The Matthew Effects

The Matthew Effects
Dr. Kerry Hempenstall (1996)

The Matthew Effects are not only about the progressive decline of slow starters, but also about the widening gap between slow starters and fast starters.

There is ample evidence that students who do not make good initial progress in learning to read find it increasingly difficult to ever master the process. Stanovich (1986, 1988, 1993) outlines a model in which problems with early phonological skills can lead to a downward spiral where even higher cognitive skills are affected by slow reading development.

Stanovich (1986) uses the label Matthew Effects (after the Gospel according to St. Matthew) to describe how, in reading, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Children with a good understanding of how words are composed of sounds (phonemic awareness) are well placed to make sense of our alphabetic system. Their rapid development of spelling-to-sound correspondences allows the development of independent reading, high levels of practice, and the subsequent fluency which is critical for comprehension and enjoyment of reading. There is evidence (Stanovich, 1988) that vocabulary development from about Year 3 is largely a function of volume of reading. Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimate that, in school, struggling readers may read around 100,000 words per year while for keen mid-primary students the figure may be closer to 10,000,000, that is, a 100 fold difference. For out of school reading, Fielding, Wilson and Anderson (1986) suggested a similar ratio in indicating that children at the 10th percentile of reading ability in their Year 5 sample read about 50,000 words per year out of school, while those at the 90th percentile read about 4,500,000 words per year.

Unfortunately children without good phonemic awareness tend to fall into a downward spiral of achievement in which initial lack of success in reading can develop into widespread cognitive deficits (Ceci, 1991). The sequence begins with large differences in reading practice. Allington (1984) in a study of Year 1 students noted similar exposure ratios to those described above. In this case the number of words per week read ranged from 16 in the less skilled group to 1933 in the upper group. Exacerbating this problem of differential exposure is the finding that struggling readers are often presented with reading materials which are too difficult for them (Stanovich, 1986). Slow, halting error-prone reading of difficult material, unsurprisingly, militates against comprehension and leads to avoidance of reading activities and further disadvantage. Language skills such as vocabulary knowledge, general knowledge, syntactic skills, and possibly even memory, rely heavily on reading for their development. These skills impinge on most areas of the curriculum and hence what began as a narrow deficit becomes progressively larger, amplified by the negative motivational consequences of failure. Contrary to the hope that initial slow progress is merely a maturational lag to be redressed by a developmental spurt at some later date, typically even relatively minor delays tend to become increasingly major over time (Stanovich, 1993). A study by Juel (1988) reported a probability that a poor reader in Year I would still be so classified in Year 4 was 0.88. Jorm, Maclean, Matthews & Share (1984) in their longitudinal study noted similar outcomes. A performance difference in reading of 4 months in Year I had increased to 9 months in Year 2 in favour of the phonemically aware group (who had been matched in kindergarten on verbal IQ and sight word reading), over a low phonemic awareness group.

Further support for the Matthew effects is provided by McGee, Share & Silva (1989), and Share & Silva (1987) in their New Zealand longitudinal study. They matched reading disabled and non-disabled groups on their vocabulary scores attained at age 3. At age eleven, marked differences were noted in vocabulary, listening comprehension and general language skills in favour of the non-disabled group. Using a hierarchical multiple regression they demonstrated that changes in IQ between ages 7 & 13 were predicted by changes in reading over that period. Growth in reading ability between the ages of 7 and 13 accounted for some of the IQ score variability even after attributing variability due to IQ and reading ability at age 7. The notion that intellectual development can be markedly influenced by literacy attainment is not new but empirical research is increasingly supportive (Ceci, 1991; Stanovich, 1993).

The implications of these findings are both disturbing and instructive. That there may be a specific cause of most inadequate reading progress is encouraging. Early intervention has the potential to preclude failure with its attendant personal and social cost. That an initially modular deficit rapidly broadens into generalised language, intellectual, and motivational deficits is worrying for those attempting to alleviate the reading problems of students in mid-primary school and beyond. In these cases the consequences of the reading failure may remain even if the cause of the reading problem was successfully addressed. For teachers trying to provide effective remedial assistance to such pupils the Matthew effects help explain (a) why progress is painfully slow, (b) the lack of significant change in general classroom performance consequent upon improved reading, (c) why teaching only phonemic awareness to older children may not necessarily have a great impact.

