Reading Skills and the Matthew Effect
March 08, 2013
Like many forms of cancer, reading difficulties can be easy to treat when caught early but more and more difficult to remedy as time goes by. What may seem like a minor difficulty in kindergarten can become an overwhelming embarrassment for students in the upper elementary grades.
Unfortunately, many kindergarten students are already behind in reading skills before they meet their teacher. A child who is well-prepared for kindergarten should be able to:
1. Read his/her name.
2. Recite the alphabet.
3. Recognize some or all of the letters of the alphabet.
4. Correspond some or all letters with their correct sound.
5. Make rhymes.
6. Hold a book right-side up with the spine on the left, front cover showing.
7. Recognize that text progresses left to right, and top to bottom.
8. Echo simple text that is read to them.
9. Recognize that text holds meaning.
10. Retell a favorite story.
If your child isn’t quite ready in all of these areas, don’t panic. Each child enters kindergarten at a different level and teachers expect a wide variation in student skills. The main concern is that the child be exposed to books and the alphabet and have support and encouragement at home.
Researchers have observed what they call the "Matthew Effect." The name is taken from a passage in the Gospel of Matthew and refers to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. "Students who have a rich background in alphabetic and phonemic awareness will progress much more quickly through the beginning stages of reading, to 'automaticity,' (when reading becomes enjoyable). As a result, these students read more, learn more concepts and vocabulary, and become better (richer) readers" (Stanovich, 1986). Conversely, students with little exposure to reading skills tend to read poorly, read less, and become, in relative terms, even poorer.
Throughout their schooling, students must learn tens of thousands of words—too many to be taught directly. Through repeated exposure to words in reading materials, students learn the vocabulary and general knowledge they need to succeed in school (Cunningham & Stanovich, 2001). As a result, differences in the amount of independent reading drive the Matthew Effect.
In addition, many "struggling readers may begin to internalize their lack of reading ability and develop learned helplessness" (Stanovich, 1986). They then become unmotivated as learners and fall into what Torgesen (2004) has called a "devastating downward spiral."
For example, a student reading 21.1 minutes per day encounters 1.8 million words a year, whereas a student who reads less than one minute per day sees only 8,000 words a year. The first student sees more words in two days than the second student reads all year.
The good news, however, is that with early detection and intervention, we can get students back on track! Fifty-two studies have found strong evidence that explicit instruction in phonemic awareness can improve students' later reading abilities (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). Research makes a strong case for testing all students' knowledge of letters and phonemes midway through Kindergarten, thereby identifying those students at risk of falling behind, and bringing their skills up to par before they encounter the Matthew Effect.
North Independence Branch