The Matthew Effect

The Matthew Effect

by Debora Omari, M.Ed.

The "Matthew Effect" gets its name from a biblical passage that says that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Psychologist Keith Stanovich was the first person to use this term to describe gaps in reading skills that develop between children.  As applied to reading, the "Matthew Effect" means that kids who start out with good skills in reading spend more of their free time reading and get better and better at it.  Kids who start out with poor reading skills don't read much and begin to lag further and further behind.  

One of the reasons for this is that even over a relatively short period of time, students who read on their own each day are exposed to millions of more words than their non-reading peers. 

For example, a study was done with fifth graders (Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding, 1988). It was discovered that students who didn't read any books in their spare time were exposed to about 8,000 words per year through other sources. That may sound like a lot, but ... 

... fifth graders who did independent reading for a little over twenty minutes each day were exposed to an average of 2,357,000 words per year. And fifth graders who read for a little over an hour a day saw an average of 4,733,000 words in print per year! 

Keep in mind, that's only in one year. Imagine how these numbers add up year after year, and it becomes easy to understand why kids who read every day have a strong edge when it comes to vocabulary, grammar, and the understanding of new ideas. 

The ability to read--and to read well--impacts people not only in school, but throughout their lives.  That's why it's a good idea to encourage kids to read ... and, although help can be beneficial at any age, it is best to identify potential reading problems--and to work on remediation of them--as early as possible.

Things you can do at home: 

  1. Help your child choose age-appropriate books about topics they find interesting and relevant.
  2. Make sure that independent reading is at the right reading level. A good rule of thumb is that for every 100 words a child reads, about 97 of them should be read easily and without hesitation. 
  3. Read aloud to--or with--your child. 
  4. Make sure that daily reading time isn't interfering with other activities that your child enjoys. 
  5. If your child cannot read as well as same-age peers--or resists reading--a learning problem might be present.  Consider consulting with a school or private reading specialist for advice.