Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

 All my blogs can be viewed on-line or downloaded as a Word file or PDF at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/olxpifutwcgvg8j/AABU8YNr4ZxiXPXzvHrrirR8a?dl=0


“For unto everyone 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” (Matthew, XXV: 29).


Though the Matthew Effect in education was first coined by Walberg and Tsai in 1983, it was Stanovich (1986) who used it to describe how, in reading, those who start well tend to continue to do so, while those who do not are unlikely to catch up. Not only do they not catch up, according to Stanovich, but there will also be a widening gap between the slow starters and fast starters as their school career continues.

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) outlined a model in which problems with early phonological skills can lead to a downward spiral where even higher cognitive skills are eventually affected by slow reading development.

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.

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 language and cognitive deficits (Ceci, 1991).

Large differences in reading practice occur, consequent upon initially low phonological skills and failure to master the alphabetic principle. Allington (1984) in a study of Year One students noted that the number of words per week read ranged from 16 in the less skilled group to 1933 in the upper group. Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimated 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 noting that children at the 10th percentile of reading ability in their Year Five 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.

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 usually 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 (Stanovich, 1988). 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 One would still be so classified in Year Four was 0.88. Jorm, Maclean, Matthews and Share (1984) in their longitudinal study noted similar outcomes. A performance difference in reading of 4 months in Year One had increased to nine months in Year Two in favour of the phonemically aware group (who had been matched in their first year on verbal IQ and sight word reading), over a low phonemic awareness group.

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