The Right to Read Film: Part 1 What Every School Librarian Should Know

Right to Read Film  Parts 1-3: In three KQ Blog posts, Judi Moreillon provides her response to the other The Right to Read (not our bills in Congress), a film being shown across the country that links achieving the ability to read with social justice. The film suggests that increasing systematic phonics instruction is the silver bullet that will guarantee that all children will become reading proficient. Moreillon also shares responses of literacy scholars, related data and previous research, and reflection questions as well as possible action steps school librarians can take to address the concerns raised by this movement.

The Right to Read Film
Have you heard about the latest push for increasing phonics instruction in the primary grades? This movement is currently promoting a film titled The Right to Read. LeVar Burton, of Reading Rainbow and Star Trek fame, was an executive producer; award-winning documentarian Jenny Mackenzie filmed the piece. A trailer is available on the website. The film has earned recognition at a number of film festivals, including SXSW EDU in March, 2023, and holds an 8.1 rating on the Internet Movie Database.

If you serve a preschool or elementary school library community, or if you are a parent, grandparent, or concerned literacy advocate, I hope you will make time to learn more about this effort.

I am offering three posts here on the KQ Blog to share information about the film that may soon be playing in a neighborhood near you (see the showing schedule). This first post focuses on the film—what it does and does not include. The second post will focus on a critical examination of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test scores and a recent previous effort to focus early reading instruction on phonics. The third and final post provides some questions for school librarians to consider and possible actions school librarians can take in their learning communities.

What’s in the film?
I viewed the free launch of the film online on Juneteenth, June 19, 2023; I made notes while viewing and reviewed the trailer. My high level of concern for how this film will be understood and the actions it will prompt begins with two critical points of total agreement with those behind supporting an effort to ensure all children have the tools they need to become proficient readers.

  • First, the right to read is indeed “the greatest civil rights issue of our time” (homepage).
  • Secondly, everyone who is concerned about literacy must “fight to provide our youngest generation with the most foundational indicator of life-long success: the ability to read” (about page).

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” Abolitionist, Writer, and Statesman Frederick Douglass

Literacy is a civil right and a key aspect of social justice. Depriving anyone of their right to read is contrary to affirming freedom and justice in our society. In order to ensure our democratic ideals, educators must support all youth in effectively reading, viewing, and listening to ideas and information in all formats. In librarianship, we often refer to these skills as information literacy, which at their core are reading comprehension strategies, such as assessing or using background knowledge, determining main ideas, drawing inferences, synthesizing, and more (see Moreillon 2012, 2013).

Since reading is the foundation on which all learning is built, raising the alarm based on 4th-grade NAEP scores is understandable, and it is nothing new. The slight decline in scores precipitated by a global pandemic, school closures, and online instruction should not be surprising. It does not constitute a “crisis.”

“Learning to read begins the first time an infant is held and read a story. How often this happens, or fails to happen, in the first five years of childhood turns out to be one of the best predictors of later reading.” Maryanne Wolf - Cognitive Neuroscientist

This drop in test scores may indicate that a number of children entering or re-entering schooling were not supported in emergent reading skills in their homes, preschools, or communities, especially during the pandemic. This could also be an indication that young readers benefit from face-to-face learning with their peers and individualized instruction from educators as they develop emergent reading skills. To its credit, the film shows two families with young children that are providing a high level of early childhood literacy support. Their examples show that it takes time, knowledge, and commitment to invest in raising literate children.

The classroom teacher spotlighted in the film is clearly determined to find effective teaching strategies. She was committed to fighting for her Oakland, California, students to become proficient readers. Working with learners in a high-poverty school with low test scores and with the support of N.A.A.C.P. social justice activist Kareen Weaver, this teacher demonstrated her commitment to her students and their success. The film’s “science of reading” proponents provided her with the answer: intensive, systematic, one-size-fits-all phonics instruction.

“Teaching phonemic awareness does not ensure that children will learn to read and write. Many competencies must be acquired for this to happen.” National Reading Panel
What’s not in the film?
Of course, as a former elementary school librarian, retired librarian educator, and currently avid public library-going grandparent, I noticed the film’s lack of emphasis on libraries and diverse reading materials. Although there was a brief mention by one of the families of visiting a library, there was no mention of the importance of home libraries. Visiting the public library to refresh books and attending literacy programs helps children develop emergent literacy skills and a value for reading. Access to books in the home and community are hallmarks of family literacy.

In the film, the camera scanned some outstanding diverse children’s literature book covers, but there was no mention of how or if children accessed these books, or how or if the classroom teacher shared these resources. (The teacher was filmed reading aloud from decodable books.) The classroom “collection” shown in the film appeared to be an afterthought tucked into a corner with the most visible books having two-inch spines—inappropriate resources for emergent readers.

There was no mention of a school library or a school librarian. I suspect I was not the only viewer of this film who then made the inference that this elementary school lacked a state-certified school librarian and a fully-resourced school library. Without a literacy leader librarian on staff, it is no wonder that this classroom teacher felt alone in her struggle to elevate students’ ability to read.

There was misinformation, too…
In the next blog post, “Part 2: ‘The Science of Reading:’ Here We Go, Again,” I will share a critical view of the NAEP reading scores and the recently failed reading instruction intervention that was not included in The Right to Read film. The references in Part 2 may be particularly helpful for librarians who find themselves serving a school community that is considering or has made the commitment to enact methods promoted in the film.


Works Cited

Mackenzie, Jenny. 2023. The Right to Read.  Accessed 8 August 2023.

Moreillon, Judi. 2012. Coteaching Reading Comprehension Strategies in Secondary School Libraries: Maximizing Your Impact. Chicago: ALA.

Moreillon, Judi. 2013. Coteaching Reading Comprehension Strategies in Elementary School Libraries: Maximizing Your Impact. Chicago: ALA.

Wolf, Maryanne. 2007. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York: HarperCollins.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2000. The National Reading Panel. “Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction.” 2000, 2-43. Accessed 8 August 2023.

Author: Judi Moreillon

Judi Moreillon served as a school librarian at all three instructional levels—elementary, middle, and high school. She taught preservice school librarians and preservice classroom teachers for twenty-five years. Judi has published five books for school librarians. She edited and contributed to her latest book, “Core Values in School Librarianship: Responding with Commitment and Courage” (Libraries Unlimited 2021). Judi holds a Master’s degree in Library Science and a PhD in Education, which she earned from the Department of Language, Reading, and Culture at the University of Arizona. Currently, an author, consultant, and advocate, Judi lives in Tucson. Her website is; she tweets @CactusWoman.

Categories: Literacy

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1 reply

  1. I hope this post and the next two will launch a conversation about school librarians’ role in reading, instruction related to reading comprehension in particular, and how they can provide direct evidence of their contribution to students’ achievement in reading.

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