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What are these Matthew Effects?

“For unto everyone 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” (Matthew, XXV: 29).


Though the Matthew Effect in education was first coined by Walberg and Tsai in 1983, it was Stanovich (1986) who used it to describe how, in reading, those who start well tend to continue to do so, while those who do not are unlikely to catch up. Not only do they not catch up, according to Stanovich, but there will also be a widening gap between the slow starters and fast starters as their school career continues.

There is ample evidence that students who do not make good initial progress in learning to read find it increasingly difficult to ever master the process. Stanovich (1986, 1988, 1993) outlined a model in which problems with early phonological skills can lead to a downward spiral where even higher cognitive skills are eventually affected by slow reading development.

Children with a good understanding of how words are composed of sounds (phonemic awareness) are well placed to make sense of our alphabetic system. Their rapid development of spelling-to-sound correspondences allows the development of independent reading, high levels of practice, and the subsequent fluency which is critical for comprehension and enjoyment of reading.

Unfortunately, children without good phonemic awareness tend to fall into a downward spiral of achievement in which initial lack of success in reading can develop into widespread language and cognitive deficits (Ceci, 1991).

Large differences in reading practice occur, consequent upon initially low phonological skills and failure to master the alphabetic principle. Allington (1984) in a study of Year One students noted that the number of words per week read ranged from 16 in the less skilled group to 1933 in the upper group. Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimated that, in school, struggling readers may read around 100,000 words per year while for keen mid-primary students the figure may be closer to 10,000,000, that is, a 100 fold difference. For out of school reading, Fielding, Wilson and Anderson (1986) suggested a similar ratio noting that children at the 10th percentile of reading ability in their Year Five sample read about 50,000 words per year out of school, while those at the 90th percentile read about 4,500,000 words per year.

Exacerbating this problem of differential exposure is the finding that struggling readers are often presented with reading materials which are too difficult for them (Stanovich, 1986). Slow, halting error-prone reading of difficult material, unsurprisingly, militates against comprehension, and usually leads to avoidance of reading activities and further disadvantage.

Language skills such as vocabulary knowledge, general knowledge, syntactic skills, and possibly even memory, rely heavily on reading for their development (Stanovich, 1988). These skills impinge on most areas of the curriculum and hence what began as a narrow deficit becomes progressively larger, amplified by the negative motivational consequences of failure. Contrary to the hope that initial slow progress is merely a maturational lag to be redressed by a developmental spurt at some later date, typically even relatively minor delays tend to become increasingly major over time (Stanovich, 1993). A study by Juel (1988) reported a probability that a poor reader in Year One would still be so classified in Year Four was 0.88. Jorm, Maclean, Matthews and Share (1984) in their longitudinal study noted similar outcomes. A performance difference in reading of 4 months in Year One had increased to nine months in Year Two in favour of the phonemically aware group (who had been matched in their first year on verbal IQ and sight word reading), over a low phonemic awareness group.

Further support for the Matthew effects is provided by McGee, Share and Silva (1989), and Share and Silva (1987) in their New Zealand longitudinal study. They matched reading disabled and non-disabled groups on their vocabulary scores attained at age three. At age 11, marked differences were noted in vocabulary, listening comprehension and general language skills in favour of the non-disabled group. Using a hierarchical multiple regression they demonstrated that changes in IQ between ages seven and 13 were predicted by changes in reading over that period. Growth in reading ability between the ages of seven and 13 accounted for some of the IQ score variability even after attributing variability due to IQ and reading ability at age seven. The notion that intellectual development can be markedly influenced by literacy attainment is not new but empirical research is increasingly supportive (Ceci, 1991; Stanovich, 1993).

The implications of these findings are both disturbing and instructive. That there may be a specific cause of most inadequate reading progress is encouraging. Early intervention has the potential to preclude failure with its attendant personal and social cost. That an initially modular deficit rapidly broadens into generalised language, intellectual, and motivational deficits is worrying for those attempting to alleviate the reading problems of students in mid-primary school and beyond. In these cases the consequences of the reading failure may remain even if the cause of the reading problem was successfully addressed. For teachers trying to provide effective remedial assistance to such pupils the Matthew effects help explain

(a) why progress is painfully slow,

(b) the lack of significant change in general classroom performance consequent upon improved reading,

(c) why teaching phonemic awareness to older children may not necessarily have a great impact.

