Understanding The Matthew Effect In Reading & How To Diminish It

by | Learning

Do you know what the Matthew Effect in reading is?

If not and if you are a teacher or a parent, you can’t afford to stop reading now.

Maybe you have heard of it before. If so and you want to learn ways to lessen the impact of the Matthew Effect in reading and education in general for your students to keep reading.

In this article, I will explain in depth what the Matthew Effect is and its impact on reading. In addition, I will explore the following:

The first time I heard of the Matthew Effect in reading was about 5 years ago. I was blown away.

Well, that isn’t actually totally true! The first time that I heard the phrase, The Matthew Effect in reading, I actually didn’t know what it was.

Maybe you can relate. 

As a special education teacher, who teaches students with reading disabilities, my interest was sparked. So I had to find out more. 

Once I learned, it made all the sense in the world to me. It is such a simple principle that can sum up our human experience in every sphere of our existence.

What is the Matthew Effect Principle? 

Before you can really appreciate what the Matthew Effect in reading or education is, you need to know the history of the phrase.

The Matthew Effect was originally an economic concept that basically says inequality is natural. Ouch! 

In short, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

The Matthew Effect Bible Verse

The concept isn’t original. It is actually referenced in the Bible. 

It’s a direct correlation with the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:29, “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”

Do you see why I was blown away? However, my faith simply does not allow me to believe inequality is natural. More on that later!

The Matthew Effect in Reading

The Matthew Effect in Education & Its Impact on Reading

There is an educational researcher named Keith Stanovich who coined the phrase the Matthew Effect in Reading.

He made the observation that kids who had early success in learning to read (acquiring reading skills) generally continued to be more successful in reading as the learners grew.

Likewise, learners who failed to learn to read (had less success with learning to read) before the third or fourth year of schooling could be indicative of lifelong problems in learning to read.

In short, children who fall behind in reading read less and thus acquire less information and new skills, widening the gap between them and their peers.

Is your mind blown like mine was?

I recall several years ago coming across a statistic that said if a child doesn’t learn to read by 5th grade then that child would most likely not learn to read.

The Matthew Effect in reading certainly makes that seem more reality than not. 

Why Is It Called the Matthew Effect?

So, now it makes sense, right? Kids who learn to read without issues will continue on a steady pace of healthy reading growth.

Because reading isn’t laborsome, these kids are more likely to read. The more they read the better they become and the more new knowledge they acquire.

Kids who encounter problems reading most likely wouldn’t want to read as much. Why? Because they can’t or are not good at it. The less they read, the less they learn.

It sounds so unfair! This is why I am so passionate about teaching children to read and believe reading times like “Drop Everything and Read” aren’t the best use of time.

That little time does more harm than it does well to already struggling readers.

My heart breaks for kids, who to no fault of their own, seem doomed to be poor readers.

Just like I can’t accept inequality as being natural, I can’t accept that there is nothing or little we can do to change the trajectory of these learners. 

Why Is The Matthew Effect Important

The simple reason why the Matthew Effect is important is that it’s’ too often too many kids’ reality.

Might I add that I don’t think it has to be? When adults don’t act immediately and with the right amount of intensity, we allow the Matthew Effect to be our children’s reality.

This is one reason I have a love/hate relationship with RTI. Well, maybe more than one. One reason is that it’s not often implemented appropriately, if at all.

But the other reason is that it delays children getting the right help, at the right time with the right amount needed to prevent the Matthew Effect in reading. 

Why Should Teachers and Parents Know About The Matthew Effect?

Teachers and parents need to know about the Matthew Effect in reading so that we can deal with it sooner than later.

In general, I think we have waited a little too late to address the reading crisis we have in America.

When we apply the Matthew Effect in reading concept to overall reading levels in the United States, we find that nationally on average we’ve been declining for years.

Not only that, but this decline was before the pandemic and you can read this article for proof, America’s reading problem: Scores were dropping even before the pandemic.

I often give an eye roll when educational leaders give blanket statements about the pandemic being the reason for students’ poor performance. 

It’s not the sole reason our children are performing so low. It simply exacerbated what was already there.

How Can Teachers and Parents Influence The Matthew Effect In Reading?

As in all things, there is hope! 

