The Right to Read Film: Part 3, In Search of the Elusive Silver Bullet

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 is no silver bullet. Educators and researchers who have studied literacy development and critically examined reading interventions suggest other variables that may be affecting young children’s reading proficiency. Many readers of this blog post may be aware of their research and share their concerns.

In their Washington Post article “On the Latest Obsession with Phonics,” literacy researchers and scholars David Reinking, Peter Smagorinsky, and David Yaden state that based on the impact studies of the Reading First program “there is no basis for the conclusion that the absence of phonics is the cause for a reading crisis and that the sole solution to reading difficulties is intensive phonics instruction for all readers. Nor is there a reason to believe that more phonics is the linchpin to raising reading achievement” (2023).

Reinking, Smagorinsky, and Yaden offer other questions to ask and solutions to explore. They note there is hard evidence that students’ reading scores are higher in schools with a good library and school librarians. They also ask about other variables. How does the loss of on-site nurses increase absenteeism and therefore student achievement? How do broader social factors like poverty and hunger affect students’ academic performance?

“To boost reading achievement, why not legislate funding for libraries, school nurses, and programs to feed hungry children?” David Reinking, Peter Smagorinsky, and David Yaden

A body of research compiled by Keith Curry Lance and Debra Kachel (2018) attests to a positive correlation between high-quality libraries led by school librarians and students’ academic achievement. Their School Library Investigation Decline or Evolution Perspectives Report (2021) documents the loss of school librarian positions. These research studies could be the evidence base for one possible answer to improving achievement in reading by providing all learners with greater access to a wide-variety of reading materials and literacy leader librarians. Investing in school libraries and school librarians as proposed by the Right to Read Act of 2023 (Lester 2023) could be the next strategy to implement and study.

Roles for School Librarians
Every school day in libraries facilitated by state-certified school librarians, school librarians must elevate literacy learning opportunities for emergent readers, readers, and non-readers alike. Whether or not your school community is considering or has adopted the solution promoted by the film, these are some questions you can ask yourself as you reflect upon the myriad of ways you strive to ensure that all of the children and youth you serve gain and develop their ability to read:

  • How specifically do I create a culture of reading in my school learning community?
  • How do I promote students’ access to up-to-date curated reading resources outside the classroom?
  • How do I provide literacy support for individual students and families?
  • How do I advocate for children and teens to self-select books and resources of personal interest to be read by themselves or read with them by their families and classroom teachers?
  • How do I actively demonstrate the contributions beautifully illustrated children’s picturebooks make in terms of developing learners’ vocabulary, background knowledge and other comprehension strategies, art appreciation, and curiosity?
  • How do I collaborate with classroom teachers and specialists to engage, motivate, and support children and teens as they pursue their interests and further develop their literacy skills?
  • How does my engagement in classroom-library collaboration for instruction result in co-teaching reading comprehension strategies?
  • How do I employ direct measures to document students’ learning outcomes in terms of achievement in reading? (Circulation and library-use stats are indirect measures.)
  • How do I participate, guide, and lead in conversations about reading instruction in my school and district?

Beyond Silver Bullets: Take Action
School librarians share the civil rights and social justice goals for students espoused by The Right to Read filmmaker, producers, spokespeople, and sponsors. Please view the film. In addition, read a New York Times article “‘Kids Can’t Read’: The Revolt That Is Taking On the Education Establishment” (Mervosh 2023). The subtitle of the article is this: “Fed up parents, civil rights activists, newly awakened educators and lawmakers are crusading for ‘the science of reading.’ Can they get results?”

Connect the information in the film and article with your experience and understanding of research in relationship to the students you serve. Talk with your site- and district-level administrators, classroom teacher colleagues, and families to co-develop a plan for how your school will support students and families through reading instruction and literacy learning opportunities. “Our core values (of equity, diversity, inclusion, and intellectual freedom) are who we are and are evidenced in what we do. They are the sources of our strength and power” (Moreillon 2021, xi).