Many researchers (Adams, 1990; Ball, 1993; Ball & Blachman, 1991; Blachman, 1994; Bradley & Bryant, 1983; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1989; Catts, 1991; Cunningham, 1990; Felton, 1993; Foorman, Francis, Novy & Liberman, 1991; Hatcher, Hulme & Ellis, 1994; Juel, 1993; Simmons, 1992; Stanovich, 1986, 1988, 1992, 1993; Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1994) have noted the cost-beneficial effects of early intervention, and stressed the importance of primary prevention - for a variety of reasons - from pragmatism to social justice. While early intervention has long been regarded as logical, even programs as intensive as Head Start have not achieved the outcome success that was sought. The value of empirical research since that time has been in the narrowing of the focus of the early intervention for reading - from a broad range of "readiness" activities to a specific emphases on (1) phonemic awareness as a screening tool and an intervention focus, and (2) the critical role of structured, explicit phonics in initial reading instruction.

While there has been some subsequent support for the Matthew Effect (McNamara, Scissons, & Gutknecth, 2011; Sideridis, 2011), it should be noted that not all researchers support its existence. For example, Protopapas, Sideridis, Mouzaki, and Simos (2011), in their study of reading comprehension, found that whereas the initial gap did not narrow - nor did it widen over time. Shaywitz et al. in the 1995 Connecticut Longitudinal Study over 7 years found evidence of a Matthew effect for IQ, but none for decoding skills. Phillips, Norris, Osmond, and Maynard (2002) found considerable fluidity over the six years of elementary school, with 30% of students changing categories (below average, average, or above average) over that period. Morgan, Farkas, and Wu (2011) found a Matthew Effect for maths but not for reading.

A recent review of research by Pfost et al. (2014) was equivocal:

“The main question of this literature review was whether there is an empirical foundation for the assumption of a widening achievement gap in reading for primary school students. Although our results revealed no simple answer to this question, we were able to clearly describe conditions under which (relative) Matthew effects for reading are likely to occur and conditions under which a compensatory developmental model seems more appropriate. First, when describing the development of inter individual differences for highly constrained skills, a stable or compensatory developmental model seems most appropriate. Second, with regard to less constrained measures of decoding efficiency, a Matthew effect pattern or a pattern of stable achievement differences seems to best describe the development of these skills for primary school students. A widening achievement gap seems appropriate for describing the development of students’ composite reading scores, although composite reading scores are not easy to interpret because they combine measures of higher and lower level reading skills. Furthermore, to detect Matthew effects in reading, it is necessary that scores of the applied measures have a high reliability and lack any floor or ceiling effects” (Pfost, Hattie, Dörfler, & Artelt, 2014, p. 236)

Whether it is true that the gap necessarily widens, it is acknowledged that a gap exists, and tends to be at least maintained in the absence of determined intervention. This itself is a disaster for the students affected, and has a social and economic cost to society. The most important lesson to be learned from the Matthew Effect literature is that any such effect can be avoided for many, and at least ameliorated for others, by early, intensive evidence-based instruction that is carefully monitored and adjusted in intensity as the situation demands. Clearly, the three tiered model known as Response to Intervention has an important role to play in this process.

“ … according to the Matthew Effects theory, literacy skills build upon each other in a snowballing fashion and children who start out with stronger initial foundational reading skills will build their abilities at a faster rate. This underscores the importance of providing young children with high-quality early literacy experiences and offering early identification and intervention services to children who may be at-risk of later reading failure. Indeed, early intervention programs such as Head Start were designed to narrow the achievement gap by exposing very young children from disadvantaged communities to high-quality early literacy and language experiences in order to help them develop the foundational skills necessary to their future reading achievement” (Cunningham & Chen, 2014, p.2).

