The Right to Read Film: Part 2, The “Science of Reading:” Here We Go, Again

The 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.

There are no specific genes for reading. There is no specific “reading” body part that functions like a mouth does for eating or an ear does for hearing. Reading is a complex skill that requires readers to learn to use their eyes or fingertips and various and different parts of their brains to make sense of text. While pronouncing words requires phonemic awareness, phonics, and practice, reading without meaning is simply word calling.

The “crisis” in reading is not new. Every few decades parents, educators, politicians, and concerned citizens point to the Nation’s Report Card and wring their hands and gnash their teeth over students’ National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. NAEP is a congressionally mandated program that is overseen and administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences.

The NAEP test is given every other year to 4th– and 8th-grade students; 12th-grade students are tested less frequently. Test takers are selected at random from each school. Policymakers and politicians as well as parents and educators in individual schools, districts, and states use these data despite a note that appears on the same webpage as the results shown in the table that follows. All subject areas are tested but reading and mathematics results are put in the spotlight as general indicators of students’ overall achievement.

“NAEP achievement levels are to be used on a trial basis and should be interpreted and used with caution.” Nation’s Report Card

NAEP Scores and The Right to Read Film
An image in The Right to Read trailer shows 4th-grade NAEP reading proficiency data from 1992 to 2022. The graphic includes a red swath that highlights the fact that these test scores have changed very little. The image also spotlights the fact that 66% of 4th-graders were not “Proficient” in 2022.

The following table shows both Basic and Proficient data. What these data make clear to anyone concerned with students’ ability to read is that there have been no great leaps forward in NAEP reading achievement in the last three decades (Nation’s Report Card 2022).

Table: NAEP Report Card: Reading – Trend in Fourth Grade NAEP Reading Achievement-Level Results – 1992 – 2022


Basic Proficient  

* Significant Statistical Difference (p <.05) from 2022.



1 Accommodations not permitted.





Note: NAEP achievement levels are to be used on a trial basis and should be interpreted and used with caution.

2022 63 33
2019 66 35*
2017 68* 37*
2015 69* 36*
2013 68* 35*
2011 67* 34
2009 64* 33
2007 67* 33
2005 64* 31*
2003 63 31*
2002 64 31*
2000 59* 29*
1998 60* 29*
19981 62 31*
19941 60 30*
19921 62 29*

According to the NAEP website, “Proficient” means reading at grade level; “Basic” means partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills. However, NCES commissioner Peggy Carr “has said that Basic level is generally seen as grade-level achievement. Adding students who achieve at a basic level (interpreted as a B) or above, two-thirds of students have solid reading skills” (Reinking, Smagorinsky, and Yaden 2023).

Unfortunately, a spokesperson in the film says this: “In thirty-five years we have gone backwards not forwards. It is a national problem that cuts across demographics but it’s painted as a minority issue.” While making this claim unsupported by the data shown in the trailer and in the table above, the filmmaker projects an image of Oakland, California, a 35% proficient level for Oakland 3rd-grade students (presumably for 2022 with no mention of how readers were tested), and percentages disaggregated by race, including showing White children scoring at 75% and Black children scoring at 19%. (The 35% average figure is actually above the 33% Proficient national average for 2022 4th-grade NAEP test takers.)

“Possible explanations (for lower scores during the pandemic) include lack of internet connections, distractions inherent to home learning, and untrained and overworked teachers, not phonics.” David Reinking, Peter Smagorinsky, and David Yaden

The “Science of Reading:” Reading First
Although The Right to Read film provides a partial history of reading instruction in the early grades, it does not include the most recent phonics-focused program—namely Reading First, which was an initiative of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Individual schools, districts, and states spent a great deal of federal funds purchasing this program and training educators to the tune of $5+B between 2001 and 2008. The goal was to help all children read “at grade level” by the end of third grade. And as is evidenced by the data in the table, students gained little to nothing from Reading First in terms of improvement as evidenced in NAEP scores.

The National Reading Panel report stressed five topics for reading instruction in the early grades:

  • phonemic awareness (manipulation of individual speech sounds);
  • phonics (mapping sounds to print);
  • fluency (improved speed and accuracy in oral reading);
  • vocabulary;
  • and text comprehension (2000).

The National Reading Panel report also says this: “Phonics should not become the dominant component in a reading program, neither in the amount of time devoted to it nor in the significance attached” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2000, 2-97). And yet, the belief that increasing phonics instruction is the answer to this lack of progress persists.

Comprehensive studies of Reading First interventions indicated positive effects for decoding ability but not for comprehension (Gamse, Horst, Boulay, and Unlu 2008, xxvii) and “more than half of third-grade students in the (impact) study sample’s Reading First schools were performing below grade level three years into the initiative” (Herlihy, Kemple, Bloom, Zhu, and Berlin 2008, 6).

Reading for meaning requires knowledge of the world and critical thinking. Those who understand reading in this way may be less impressed with focusing interventions on decoding skills. Marginal improvements in the early grades that fail to result in improving understanding what is read cannot be the “answer” to the question of why students aren’t performing better on standardized reading tests.

If reading is comprehension, might there be other more fruitful questions to ask and effective strategies with long-term gains to implement that could support students’ development as fully literate people? Please read on: “ The Right to Read Film: Part 3, In Search of the Elusive Silver Bullet.”


Works Cited

Gamse, Beth C., Robin Tepper Jacob, Megan Horst, Beth Boulay, and Fatih Unlu. 2008. Reading First Impact Study Final Report (NCEE 2009-4038). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Accessed 8 August 2023.

Herlihy, Corinne, James Kemple, Howard Bloom, Pei Zhu, and Gordon Berlin. 2008. “Understanding Reading First: What We Know, What We Don’t, and What’s Next.” Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC). Accessed 8 August 2023.

Nation’s Report Card: Reading. 2022. “National Achievement-Level Results (4th-grade).” Accessed 8 August 2023.

Reinking, David, Peter Smagorinsky, and David Yaden. 2023. “On the Latest Obsession with Phonics.” The Washington Post, 23 May 2023. Accessed 8 August 2023.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 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, 2-97. 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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