Overcoming the ‘Matthew effect’ in reading

To me, one of the most interesting (and also maddening) things about the way humans learn to read is how, for learners, reading is both the goal AND the process.

To read well, you need a strong vocabulary, background knowledge on a diversity of topics, and fluency to free up brain power so you can think about what you’re reading. By and large, how do you build vocabulary, knowledge and fluency? By reading.

For students who are succeeding, reading prowess grows exponentially. Reading begets reading. The more you read, the better you get at it.

But what happens if you can’t read – if you’re in, say, 9th grade and you only read on a fifth grade level?

With reading, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This is what researchers term the “Matthew effect,” named after a Bible verse that reads: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”

Without the right help and intervention, children who struggle with reading continue to fall farther and farther behind, because, while their on-grade-level peers are unlocking new knowledge and understanding through text, struggling readers can’t access that knowledge. It’s not just that they’re behind; they’re stuck.

Science and research have shown that there’s a lot we can do to help kids get un-stuck, and break the poor-get-poorer cycle. That’s an important topic for future blog posts, but we do know that technology can be a big help, that often a child’s fixed mindset can get in the way, and that close readings of complex texts with great teachers can move kids forward.

And it shows how important it is to close the gap before it begins.

What are your strategies for helping struggling students get un-stuck?