 So, how to ensure the most appropriate assistance goes to those with higher needs? One way is simply to target all students from low SES backgrounds. Done nationally, that would have a large impact overall, but would use up resources on some such students who do not require it, and miss those from higher SES who also require additional assistance. The more efficient option is to determine the most effective screening of all beginning students, employing the fewest possible subtests to reduce the demand on time/resources.

There have been numerous batteries researched and advocated. The results of using one recent battery with 366 students is noted below:

"Our findings show that universal screening at the beginning of kindergarten can identify children at risk for RD with an acceptable level of accuracy. ... Results indicated that a screening battery containing measures of letter naming fluency, phonological awareness, rapid naming or non-word repetition accurately identified good and poor readers at the end of first grade. Findings also showed that children's response to supplemental and/or classroom instruction measured in terms of growth in letter naming fluency added significantly to the prediction of reading outcomes" (Catts, Nielsen, Bridges, Liu, & Bontempo, 2014).

 So, we know what to do - we simply need the will and the resources.


Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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

Ball, E. W. (1993). Phonological awareness. What's important and to whom? Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 5, 141-159.

Ball, E. W., & Blachman, B. A. (1991). Does phoneme awareness training in kindergarten make a difference in early word recognition & developmental spelling. Reading Research Quarterly, 25, 49-66.

Blachman, B. A. (1994). What we have learned from longitudinal studies of phonological processing and reading, and some unanswered questions: A response to Torgesen, Wagner & Rashotte. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27, 287-291.

Bradley, L., & Bryant, P. (1983). Categorizing sounds and learning to read - A causal connection. Nature, 301, 419-421.

Byrne, B., & Fielding-Barnsley, R. (1989). Phonemic awareness and letter knowledge in the child's acquisition of the alphabetic principle. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 313-321.

Catts, H. W. (1991). Early identification of reading disabilities. Topics in Language Disorders, 12(1), 1-16.

Catts, H.W., Nielsen, D.C., Bridges, M.S., Liu, Y.S., & Bontempo, D.E. (2014). Early identification of reading disabilities within an RTI framework. Journal of Learning Disabilities,

Ceci, S. (1991). How much does schooling influence general intelligence and its cognitive components? A reassessment of the evidence. Developmental Psychology, 27, 703-722.

Cunningham, A. (1990). Explicit vs implicit instruction in phonemic awareness. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 50, 429-444.

Cunningham, A.E. & Chen, Y. (2014). Matthew Effects: The rich get richer in literacy. Encyclopedia of Language Development, Thousand Oaks, CA SAGE Publications, Inc.

Felton, R. H. (1993). Effects of instruction on the decoding skills of children with phonological processing problems. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 26, 583-589.

Fielding, L., Wilson, P. & Anderson, R. (1986). A new focus on free reading: The role of trade books in reading instruction. In R. Raphael and R. Reynolds (Eds.), Contexts in literacy. New York: Longman.

Foorman, B., Francis, D., Novy, D., & Liberman, D. (1991). How letter-sound instruction mediates progress in first grade reading and spelling. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 456-469.

Hatcher, P., Hulme, C., & Ellis, A. (1994). Ameliorating reading failure by integrating the teaching of reading and phonological skills: The phonological linkage hypothesis. Child Development, 65, 41-57.

Jorm, A., Share, D., McLean, R., & Matthews, R. (1984). Phonological recoding and learning to read: A longitudinal study. Applied Psycholinguistics, 5, 201-207.

Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437-447.

Juel, C. (1993). The spelling-sound code in reading. In S. Yussen & M. Smith (Eds.), Reading across the life span (pp. 95-109). New York: Springer-Verlag.

McNamara, J.K., Scissons, M., & Gutknecth, N. (2011). A longitudinal study of kindergarten children at risk for reading disabilities: The poor really are getting poorer. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 44(4), 421-430.