Many researchers (Adams, 1990; Ball, 1993; Ball & Blachman, 1991; Blachman, 1994; Bradley & Bryant, 1983; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1989; Catts, 1991; Cunningham, 1990; Felton, 1993; Foorman, Francis, Novy & Liberman, 1991; Hatcher, Hulme & Ellis, 1994; Juel, 1993; Simmons, 1992; Stanovich, 1986, 1988, 1992, 1993; Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1994 ), have noted the cost-beneficial effects of early intervention, and stressed the importance of primary prevention - for a variety of reasons - from pragmatism to social justice. While early intervention has long been regarded as logical, even programs as intensive as Head Start have not achieved the outcome success that was sought. The value of empirical research since that time has been in the narrowing of the focus of the early intervention for reading - from a broad range of "readiness" activities to a specific emphases on (1) phonemic awareness as a screening tool and an intervention focus, and (2) the critical role of structured, explicit phonics in initial reading instruction.

Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read Thinking & learning about print. Cambridge, MA MIT Press. Allington, R. L. (1984). Content coverage and contextual reading in reading groups. Journal of Reading Behaviour, 16, 85-96. Ball, E. W. (1993). Phonological awareness. What's important and to whom? Reading and Writing An Interdisciplinary Journal, 5, 141-159. Ball, E. W., & Blachman, B. A. (1991). Does phoneme awareness training in kindergarten make a difference in early word recognition & developmental spelling. Reading Research Quarterly, 25, 49-66. Blachman, B. A. (1994). What we have learned from longitudinal studies of phonological processing and reading, and some unanswered questions A response to Torgesen, Wagner & Rashotte. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27, 287-291. Bradley, L., & Bryant, P. (1983). Categorizing sounds and learning to read - A causal connection. Nature, 301, 419-421. Byrne, B., & Fielding-Barnsley, R. (1989). Phonemic awareness and letter knowledge in the child's acquisition of the alphabetic principle. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 313-321. Catts, H. W. (1991). Early identification of reading disabilities. Topics in Language Disorders, 12(1), 1-16. Ceci, S. (1991). How much does schooling influence general intelligence and its cognitive components? A reassessment of the evidence. Developmental Psychology, 27, 703-722. Cunningham, A. (1990). Explicit vs implicit instruction in phonemic awareness. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 50, 429-444. Felton, R. H. (1993). Effects of instruction on the decoding skills of children with phonological processing problems. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 26, 583-589. Fielding, L., Wilson, P. & Anderson, R. (1986). A new focus on free reading The role of trade books in reading instruction. In R. Raphael and R. Reynolds (Eds.), Contexts in literacy. New York Longman. Foorman, B., Francis, D., Novy, D., & Liberman, D. (1991). How letter-sound instruction mediates progress in first grade reading and spelling. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 456-469. Hatcher, P., Hulme, C., & Ellis, A. (1994). Ameliorating reading failure by integrating the teaching of reading and phonological skills The phonological linkage hypothesis. Child Development, 65, 41-57. Jorm, A., Share, D., McLean, R., & Matthews, R. (1984). Phonological recoding and learning to read A longitudinal study. Applied Psycholinguistics, 5, 201-207. Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437-447. Juel, C. (1993). The spelling-sound code in reading. In S. Yussen & M. Smith (Eds.), Reading across the life span (pp. 95-109). New York Springer-Verlag. Nagy, W. E., & Anderson, R. C. (1984). How many words are there in printed English? Reading Research Quarterly, 19, 304-330. Share, D. L., & Silva, P. A. (1987). Language deficits and specific reading retardation Cause or effect? British Journal of Disorders of Communication, 22, 219-226. Simmons, D. C. (1992). Perspectives on dyslexia Commentary on educational concerns. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 25, 66-70. Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-406. Stanovich, K. E. (1988). The right and wrong places to look for the cognitive locus of reading disability. Annals of Dyslexia, 38, 154-157. Stanovich, K. E. (1992). Speculation on the causes and consequences of individual differences in early reading acquisition. In P. Gough, L. Ehri, & R. Treiman, Reading acquisition. (pp. 307-342). New Jersey Laurence Erlbaum. Stanovich, K. E. (1993). Does reading make you smarter? Literacy and the development of verbal intelligence. Advances in Child Development and Behaviour, 24, 133-180. Torgesen, J. K., Wagner, R. J., & Rashotte, C. A. (1994). Longitudinal studies of phonological processing & reading. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27, 276-286.

Dr Kerry Hempenstall Senior Lecturer Department of Psychology and Intellectual Disability Studies, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Plenty Rd., Bundoora, Victoria, Australia. 3083. Ph (61) 9925 7522 Fax (63) 9925 7303 Webpage



January 5th, 1996

Dr. Kerry Hempenstall

Columnist - Senior Researcher

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