The Matthew Effect: The Rich get Richer

Children who are reading well and have good vocabularies will read more, learn more word meanings, and read even better.

Since poor readers spend significantly less time reading than skilled readers they lose opportunities to develop the vocabulary, verbal reasoning, other cognitive and language skills developed by wide reading. The consequence is the Matthew Effect or the “rich get richer” reading phenomena described by Stanovich (1986), in which good readers become more proficient in language and reading skills, whereas poor readers suffer from increasing negative effects in terms of vocabulary, comprehension, and overall cognitive development.

In the Matthew Effect a vicious cycle develops in which children without good reading skills begin to dislike reading, read less than good readers both in and out of school, and fail to develop the vocabulary promoted by reading. The development of vocabulary knowledge facilitates reading comprehension, and reading is a major mechanism leading to vocabulary growth – which in turn will enable more efficient reading. Therefore, a reciprocal relationship exists that should continue to drive further growth in reading throughout the developmental cycle.

Large ability differences were found by Allington (1984) as early as midway through first grade. In his first grade sample, the total number of words read during one week of school reading sessions ranged from a low of 16 for one of the children in the less skilled group to a high of 1,933 for one of the children in the skilled reading group. The average skilled reader read approximately three times as many words in the group reading sessions as the average less skilled reader. Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimated that “the least motivated children in the middle grades might read 100,000 words a year while the average children at this level might read 1,000,000. The figure for the voracious middle school readers might be 10,000,000 or even as high as 50,000,000. If these guesses are anywhere near the mark, there are staggering individual differences in the volume of language experience, and therefore, opportunities to learn new words. “

Stanovich (2000) explains how children who are reading well and have good vocabularies will read more, learn more word meanings, and read even better. Children with inadequate vocabularies - who read slowly and without enjoyment - read less, and as a result have slower development of vocabulary knowledge, inhibiting further growth in reading ability.

The differences in reading volume between readers of differing skill are also due to environmental correlations. Children who become better readers have selected (e.g., by choosing friends who read or choosing reading as a leisure activity), shaped (e.g., by asking for books as presents) and evoked (e.g., the parents noticed that looking at books was enjoyed or perhaps just that it kept the child quiet) an environment that will be conducive to growth in reading (Stanovich, 2000) 


Allington, R.L. (1984). Content coverage and contextual reading in reading groups. Journal of Reading Behavior, 16, 85-96

Nagy, W.E., & Anderson, R.C. (1984). How many words are there in printed school English? Reading Research Quarterly, 19, 304-330

Rathvon, N. (2004). Early Reading Assessment: A Practitioner's Handbook. New York: The Guilford Press.

Stanovich, K.E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-407

Stanovich, K. E. (2000). Progress in understanding reading: Scientific foundations and new frontiers. New York: The Guilford Press.

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Alan Vaglivelo June 27, 2012 at 03:38 PM
What grade level is your child in?
Alan Vaglivelo June 28, 2012 at 04:29 PM
Here is a good website for motivating reluctant readers: http://lauracandler.blogspot.com/2011/03/12-ways-to-motivate-reluctant-readers.html
Rob June 28, 2012 at 09:29 PM
I'm of the same mind as Longmire, and perhaps if public schools adopted the same philosphy with respect to technology as Waldorf, more teaching would get done. And, it's less expensive: I seem to recall that there has been a lot of noise in our area about "smart boards." What's wrong with a good 'ol blackboard, and why the rush to digitize everything? As all avid readers know, you don't need an electronic toy to enjoy a good book... and books don't have to be expensive. You can usually find shelves upon shelves of them in thrift stores, just waiting to be purchased. Even better: a library card. It and the books you check out are completely free.
Anna Cretella June 29, 2012 at 12:18 PM
All of my four children are avid readers, and were successful in school. From the time they could carry a book, we had weekly trips to the library to gather books to read throughout the week. It was a reward! Currently my son, 26, chooses to read books on his ipad via itunes, however my daughter 23 loves the feel of a good book in her hands as she sits on the train to the city! We need to cultivate the love of reading to produce good students. There is no substitue, electronic or otherwize for parent intervention. As parents, we need to take an active role in our children's educations. Although with four children, I rarely read an adult book, I recently finished the "Hunger Games" series which was an interest I shared with all four of them :)
Pete Gorden July 02, 2012 at 05:50 PM
Mr. Vaglivelo Monroe is lucky to have a Board of Ed member so knowledgeable and involved. What you have written rings so true. Your piece has reminded me how my own parents insisted that I read a few books each week during my summer vacation. With computers and so much other technology these days, reading in the reflective way that builds cognitive skills seems to be a greater challenge. Thank you for addressing this issue.


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