Morgan, P.L., Farkas, G., & Wu, Q. (2011). Kindergarten children’s growth trajectories in reading and mathematics: Who falls increasingly behind? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 44(4), 472-488.

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

Pfost M., Hattie, J., Dörfler T., & Artelt C. (2014). Individual differences in reading development: A review of 25 years of empirical research on Matthew Effects in reading. Review of Educational Research, 84(2), 203-244.

Phillips, L. M., Norris, S. P., Osmond, W. C., & Maynard, A. M. (2002). Relative reading achievement: A longitudinal study of 187 children from first to sixth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 3–13.

Protopapas, A., Sideridis, G.D., Mouzaki, A., & Simos, P.G. (2011). Matthew Effects in reading comprehension: Myth or reality? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 44(5), 402-420.

Share, D. L., & Silva, P. A. (1987). Language deficits and specific reading retardation: Cause or effect? British Journal of Disorders of Communication, 22, 219-226.

Shaywitz, B. A., Holford, T. R., Holahan, J. M., Fletcher, J. M., Stuebing, K. K., .Francis, D.J., & Shaywitz, S. E. (1995). A Matthew effect for IQ but not for reading: Results from a longitudinal study. Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 894–906.

Sideridis, G.D. (2011). Exploring the presence of Matthew Effects in learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 44(5), 399-401.

Simmons, D. C. (1992). Perspectives on dyslexia: Commentary on educational concerns. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 25, 66-70.

Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-406.

Stanovich, K. E. (1988). The right and wrong places to look for the cognitive locus of reading disability. Annals of Dyslexia, 38, 154-157.

Stanovich, K. E. (1992). Speculation on the causes and consequences of individual differences in early reading acquisition. In P. Gough, L. Ehri, & R. Treiman (Eds.), Reading acquisition. (pp. 307-342). New Jersey: Laurence Erlbaum.

Stanovich, K. E. (1993). Does reading make you smarter? Literacy and the development of verbal intelligence. Advances in Child Development and Behaviour, 24, 133-180.

Torgesen, J. K., Wagner, R. J., & Rashotte, C. A. (1994). Longitudinal studies of phonological processing & reading. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27, 276-286.

Walberg, H. J., & Tsai, S. L. (1983). Matthew effects in education. American Educational Research Journal, 20, 359–373.

See next for flow charts showing Stanovich' proposed sequence for slow starters and fast starters.

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The Matthew Effects in reading: Why initial delays in reading acquisition become increasingly pervasive: Some research findings

Phonological awareness

Phonemic (or phonological) awareness: The conscious realization that words can be decomposed into discrete single sounds (phonemes). It enables the beginning reader to appreciate the logic of the alphabetic system.

 “To my mind the discovery and documentation of the important of phonemic awareness ... is the single most powerful advance in the science and pedagogy of reading this century” (p. 392).

Adams, M.J. (1991). Beginning to read: A critique by literacy professionals and a response by Marylin Jager Adams. The Reading Teacher, 44, 370-395

“Difficulties with phonological processing seem to be the fundamental problem of children with reading disability, and this problem continues to adulthood”.

Siegel, L.S. (1993). The development of reading. Advances in Child Development and Behaviour, 24, 63-97.

 Relations between Phonological Awareness and Reading

   * Knowledge of the sounds of language and alphabet knowledge can be reliably measured in preschoolers

   * There is a large amount of shared variance among measures of phonological awareness

   * Phonological awareness tests are measuring abilities that are separate from psychometric intelligence

   * Phonological awareness tests are superior to IQ tests as predictors of reading achievement

   * Training phonological awareness facilitates progress in reading programs

 "... for beginning readers the median correlation between reading ability and intelligence measures was +0.34, whereas the correlation between reading and phonological processing measures was +0.52."

Stanovich, K. (1988). Speculations on the causes and consequences of individual differences in early reading acquisition. In P. Gough (Ed.), Reading acquisition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.


 “Given the biological primacy of the phonological system, it would make sense to conclude that variations in reading skills emerge from variations in phonological skills which are inherited (p. 126).

