LENA Start coordinator and graduate featured in reading documentary


The Right to Read, a new documentary from director Jenny Mackenzie and executive producer LeVar Burton, is a call to action for early literacy in the United States. Through its exploration of the causes behind declining third-grade reading proficiency, the film follows an activist, a teacher, and two families on their journey to ensure our youngest learners can read.

The film highlights an ongoing conversation about how reading is taught in U.S. schools. While the evidence clearly supports explicit phonics instruction, research also indicates that the foundations of learning to read begin much earlier than kindergarten. Namely, research shows that well-developed language skills build to strong reading skills later on. While phonics skills are essential for learning to decode, strong existing language skills help children to understand what they are reading.


In the film, Virginia Beach, Va., is highlighted as a city that has achieved exceptional reading outcomes, with 79% of third graders reading proficiently (in comparison with 20-40% in some other parts of the country). The film attributes this to Virginia Beach’s commitment to investing in evidence-based instruction and practices. That includes programs like LENA Start, which is featured in the film and is designed to engage families and help them learn how to increase conversation with their children during the first few years of life.

One of those families is the Hunters. Teresa Hunter and her husband, Isaiah, enrolled in LENA Start with their daughter Ivy when she was two months old. The film catches up with the Hunters when Ivy is a chatty and precocious two-year-old, and again when she’s calling out the names of letters from flash cards at three.

After graduating from the LENA Start program, Hunter went on to build her expertise in early childhood development and become a LENA Start facilitator herself, leading groups of parents through the program.

“It is life-changing! I’m not just saying that as a parent who took the program. I’m saying that from parents that I taught,” Hunter said of the program in an interview with a local news station.

LENA Start is implemented in Virginia Beach by the city’s GrowSmart initiative. In 2019, Virginia Beach was one of five U.S. cities to receive a grant to replicate the Providence Talks early literacy program. GrowSmart leads their local coalition as part of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading to ensure all children start school ready to learn. Virginia Beach GrowSmart also coordinates the LENA Grow program, designed to give early childhood educators the tools they need to improve classroom language environments equitably.

“GrowSmart has led innovative early education support for children and adult caregivers of young children for decades,” said GrowSmart coordinator Barb Lito. “This focused investment supports the healthy development and school readiness of children, creating a strong foundation for future education and life success.”

How to watch the documentary

Further reading

  • This interview with director Jenny Mackenzie and executive producer LeVar Burton is a great resource for understanding the filmmakers’ motivation.
  • This peer-reviewed research paper out of Columbia University used LENA technology to draw connections between interactive talk in a child’s first few years of life and the kind of brain growth associated with later reading skills.
  • In a webinar hosted by LENA in 2022, author and early literacy advocate Maya Smart described the “road trip to literacy” as something that starts at birth, with conversational turns playing a critical role. (Watch and share her explanation here!)


The LENA Team is a dedicated group of professionals who are passionate about increasing awareness of the importance of early interactive talk. We are statisticians, speech-language pathologists, curriculum specialists, engineers, and linguists.

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