The first image many people have of school is a circle of small children, sitting cross-legged, paying attention (or not) to an adult reading a book aloud and showing pictures to the class. Indeed, presidents and sports stars choose exactly this photo op when visiting schools. And teachers across the country reenact the scene daily—or did until a few weeks ago.
As schools, teachers and families face the shock of abruptly shifting to online education, one small question has been how to shift these read alouds to Zoom, Facebook, Google Hangouts and YouTube, the spaces where many classes continue to meet. A second question has been given almost equal importance: Is reading a book to students online even legal?
The short answer is, well, yes. While many well-intentioned commentators have warned teachers against this practice, the fact is that copyright law—specifically fair use—permits many read-aloud activities online. As instructors and learners adapt to new educational environments, copyright concerns about reading aloud need not be among the challenges they face.
What Is Fair Use?
Fair use is a provision of copyright law that allows many reading aloud activities to be translated from the classroom to online learning.
In short, fair use is a limit on copyright law that allows anyone to use a copyrighted work for a “transformative” purpose that doesn’t harm the core market for the original (meaning you can’t compete with the publishers’ efforts to sell books). This means that when teachers reading aloud online, using tools like school websites, learning management systems or live webcasts, fair use enables most of the same practices that take place in person.
In the U.S., fair use law takes into consideration the purpose of the use, the nature of the underlying work, the amount used, and the effect on the market for the original work. Where reading aloud is concerned, these factors can be condensed into two questions:
- What is the new educational purpose for which teachers and students are reading this material to each other?
- What, if any, is the harm to the core market for the original book or resource?
For example, reading a popular picture book aloud to a class of pre-readers can be a transformative activity if it supports a specific lesson or is designed to reinforce group identity. The point is not whether the book in question originally was intended to be read aloud, but whether this reading takes on new significance in the class, which it typically does.
To answer the second question, you have to ask whether the reading would interfere materially with the sale of physical or electronic copies. The same logic applies to chapter books, even if audiobooks are commercially available. In general, as Carrie Russell of the American Library Association has pointed out: “One is not displacing a sale or serving as a substitute to the work ... An audiobook is not the same as storytime.”
In an emergency where student access to commercial learning materials is curtailed, educators’ freedom to read under fair use is enhanced. Temporary activities might include:
- Open postings on YouTube to address lack of school-issued devices and LMS support
- Readings to compensate for missing access to physical resources
- Materials reflecting a broadened view of the teaching mission to serve displaced students generally.
It’s important to understand why you’re reading aloud to understand if you can rely on fair use.
Teachers read aloud in the classroom—and prompt their students to do so—for many reasons: to model fluency, to build comprehension and interpretive skills, and to support learning at different levels. Understanding why you’re reading to your students is an important first step in making your fair use analysis.
Reading aloud, through digital tools and in person, is consistent with a vision of educational universal design. It puts students with different personal circumstances, including family situation, level of preparation, language competency, disability and health, on a better footing to enjoy equitable access to their education.
Fair use is flexible—it’s not specific to certain types of content or online platforms.
Since fair use looks more at why materials are being used than the types, both fiction and non-fiction texts are fair use-eligible, depending on the context. And the same rationale that justified reading the text aloud also applies to displaying the illustrations.
With that said, fair use is not unlimited in scope. Extensive readings from textbooks and other commercial learning materials, for example, should be approached with more caution. Making readings permanently and generally available on public platforms should be avoided—though we recognize that this may be impossible under emergency conditions. In normal times, the “safest” choice may be a controlled Learning Management System, but this is not by any means a necessity. School-based or teacher-maintained websites are another option, as are dedicated streaming channels on YouTube or similar platforms.
In the current emergency, some publishers and authors have announced that they will permit certain read-aloud activities. This is a generous act, but permission (or refusal to give permission) neither expands nor restricts the scope of fair use.
Here are some cases where fair use enables reading online, and a few where it doesn’t.
In these cases, teachers may want to read materials online, and could look to fair use for support.
- A teacher reads and shows two picture books to a class as part of a longer 30-minute lesson including discussion questions and context.
- Reading an introductory segment of a nonfiction text aloud to provide students with background material, and offering pre-recorded segments for students to choose to listen to next so that students can select their own learning paths.
- Beginning class sessions with a chapter from a novel, to orient students to the online classroom and to get them focused for learning.
- In an online recording posted to a LMS, a teacher reads a few introductory paragraphs from a commercial textbook and goes on to highlight (and display on video) segments of the reading that students are going to do independently.
- Teachers and students collaborate to read texts in parallel, contributing to a distributed reading project that documents both shared experiences and diverse voices.
In all of these cases, the use is anchored in a transformative educational purpose and it does not substitute for normal purchases of the work. These are non-controversial examples of fair use in action.
In some cases, the direct tie to the teaching and learning purpose is less clear, or the relationship to the original commercial market is too close. Here are a few activities schools and teachers should avoid activities without careful, specific guidance or permission:
- Establishing a free YouTube channel hosting readings of numerous picture books and chapter books, not directly tied to their classroom teaching.
- A school system trying to save money suggests that teachers consider reading review questions from commercial worksheets aloud rather than acquiring copies to distribute for student use.
Overall, fair use provides a powerful tool to enable teaching and learning online. Going forward, fair use is critical to adapt teaching and learning practices, such as read-alouds, to ensure that all students have full access to education. While the current emergency compels immediate response to these changing circumstances, the existing lack of equitable access for all students, particularly students with disabilities and marginalized students, remains an ongoing call to action.
Ed. note: On Tuesday, March 31, 2020 from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. ET the authors will host a webinar discussing this topic and covering common scenarios that arise for teachers and students. Registration for the webinar is required and available here.
Prue Adler, Michael Carroll, Will Cross, Pernille Ripp and Carrie Russell contributed to this article.