Rack, J.P., Hulme, C., & Snowling, M. (1993). Learning to read: A theoretical synthesis. Advances in ChildDevelopment & Behaviour, 24, 99-132.

 “Data from identical and fraternal twins indicated that the phonological coding deficit was highly heritable and accounted for most of the heritable variance in their word recognition deficits” (p. 339).

Olson, R., Wise, B., Conners, F., Rack, J., & Fulker, D. (1989). Specific deficits in component reading and language skills: Genetic and environmental influences. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22, 339-348.

Literature experience

“Reading aloud with children is known to be the single most important activity for building the knowledge and skills they will eventually require for learning to read. Adding regular doses of "Sesame Street," reading/writing/language activities in preschool, and time spent fooling around with magnetic letters on the refrigerator or playing word and "spelling" games in the car, on the computer, with crayons, and so on, such children will have experienced several thousand more hours of literacy preparation before entering first grade”.

Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, M.A: MIT Press

Volume of reading


“Beginning in about the third grade, the major determinant of vocabulary growth is amount of free reading”.

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

 “(In this study) children at the 10th percentile of reading ability in the fifth grade sample read about 50,000 words per year out of school. The comparable figure at the 90th percentile was 4,500,000 words”.

Fielding, L., Wilson, P., & Anderson, R. (1986). A new focus on free reading: The role of trade books in reading instruction. In T. Raphael & R. Reynolds (Eds.), Contexts of literacy (pp.149-160). NY: Longman

 “Print exposure appears to compensate for modest levels of general cognitive abilities .... low ability need not necessarily hamper the development of vocabulary and verbal knowledge as long as the individual is exposed to a lot of print” (p.162).

Stanovich, K.E. (1993). Does reading make you smarter? Literacy and the development of verbal intelligence. Advances in Child Development and Behaviour, 24, 133-180.

 “By the end of first grade, the good readers in our study had seen approximately 18681 words in running text in their basal readers. The poor readers, however, had seen only about half as many – 9975. … by at least the end of second grade (it) is further compounded by differences in the amount of time spent reading outside of school (Juel, 1988)).

Juel, C. (1993). The spelling-sound code in reading. In S. Yussen & M. Smith (Eds.), Reading across the life span (pp. 95-109). New York: Springer-Verlag.

 “Most theorists are agreed that the bulk of vocabulary growth during a child’s lifetime occurs indirectly through language exposure rather than through direct teaching (Miller & Gildea, 1987; Nagy & Anderson, 1984; Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985; Sternberg, 1985, 1987). Furthermore, many researchers are convinced that reading volume, rather than oral language, is the prime contributor to individual differences in children’s vocabularies (Hayes, 1988; Hayes & Ahrens, 1988; Nagy & Anderson, 1984; Nagy & Herman, 1987; Stanovich, 1986)”.

Cunningham, A., & Stanovich, K. E. (1998). What reading does for the mind. American Educator, 22(1-2), 8-15. Retrieved from




“New words are learned mainly through reading. Children’s books contain 50% more "rare" words (outside the vocabulary of 9-12 yr olds) than do adult prime time television, or the conversation of college graduates. Popular magazines have roughly three times as many opportunities for new word learning as prime-time television and adult conversation”.

Stanovich, K.E. (1993). Does reading make you smarter? Literacy and the development of verbal intelligence. Advances in Child Development and Behaviour, 24, 133-180.

 “Only above average readers gained significantly in incidental (vocabulary) learning. Reading stories to children will only increase the vocabulary of above average readers”.

Nicholson, T., & Whyte, B. (1992). Matthew effect in learning new words while listening to stories. In Literacy research: Theory and practice: Views from many perspectives, ed. Charles K. Kinzer and Donald J. Leu (eds.). Chicago: National Reading Conference

Rapid context-free decoding


“Skilful readers' speed of fluency enables them to think about whole phrases or sentences at once. The effortlessness of the word recognition process allows skilful readers to focus their active attention on the process of comprehension - on monitoring and assessing the message of the passage”.

