Picture Books on Zoom

[Note: if you’d prefer to watch a video of this information rather than read this post, just scroll down to the last video at the very bottom of the page!]

Reading picture books aloud is a staple of every preschool experience and every early elementary classroom. We use picture books to teach literacy, but also to teach about counting, colors, shapes, science, religion, social studies, relationship skills, emotional development… everything!

So, how do we move story time from the circle of kids on the floor surrounding a teacher with a book to an online classroom format? There are several options. I’ll start with the simplest, lowest tech version, and then give suggestions on other options for how to improve the experience. We’ll cover: reading a physical book, reading an e-book, showing a video and creating a slide show.

All the videos shown below were taken from recordings of actual Zoom meetings so you’re really getting a sense of what the kids see.

Read a Physical Book

In terms of technology skills, the easiest answer of all is to just hold a book in your hands and read it. If you’ve figured out how to attend a Zoom meeting and unmute yourself, you have all the tech savvy you need for this. You will obviously need a physical copy of the book to make this work.

You can make this experience look better by making sure you have a good internet connection, your video image is clear and well-lit and your mic picks up sound well. (Check out this tutorial on looking and sounding good on Zoom.) You can also think about choosing books that are small and light so they’re easy to hold, not too glossy (the light reflects off of them), and have good high contrast pictures with large text that’s easy to see on the screen. Check out this video for examples so you can see why this matters.

Another thing to consider: you could use a second device (phone or tablet) to call into the meeting, and set it up like a document camera aiming down at the book, then read the book while spotlighting the video from that device. If you set it up correctly, it can be easier to get the book to look good this way than holding it up in your hands.

Read an e-book

If you have an e-book you can read on the device you use for Zoom, then it’s easy to share your screen so the children can see the book, and read it aloud. It’s easy, and offers a great clear view of the book. You just have to have an e-book.

You could buy Kindle e-books from Amazon, of course. But there are also several libraries of online children’s e-books available. You may have free access through your local library or school district. For example, in Kirkland, WA, we can access LibbyHooplaTumble Book Library and BookFlix through the library (For King County folks, learn how at: https://kcls.org/resources-types/ebooks-format/). And we can access Sora through our public school system. Check with your local library to see if you can do that. Or, some apps also have paid options, covered on their sites. For example, check out Epic Books.

Here’s a sample of what the ebook experience looks like for students. (Book is Earthquake by Bauer.)

Narrate a Video

If you know how to share screen, then you can share a video of a children’s book. If the video is good quality, children generally get a better view of the book using this method than they do with you holding the book up to the camera.

Using other people’s videos

There are TONS of YouTube videos with people reading picture books. So, whatever book you want to share with your students, try searching for it on YouTube, using the keywords “read aloud”. So, for example, search for “Goodnight Moon read aloud” and you will find many examples. They range a lot in quality, so be sure to preview! You COULD play the video with the audio narration by whoever made the video, but I would rather have my students hear MY voice than someone random. The only time I use someone else’s narration is if it’s something special, like the author of the book reading it, or someone reading a book about astronauts from the International Space Station!

I have a strong preference for playing the video with the volume muted and narrating it myself. Here’s an example of what that looks/sounds like. (vs. the original video.)

This generally works very well, but you definitely want to practice with the video in advance, because sometimes the narrator reads more slowly or more quickly than you normally would, or sometimes they stop to point out something on a page. Here’s an example of where I messed that one up! (The narrator paused at the end of a page, so I tried quickly naming all the planets to fill the time… then you see their finger pointing out each of the planets one by one as I stall… oops!)

Make Your Own Video

You could also pre-record your own video, if you’d rather do that then do a live reading during class. Set your camera on a tripod, or jerry rig a “document camera” with your phone, and make sure your lighting and sound are good. Then, you film it as you read the book, flipping through the pages as you go. Then edit the video as needed so it’s ready to show.

Sharing the Video

You could just have YouTube or your video set up on your computer ready to go, and when the time comes, just share your screen and read out loud.

I really prefer to have a PowerPoint with all my materials for class, including the video all set up perfectly so I just need to share the PowerPoint and don’t need to juggle in and out of other programs. Learn how to set up a PowerPoint for Zoom.

Make a Slide Show

If you have a physical copy of the book, you can take a picture of each page, then paste the pictures onto slides in a PowerPoint, then during class, share the PowerPoint. Here’s a sample, of Shadow Night by Chorao.

There are some advantages to this method: you can get really crisp, clear photos. You can edit out a few pages if the book is too long for your purposes. You completely control the timing. I like to engage my students in some books, asking questions like “can you see the duckling? where is it?” or “how many puppies do you see – can we count them together?” and that works better with these slide shows than it works to try to pause and un-pause a video for these interactions. The downside is that this method is more work than any other method! There is one important way you can speed up the work. Instead of using your phone camera to take the pictures, use a scanner app like Office Lens. It will save you a great deal of time! If you use your camera to take a picture of a page of a book, then you’ll have to crop the image to get rid of irrelevant background, and also the images tend to have a keystone effect, where the top of the page looks wider than the bottom of the page. Office Lens will fix keystoning and do the cropping for you. Below are samples of pictures I took with my regular camera vs. the pictures I took using Office Lens. Both were taken from the same angle with the same amount of time and effort (not much) put into snapping the picture. [Pictures from Sound by Trumbauer.]

So, the images from Office Lens are ready to insert into a PowerPoint without a lot of additional effort. And then your PowerPoint is ready to share in the Zoom meeting.

FYI, in a PowerPoint, you could choose to record a narration, and then save as a video that you could also use like the videos described above.

Copyright Issues

When you read a book in an online class, it is worth considering the question of copyright. (And if you’re using someone else’s copyrighted read-aloud video of a copyrighted book, well… that’s even more complicated.) And you should think about how and where you’re using it… reading it aloud once to an online class would be a very different use from recording a video of you reading a book and placing it on a monetized channel on YouTube where you’re getting ad revenue.

I will not pretend to be an expert on this at all! But here are links to a few relevant articles for you to consider.

If you are teaching online for Outschool, or another for-profit platform, rather than for a non-profit or public school, copyright may be more stringent. Read Outschool’s info on copyright.

One thing that matters for copyright is whether a book is being used for “transformative activity” that supports a specific lesson. I think it’s always worth it for us to consider why we are choosing to read a specific book. Our book choice should always support a learning goal we have for that class and that group of students.

More Resources

I hope you’ve found my Zoom guide helpful. You may also want to check out these tutorials: Sharing Screens on Zoom, Music on Zoom, and Young Children and Zoom.

Here are the full contents of this post in video tutorial form for those who prefer that style of learning:

Updated 6/28/21