Do you remember earlier when I wrote that my faith simply does not allow me to believe inequality is natural? 

Let’s break down the key parts of Matthew 25:29:

“For whoever has…”

This applies to anyone who has managed to make the most of what they have been given and thus has been entrusted with an increase as a result of faithfulness.

“will be given more,”

Whatever you prove to be faithful with, you will receive more of.

“and they will have an abundance.”

This principle has a compounding effect as sure as a positive interest rate would have on an eternal investment. Throughout the life of a Christian, and then into the eternity beyond, there will be an ever-increasing abundance of fruit of various kinds.

“Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”

Consider a principle opposite of compound interest, debt. Debt will work just as powerfully in a negative direction as interest does in a positive direction. This is similar to the effect of unfaithfulness with what God has entrusted to us. Even the poorest people usually have some possession. Jesus says, even this will be taken away from the faithless.

So, here is the hope:

Even the poorest of us have something. We must learn to be faithful to that something. If we are faithful then that something will increase. 

Even a child who can’t read well or not at all still has something to work with. 

As educators, we have to discover that and help the child discover that and teach them to cultivate what they have.

When they become faithful in working toward improving their reading with the right instruction, their reading will increase.

Again, I don’t subscribe to the fact that inequality is natural or that we are doomed because we may not start out with success or whatever.

It’s because of this that I know with all my heart that our students who are intellectually capable have the ability to increase their reading.

Lessening The Impact

Here is what we need to know and do:

1. Teachers who teach grades as early as kindergarten need to BE AWARE. These are the most formative years. Don’t delay extra help for students who are showing sounds of weak phonemic awareness. We know that a student’s skill in phonological awareness is a good predictor of later reading success or difficulty.

2. Provide the right environment. In the words of Malcolm Gladwell, author of the book Outliers, “The tallest oak in the forest is the tallest not just because it grew from the hardiest acorn, but because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured.” Do everything in your power to increase your students’ odds- understand what the science of reading is and TEACH it to ALL students.

3. For every “talented” student you provide with a superior experience, provide a “less talented” student with an opportunity as well. I know it’s hard for any of us to avoid having favorites and to remain patient with the underachievers. But if we make it part of our routine, we can make some headway in closing the achievement gap. So, for example, if you find yourself always giving enrichment opportunities to the same students, STOP. At least be mindful to give them to other students you think may not desire them.  

4. When a student starts to slip, act then NOT later. Just as it’s important to give feedback in a timely manner, when an assignment is still fresh in a student’s mind, it’s absolutely essential to address a problem or frustration as soon as it arises. On a larger scale, never assume that a student’s weaknesses will simply “work themselves out.” They often don’t! Don’t assume the next teacher will fix it.

5. Incorporate materials and procedures designed to increase skills- even if students are in higher grades. It makes zero sense to try and teach a harder skill to a kid who hadn’t first learned the one that precedes it. 

6. If you have to place students in remedial programs, don’t use the same methods that contributed to their failure in the first place. Hello, special education and IEPs! I’ve often asked myself what’s so different about it. (That might need explaining, but it’s too much for here. If you know you know.)

7. Tutoring, tutoring, tutoring. All students in danger of suffering from the Matthew Effect should be allowed to benefit from after-school or home tutoring programs.

8. Create learning environments where ALL students achieve some success. Try to stave off the Matthew Effect by making all learners feel like, well, learners. If your smartest students are always acing quizzes and answering questions correctly, balance this confidence by posing other questions/activities that you know your other students will ace too.

9. Measure student progress as often as possible. Being flexible and adapting your lessons to your student’s needs is absolutely essential in preventing the Matthew Effect. But you won’t know what adjustments to make or when to stay or move on if you don’t measure where they’re at. 

10. Ask yourself not if you “are teaching” but if you “have taught.” In his latest TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson described the difference between the task and achievement senses of the verb “to teach.” When we say we “are teaching,” perhaps we are patting ourselves on the back a bit prematurely. Be sure not to conflate the act of teaching with the achievement of having taught. Did the student actually understand the lesson, or were you just talking?

Poor readers don’t have to stay poor readers. The Matthew Effect in reading doesn’t have to be their reality. Let’s do better! 

If you would like a little more about the research of The Matthew Effect, This video by Stanovich explains more.


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