 “Fast accurate word identification results when readers are so familiar with letter-sound relationships that words are identified automatically”.

Anderson, R.C., Hiebert, E.H., Scott, J.A., & Wilkinson, I.A.G. (1985). Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading. Champaign, Il: The Centre for the Study of Reading.

 Contextually bound

“Context-free word recognition is the most apparent characteristic of reading ability”.

Perfetti,C.A. (1985). Reading ability. NY: Oxford UP.

 “The average probability of correctly predicting an upcoming word from context is usually between .20 and .35”.

Stanovich, K.E. (1990). Concepts in developmental theories of reading skill: Cognitive resources, automaticity, and modularity. Developmental Review, 10, 72-100

 “If students use context as a routine way of compensating for their poor decoding skills, then such a strategy may lead to future reading difficulties. This is why teachers should be cautious about any reading program, including the "whole language" approach, that puts excessive emphasis on the use of context as a strategy for recognising words”.

Nicholson, T., Bailey, J., & McArthur, J. (1991). Context cues in reading: The gap between research and popular opinion. Reading, Writing and Learning Disabilities, 7, 33-41.


“In a first grade sample, one of the less skilled group read on average 16 words per week in school, while one skilled reader read 1933 words. The average skilled reader read 3 times as many words in group reading sessions as the average unskilled reader”.

Stanovich, K.E. (1988). The right and wrong places to look for the cognitive locus of reading disability. Annals of Dyslexia, 38, 154-157.

 “To obtain automaticity in word recognition, some children require extremely high levels of over-learning and practice”.

Felton, R.H., & Wood, F.B. (1989). Cognitive deficits in reading disability and attention deficit disorder. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22, 3-13.


“Whereas 70% of both good and poor readers prefer TV to reading - only 5% of good readers prefer to clean their room than read, but 40% of poor readers prefer to clean their room than read”.

Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437-447.

 “The poorer readers displayed less task-persistence than better readers, and their behavioural and attributional patterns were consistent with learned helplessness. These characteristics were displayed on both reading and non-reading tasks, even though the disabled group was assembled purely on the basis of their reading deficits”.

Stanovich, K.E. (1988). The right and wrong places to look for the cognitive locus of reading disability. Annals of Dyslexia, 38, 154-157.

Difficult text

“Poor readers read accurately only 80% of their low level readers, whereas good readers read accurately 95% of their high level readers”.

Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437-447.

Cognitive skills

“Good and poor readers differed in their listening comprehension by only one month at school beginning, but by 30 months by Year 4”.

Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437-447.

“Consequently a Matthew Effect (Stanovich, 1986), in which children with reading problems show cumulative deficits over time because lack of access to the orthography influences development, not only of academic skills, but also of processing ability. This is one reason why age-standardised IQ scores in children with learning disabilities drop over time the effect of which is often to cure the learning disabilities by labelling the child a slow-learner, and making the child ineligible for services” (p. 47).

Fletcher, J.M., Francis, D.J., Rourke, B.P., Shaywitz, S.E., & Shaywitz, B.A. (1993). Classification of learning disabilities. Relation to other childhood disorders. In G.R. Lyon, D.B. Gray, J F. Kavanagh, & N A. Krasnegor (Eds.), Better understanding of learning disabilities: New views from research and their implications for education and public policies (p.153-170). Baltimore: Brooks.


“The knowledge acquired from today's texts enables the comprehension of tomorrow's. The student who does not read much does not know much. Furthermore, the student who does not know much cannot comprehend much”.

Fielding, L., Wilson, P., and Anderson, R. (1986). A new focus on free reading: The role of trade books in reading instruction. In T. Raphael & R. Reynolds (Eds.), Contexts of literacy (pp.149-160). New York: Longman


•     Initial failure predicts future failure

“(In this study) the probability that a child who was initially a poor reader in first grade would be classified as a poor reader in the fourth grade was a depressingly high +0.88”.

Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 437-447.

 “Longitudinal studies show that 74% of children who are poor readers in the third grade remain poor readers in the ninth grade (Francis et al., 1996)”.

