Literacy is arguably the most important educational competency. Without the ability to read, students face a host of challenges that follow them throughout their academic, professional and personal lives. Enter the Matthew Effect. The term describes the phenomenon where students who begin their literacy education successfully continue to do well later in school, while those who begin poorly do worse. The name of the effect comes from a famous Bible verse (Matthew 25:29): “For unto every one 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.”

Many educators believe that the Matthew Effect does not occur in isolation. Experts debate its legitimacy as an independent phenomenon, citing it as just one piece of a broader system in which access to resources, poverty and other factors are inextricably linked. Nevertheless, the literacy gap is real and a pressing issue in the field of education.

“There is no substitute for books in the life of a child.”-May Ellen Chase

Why the Matthew Effect Matters

The achievement gap begins early, explains the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). Studies have found a clear distinction in the number of words a child knows by age 3. When children fall behind in reading, it sets them on a troubling trajectory. According to the Center for Public Education, problems that can arise include:

  • Higher rates of unemployment
  • Lower wages and/or income
  • Reduced ability to read for information
  • Poorer health levels
  • Lower civic engagement
  • Lower levels of professional achievement

Poor literacy skills also limit the number of students who ultimately graduate high school. This, the Center for Public Education reports, can cost society an estimated $260,000 per person in lost earnings, taxes and productivity.

Furthermore, the Matthew Effect contributes to larger systems of economic inequality. These systems disproportionately affect children of color and those from lower income families, perpetuating the cycle of generational poverty. The Annie E. Casey Foundation offers some troubling statistics:

  • 82 percent of fourth-graders from low-income families failed to reach “proficient” levels in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP); 84 percent of students from high-poverty schools face the same issue
  • The graduation failure rate for children who cannot read proficiently and who have lived in poverty for at least one year is 26 percent, more than six times the rate for all proficient readers
  • 14 percent of good readers from high-poverty areas fail to graduate, compared to only 2 percent to 4 percent of good readers from affluent or middle-income neighborhoods

Conquering the Matthew Effect, therefore, is crucial to the advancement of both individual students and society at large.

Overcoming the Matthew Effect

Children may face any number of barriers to becoming proficient in literacy. Some include:

  • Limited or unsubstantial verbal interaction between parents and children
  • Parents’ education level
  • Family involvement within the community
  • School attendance
  • Access to summer educational activities
  • Teacher knowledge about reading instruction methods

Fortunately, proven educational tactics can help mitigate these issues.

Intervention Programs

The key to success in literacy is to address issues as early as possible. First and foremost, this means access to high-quality preschool. Later intervention programs are most successful in grades K-3. Beyond fourth grade, catching up becomes more difficult. School districts should also be willing to hold students back if necessary.

Work With Parents

No individual is as influential on a child’s education as his or her parents. Teachers and school districts can encourage literacy beyond the classroom by helping parents understand how to set children up for success. This might mean hosting information sessions about literacy tactics, promoting word exposure, and even offering early childhood developmental programs. Most importantly, educators and parents should maintain open and honest communication about student abilities and progress.

Word Exposure

Children should hear and work with words early and often. The ASCD recommends:

  • Playing music to expose children to language
  • Encouraging conversation by pairing older and younger students in educational settings
  • Reading aloud to children every day
  • Creating “word of the day” activities
  • Asking students to make personalized vocabulary lists

Build Teacher Capacities

Schools should take actions to ensure staff members understand how to address literacy concerns. This might mean hiring teachers with specialized literacy or early education training. It also means providing teachers with professional development opportunities. Schools can sponsor mentoring programs, which provide opportunities for teachers to work collaboratively with more experienced professionals.

Improvements in School District Operations

School districts can take initiatives on a broad scale. They might:

  • Provide intensive reading remediation programs
  • Increase instructional time, including the availability of full-day preschool and kindergarten
  • Invest in data systems that help them follow up with chronically absent children
  • Adopt research-based reading instruction
  • Ensure reading skills are regularly assessed system wide
  • Require supplemental reading instruction
  • Ensure schools provide rigorous curricula

Ultimately, addressing the Matthew Effect requires a multifaceted approach. Educators who understand these methods are in an ideal position to serve as leaders to their schools, students, and communities.

Additional sources: EdSurge, American Educator

Your Future as an Educator

Ensuring literacy is perhaps one of the most important responsibilities of a teacher. For professional educators seeking advancement, UWA offers several online degree programs to help them do more with their careers.

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