“When we remain true to our values, we can respond more effectively in tough conversations and difficult situations.” Judi Moreillon

School librarians must be partners with parents, classroom teachers, school administrators, and policy makers in this fight to ensure literacy and justice for all. This may require some school librarians to expand their understanding of “equity of access.” School librarians excel in providing equitable access to diverse reading resources in all formats, but what about intellectual access? How do school librarians demonstrate their contributions to students’ measurable achievement in reading?

It may be that school librarians need to become more knowledgeable and take a more visible role in collaborating with decision-makers to determine the elements of an effective high-impact literacy learning environment for their school and for specific students. School librarians may need to participate more directly in effective reading instruction practices that are implemented and assessed in their schools.

There is no silver bullet to ensuring that all children gain the ability to read, the desire to read, and the reading comprehension/information literacy skills they need to be successful in an info-rich society, particularly one that is plagued with mis- and disinformation. It’s school librarians’ responsibility as literacy learning leaders to speak up for all aspects of students’ education and lives that must be addressed to ensure their literate futures.

When people with money, power, and influence are calling, once again, for focusing reading instruction on phonics, school librarians need to be among the chorus of voices speaking up. School librarians need to back up their advocacy with an understanding of early literacy and reading interventions based on research and lessons learned from previous initiatives. School librarians can join with others who focus their efforts on family literacy and early childhood education, fully funding K-12 public schools and certified educators, including school librarians, and attending to the physical needs—health and safety—of all children because that’s what literacy and justice for all really requires.


Works Cited

Lance, Keith Curry, and Debra Kachel. 2018. “Why School Librarians Matter: What Years of Research Tell Us.” Phi Delta Kappan Online, 26 March 2018. Accessed 8 August 2023.

Lance, Keith C., and Debra E. Kachel. 2021. “Perspectives on School Librarian Employment in the United States, 2009-10 to 2018-19. SLIDE: The School Librarian Investigation—Decline or Evolution?” July 2021. Accessed 8 August 2023.

Lester, Kathy. 2023.“Every Day Is Right to Read Day. Knowledge Quest Blog, 28 April 2023. Accessed 8 August 2023.

Mervosh, Sarah. 2023. “‘Kids Can’t Read’: The Revolt That Is Taking On the Education Establishment.” The New York Times, 16 April 2023. Accessed 8 August 2023.

Moreillon, Judi. Ed. 2021.Core Values in School Librarianship: Responding with Commitment and Courage. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Reinking, David, Peter Smagorinsky, and David Yaden. 2023. “On the Latest Obsession with Phonics.” The Washington Post, 23 May 2023. 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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3 replies

  1. Hi,
    I’m happy to see this discussion on the AASL blog.

    I am district librarian. I am currently being trained in LETRS. LETRS is not a reading program but rather a course on how humans learn to read and how to carry that out in the classroom. LETRS is curriculum agnostic.

    Participating in the LETRS training has been eye-opening for me. As a teacher-librarian with a slew of credentials dealing in the English language, I have learned a great deal from LETRS about what the brain does when it reads, how phonological skills should be taught, and how oral language impacts the development of literacy. I am only a quarter of the way through the training but have learned more in a few months than I have in all my years of education in the field of literacy.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the strategies that LETRS shares – practicing coarticulation, using mirrors to see your mouth when speaking to see articulation, focusing on oral language development, are all skills that are practiced in public library storytimes. For older students, LETRS digs into orthography, vocabulary development, and building background knowledge. These are skills that are taught in a school library (if loosely, when you don’t have a teacher-librarian).

    I have seen The Right to Read and do think that it falters in communicating skills that should be taught in early reading development. I agree that it does not stress at all the importance of diverse texts, home libraries, or libraries in general as an essential component of developing and practicing literacy skills, and motivating readers to continue their reading journey.

    I also think that, when done correctly, the science of reading could be a game-changer, especially for those that struggle in mastering early literacy skills. We have come far in understanding the reading brain and we need to capitalize on that in real time, rather than dismiss it as just another pendulum swing. The training that I am participating in is just good teaching – teaching the way our brains learn, using varied teaching techniques (universal design for learning, baby!).