Francis, D.J., Shaywitz, S.E., Stuebing, K.K., Shaywitz, B.A., & Fletcher, J.M. (1996). Developmental lag versus deficit models of reading disability: A longitudinal, individual growth curves analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 3-17.

•     The gap widens over time

“At best, our current efforts simply perpetuate the differences that children arrive at school with; at worst, we exaggerate these differences across the time they spend with us”.

Allington, R.L. (1991). Beginning to read: A critique by literacy professionals and a response by Marilyn Jager Adams. The Reading Teacher, 44, p.373.

 “Children who use compensatory strategies such as whole word recognition or contextual strategies. ".... Without accurate decoding skills, these youngsters' performance will deteriorate rapidly in the middle elementary grades, when greatly increasing demands are made on comprehension, and on the ability to recognise a large number of unfamiliar words (Chall, 1983; Mason, 1992).”

Spear-Swerling, L., & Sternberg, R. J. (1994). The road not taken: An integrative theoretical model of reading disability. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27, 91-103.

•     Remedies are long, slow, often unsuccessful, and student resistance can preclude success

“A study by Schiffman provides support for monitoring programs for reading disabilities in the first and second grades. In a large scale study of reading disabilities (n = 10,000),

                                  82%       of those diagnosed in Grades 1 or 2,

                                  46%       in Grade 3,

                                  42%       in Grade 4,

                        and 10-15% in Grades 5-7 were brought up to Grade level”.

Berninger, V.W, Thalberg, S.P., DeBruyn, I., & Smith, R. (1987). Preventing reading disabilities by assessing and remediating phonemic skills. School Psychology Review, 16, 554-565.

•     Reading-intelligence causal link?

“Children with reading difficulties at age 8 had lower verbal than performance IQ’s; however, there was no difference at age 4”.

Bishop, D. & Butterworth, G. (1980). Verbal-performance discrepancies: Relationship to both risk and specific reading retardation. Cortex, 16, 375-389.

“Much evidence has now accumulated to indicate that reading itself is a moderately powerful determinant of vocabulary growth, verbal intelligence, and general comprehension ability” (p.239).

Stanovich, K.E. (1993). Does reading make you smarter? Literacy and the development of verbal intelligence. Advances in Child Development and Behaviour, 24, 133-180.

• Females are currently under-identified.

“A growing body of research suggests that females experiencing learning difficulties are not identified as frequently as males”.

Njiokiktjien, C. (1993). Neurological arguments for a joint developmental dysphasia-dyslexia syndrome. In A. M. Galaburda (Ed.), Dyslexia and development: Neurobiological aspects of extra-ordinary brains. London: Harvard University Press

What should we be doing to alleviate these Matthew Effects?

“In general, data indicate that intensive early interventions positively affect students’ reading skills, resulting in lower rates of grade retention, reduced incidence of placement in special education, and higher rates of high school completion. Difficulties with reading may interfere with students’ motivation and engagement at school and with learning” (p. 67).

 “Difficulty with reading is one of the primary reasons students are recommended for grade retention or referred for special education evaluation, events that are consistently linked to later dropout. As students progress through levels of education, proficiency in reading becomes increasingly important as a means of garnering new knowledge; students who do not have sufficient skills are often unable to keep up with course content and expectations, leaving them to fall further and further behind their peers. It is also believed, however, that difficulties learning to read affect students’ engagement, motivation, and connections to school (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000; Klem & Connell, 2004; Snow et al., 1998), contributing to the gradual process of withdrawal that precedes later dropout (Finn, 1989)” (p.68).

