she’s hoping to start with some picture books, then as the weeks progress maybe add some student book reviews and discussion. 


“We have to give each other grace right now. How can we not overwhelm everybody so it becomes even worse?” Ripp said. “We push kids so quickly out of childhood. Picture books are not scary and the world feels scary and overwhelming right now.”  

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