Matthew Effects in Reading

There is a line in the Matthew’s Gospel that says, “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath” (XXV:29). This line has often been summarized as, “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.”
Researchers have noted repeatedly that some children come to school somewhat “wealthier” than their peers when it comes to early reading skills. As time goes by, those students who start out with some literacy advantages tend to thrive and grow academically, while their less fortunate peers tend to get left behind. Like the line in Matthew’s Gospel, the rich students get richer, and the poor students get poorer. Hence, in 1983, Walberg and Tsai first coined the term the “Matthew Effect” to describe the fact that, without intervention, some students rapidly develop and build upon strong literacy foundations, and other students languish behind their more fortunate peers.

When a child first comes to school, it is possible to assess that child’s “literacy foundations.” A few simple assessments given in kindergarten can reveal which children are coming to school with foundational skills in reading and which students do not yet have those foundational skills. Simple assessments such as letter knowledge, phoneme awareness and vocabulary can identify the students who are at greatest risk of developing life-long reading difficulties (See “C is for Consequences of Reading Failure”). The gap that separates the “haves” from the “have nots” is small but detectable in the early grades. Without intervention, that gap widens over time, until, by the 4th grade, it is nearly insurmountable. Research indicates that past the 4th grade, literacy intervention and remediation programs are only successful with about 13% of struggling readers.

What the Matthew Effect tells us, then, is that early intervention is much more effective than later intervention or remediation. In the early grades, the gap that separates the children who are at risk for reading failure and the children who are likely to be successful readers is quite small. With effective early intervention, research has shown that virtually every child can learn to read (See I is for Instruction). Without early intervention, children are swept along their respective paths by the Matthew Effect until they reach an age where the odds of the struggling readers ever developing literacy skills are depressingly small.
Early, diagnostic assessment is the key to defeating the Matthew Effect. But in most of our schools, early reading assessment is quite rare, and when it does exist, that assessment is rarely used to inform instructional decisions. Most states in the U.S. begin benchmark assessment in the 3rd or 4th grade, and only then do children get the intensive remedial instruction they need. By then, however, for most children, it is too late. If children are not reading fluently at grade level by the 4th grade, odds are they never will.

Early, diagnostic assessment is only the first step towards helping all children to be successful readers — to be effective, that assessment must be used to inform instruction, and instruction must be individually catered to the learning needs of each individual child.

Sebastian Wren and Jennifer Watts have written an early reading assessment called the Abecedarian that can be used to diagnose and prevent early reading difficulties. This research-based assessment is available through this website (in downloadable PDF format).

For more information about early reading assessment, check out “A is for Assessment.”

Because good instruction that is based upon the assessment data is also critical for each child’s reading success, we have begun to collect a database of good, focused instructional strategies that can be applied by classroom teachers. Check out “I is for Instruction.”

For further reading about the Matthew Effect, please refer to a copy of Keith Stanovich’s excellent book, Progress in Understanding Reading. His years of work on the Matthew Effect are summarized there, and nobody is more of an authority on the subject than Dr. Stanovich.