Friday, March 25, 2011

The Matthew Effect - poor reading skills in the elementary grades can lead to life-long learning problems

From Wikipedia:
In education the term Matthew effect has been adopted by Keith Stanovich from sociology, a psychologist who has done extensive research on reading and language disabilities. Stanovich used the term to describe a phenomenon that has been observed in research on how new readers acquire the skills to read: early success in acquiring reading skills usually leads to later successes in reading as the learner grows, while failing to learn to read before the third or fourth year of schooling may be indicative of life-long problems in learning new skills. This is because children who fall behind in reading, read less, increasing the gap between them and their peers. Later, when students need to "read to learn" (where before they were learning to read) their reading difficulty creates difficulty in most other subjects. In this way they fall further and further behind in school, dropping out at a much higher rate than their peers.
In the words of Keith Stanovich (Adams, 1990, pp. 59–60):[1]
Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many academic tasks. In short, as reading develops, other cognitive processes linked to it track the level of reading skill. Knowledge bases that are in reciprocal relationships with reading are also inhibited from further development. The longer this developmental sequence is allowed to continue, the more generalized the deficits will become, seeping into more and more areas of cognition and behavior. Or to put it more simply -- and sadly -- in the words of a tearful nine-year-old, already falling frustratingly behind his peers in reading progress, "Reading affects everything you do"
We have a crisis on our hands.
Of the fourth-graders who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test in 2009, 83% of children from low-income families—and 85% of low-income students who attend high-poverty schools—failed to reach the “proficient” level in reading.
How does this factor into the "boy problem"?
From elementary through high school, males are reading at lower levels than females.


  1. Get rid of the handheld electronic game devices, and boys will start reading.

  2. Any theory as to why boys use those devices more than girls do?

  3. I think schools need to change some things, too. More advanced literacy instruction has been pushed down to lower grades, and it seems to hurt boys.

  4. Electronic games (handheld or otherwise) don't explain why many boys manage to read exceptionally well and also play games. You might as well blame basketball and skateboarding -- which are also huge time wasters and don't contribute to reading skills. How kids waste time is probably less important than how they are taught to read. The whole language emphasis, lack of phonics, and poor quality of reading material may play a bigger role.

  5. The difference is that sports do not tend to cut into those small moments that make up a lot of reading time for girls. Go into any pediatric waiting room and you will see girls reading books and boys playing on handhelds. Of course, there are individual exceptions - boys who read well and play games - but we are looking at big-group averages here. And, I would not be surprised if you found that boys who read well and play electronic games tend to spend more time reading and less time on the games than boys who are poor readers.

    Incidentally, if my boys had been subjected to early phonics, they probably never would have learned to read. Both my boys were highly visual, natural look-say readers. My oldest boy learned to read on his own at 4, in a progressive preschool that did "write-to-read" activities (but largely did not push early reading). My second boy learned to read chapter books in kindergarten, where the teacher very honestly admitted that she didn't know how he learned to read and that it was nothing she did. He is hearing impaired, and actually cannot process many subtle differences in phonetic sounds, so he is terrible at phonics and hates it when they do it in school.

  6. The research I've read about indicates most boys specifically learn better using phonics instruction. I still go back to preferring school choice for everyone.

  7. I am not sure I understand why boys would learn better using phonics. Boys, if anything, tend to be more visual and spatial than girls. Watching my son learn to read, I could really see that at work - he reads by visual pattern, not by sound. He is also very talented with puzzles, drawing, building, and anything that is visual. In any case, I tend to be very skeptical of research on phonics vs whole language, since it is usually so politically driven.
    I would prefer that teachers learn to see children as individuals, and to cope better with different needs. I loved that my son't teacher admitted that she didn't teach him to read - it was a sign that she understood he needed something different from the mandated curriculum. She was able to support him and give him confidence as he learned to read - which he badly needed- and then just let him fly. My older son's preschool was the same - they let the children fly and supported them as needed. We have got to get away from whole-class methods, and stereotyping kids, and mandated curricula.
    I always liked the idea of school choice, but I just don't see it working well in the American context. I fear it would lead to lower standards, since most people really don't want their kids pushed very hard. We will end up with a bunch of fly by night "Theme Academies" that push fun experiences rather than real education. Higher ed has become all about food courts, party trips abroad, and English-taught-via-social-media, and we will see public schools go down the same path

  8. We will end up with a bunch of fly by night "Theme Academies" that push fun experiences rather than real education.

    Gosh, I see so much of that now in traditional public schools, the "fun experiences" part, at least.

  9. I don't recall if this was mentioned in the phonics studies, but the "context" part of whole language instruction can be especially problematic for boys, as well as for low-income students. The challenge of having to determine word meaning from context just adds a layer of unnecessary distraction from efficient learning. Phonics can be much more straightforward.

    I think that context should only be emphasized after learning the fundamentals of reading. In a way, the context method pigeonholes all students and doesn't allow for their individual perspectives.

    Actually, I've seen some pretty comical results from kids trying to determine word meaning from context.

  10. I dunno, if a kid isn't learning to pick up meaning from context, he/she is missing an important component. English is too non-phonetic to get far without that skill.
    I suspect there is a big difference in the way early readers learn vs late readers. Phonics may be more useful for late readers because they are ready for that kind of structure. Kids who are 4 and 5 need something more holistic.
    Naomi has done a lot of phonics in her preschool, which I am not very happy with, and she is utterly confused. I need to sit down with her and start doing some good ol' whole language, lol.

  11. There may be an entire group of children who are being hurt from the combination of 1) early age (4,5) reading instruction and 2) whole language instead of phonics instruction. Boys and low-income children may be overrepresented in this group. That's a theory that makes sense to me.

  12. My comment was deleted again. Ugh.

  13. Is something wrong with Blogger?