    We need strong readers in our libraries so that they *can* access the material they want and so longingly desire to read. We need to find common ground and celebrate what each literacy leader (teacher, reading specialist, intervention teacher, speech-language pathologist, and librarian does). And then yes, we librarians must raise our voices and ensure we have a seat at the table.

  2. Hi,
    I particularly like the last paragraph of Sasha Kinney’s comment, about needing strong readers so that they *can* access all that libraries and librarians provide, and her description of the role of evidence-based LETRs training. I also agree with the author that certified school librarians in every school are essential. 

    Reading Rockets is a good beginning point to gain necessary knowledge about the Simple View of Reading, which states Decoding(D) x Language Comprehension(LC) = Reading Comprehension(RC). The ‘Sold a Story’ reporting by Elizabeth Hanford is a good beginning point for understanding why and how so many students suffered as a result of poor instruction.  The Windward Institute is part of a school that uses evidence-based practices that would benefit all students. The Writing Revolution by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler is a good beginning point to help teacher librarians understand the role and importance of connecting reading and writing. 

    Students have not received evidence-based systematic and explicit instruction and therefore have been failing at reading. It is not enough to provide diverse books that are windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors. It is not enough to share beautifully illustrated books through engaging read alouds. It is important, but it is not enough, and it does not teach children to read. 

    Many teacher training programs still do not teach teachers how to teach reading. The materials have been faulty and damaging. Guessing is not reading, and many teachers have been taught to teach children to guess by looking at something other than the letters in words. The typical approach of intervention where schools wait for children to fail repeatedly instead of providing evidence-based systematic and explicit Tier 1 instruction to all students is devastating. 

    Librarians play a distinct and important role in society by promoting intellectual freedom, providing access to diverse books and maintaining spaces where these activities are available to all. What we don’t do is teach children or adults to read. That is a separate endeavor and one that requires evidence-based systematic and explicit instruction. 

    Librarians should support this film and understand that our profession is not centered in the story here because we are the bookends to it – early access to books is essential but not enough. Excellent programming for children, teens and adults is essential but it is not enough. School librarians need to speak up for evidence-based systematic and explicit instruction that derives from the body of research known as the science of reading.

  3. Thank you for sharing your experience and thoughtful comments, Sasha. Your reply compels me to share two examples from my own life and practice.

    #1: In some languages such as Spanish, learning phonics is a straight-forward foundation for reading in that language. When I served as a librarian in schools with dual-language (Spanish-English) students, I taught myself to “read” in Spanish. (I studied French not Spanish in my undergraduate education). I was told by primary Spanish speakers that I could effectively “read” the words in children’s picturebooks. The truth was I lacked comprehension of what I was reading, could not discuss characters, plots, or themes, and therefore should have been considered someone who could “word call” not “read” in Spanish. (At the time and still today, I consider this educational malpractice when some Spanish-speaking classroom teachers did not co-teach with me in the library.)

    Sadly, English is not a phonetic language. We do not always say a word the same way that we spell it. Our alphabet has 26 letters but has 44 or more sounds depending on who’s counting.

    #2: I was the librarian in an elementary school with 650 students in the mid- to late-90s. Our school served a low-income neighborhood; we had the highest number of unhoused students in the district. We also had one classroom of gifted and talented education (GATE) students at each grade level; these students came from across the city (Tucson). Our standardized reading test scores were some of the lowest in the district.

    Before beginning my 5th year at the school, the principal invested in a relatively new intense systematic phonics program that required neighborhood students to remain in their classrooms for the first 90-minutes of the school day following this scripted program. Only the GATE students would be allowed to visit the library, and only GATE classroom teachers were free to collaborate with me for instruction. I resigned because the strong library program we had built could not equitably serve the entire school community under those conditions. (Research later showed that any gains achieved by the program where negligible and were extinguished by 8th grade. I was hired in another school before the program took effect.)

    There has to be a better way.

    Bottom line: It is critical that librarians take a global view of the literacy learning environment in our schools and districts. We must work with others to address strategies to shore up students’ ability to read (not word call) without undermining their access to content-area learning or the library where we offer diverse and engaging reading materials in a vibrant research-based culture of reading and learning.

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