 “Numerous meta-analyses, reviews, and individual research papers report negative effects of grade retention (e.g., Holmes, 1989; Holmes & Matthews, 1984; Jimerson, 2001; Shepard & Smith, 1990; Silberglitt, Appleton, Burns, & Jimerson, 2006). The most recent of these meta-analyses found negative effects in terms of students’ academic, socioemotional, and behavioral outcomeswhen retained students were compared to similar students promoted to the next grade (Jimerson, 2001). Despite the consistent findings regarding the effects of grade retention, retention rates have increased in the past several years (Frey, 2005; National Association of School Psychologists, 2003), likely a result of the proliferation of policies and public sentiment to end social promotion and the inclusion of grade retention as an integral part of school reform and accountability initiatives (Bali, Anagnostopoulos, & Roberts, 2005). The marriage of grade retention and accountability appears to increase the likelihood of students being placed in special education (Roderick & Nagaoka, 2005), which is, for a number of students, a precursor of later dropout” (p.70).

Reschly, A.L. (2010): Reading and school completion: Critical connections and Matthew Effects. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 26(1), 67-90.

“Across studies, the generalized findings are that Matthew effects are present in LD and that disadvantaged students continue to be at a great disadvantage in the future. This finding was evident particularly with regard to the relationship between vocabulary and reading comprehension (Oakhill & Cain; Sideridis et al.) as well as with regard to other reading skills such as phonological awareness (McNamara et al.) or math abilities (e.g., Morgan et al.; Niemi et al.). When looking at the framework of responsiveness to instruction implemented in the United States and various parts of theworld, the message from the present studies is clear: Students with LD are likely to be classified as nonresponders as their trajectories of growth suggest. We need to switch our attention from assessing the difficulties of students with LD to how to intervene to solve their problems” (p.401).

Sideridis, G.D. (2011).Exploring the presence of Matthew Effects in learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 44(4),399-401.

Rebecca Felton (1993) argued that:

“(i) at-risk children should be identified in their first school year.

(ii) phonemic awareness training should be available

for those students, and taught using a direct instruction approach.

(iii) structured code emphasis teaching should follow, using controlled vocabulary. Explicitly taught strategies such as blending (rather than guessing strategies) should be promoted.

(iv) a significant portion of the school day should be assigned to direct instructional activities.

(v) teaching the onset-rime distinction will hasten students progress from letter-by-letter decoding to skilled reading.

(vi) reading, writing and spelling instruction should be integrated, with correct spelling emphasised.

(vii) it should be recognised that at-risk students may need three years of direct instruction in basic reading skills.

(viii) it must be recognised that teaching to mastery is insufficient, and provision should be made for adequate opportunities for the practice necessary to achieve automaticity”.

Felton's conclusions represent a confluence of the research on phonemic awareness, and that on effective teaching.

Felton, R.H. (1993). Effects of instruction on the decoding skills of children with phonological processing problems. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 26, 583-589.

What approach to delivering instruction is empirically well-supported?

“That direct instruction in alphabetic coding facilitates early reading acquisition is one of the most well established conclusions in behavioural science.”

Stanovich, K.E. (1994). Constructivism in reading education. The Journal of Special Education, 28, 259-274

“Children with deficits or weaknesses in these skills should be identified early (kindergarten or first grade), and educators and speech pathologists should work together to provide direct instruction in these areas. (see also Catts, 1991; Felton, 1993)”.

Wood, F.B., & Felton, R.H. (1994). Separate linguistic and attentional factors in the development of reading. Topics in Language Disorders, 14, 42-57.

“Direct systematic instruction in the alphabetic code is more effective than the incidental instruction provided by the writing activities of the standard Reading Recovery program” (p.385).

Foorman, B.R. (1995). Research on "the great debate": Code-oriented versus whole language approaches to reading instruction. School Psychology Review, 24, 376-392

“For slow learners and for all other children who need good instruction, it is clear that adequate teaching requires phonics-based, thoroughly systematic, direct instruction in word recognition. With this appropriate instruction, slow learners need not be disabled readers. Without it, they will almost surely fail. We know how to teach almost all children to read and write well. It remains to be seen if we will begin to do it, or if we will continue down the unstructured path to illiteracy”.

Bateman, B. (1991). Teaching word recognition to slow-learning children. Reading, Writing & Learning Disabilities, 7, p.14.

“There is now evidence from large-scale training studies here and abroad that phonological awareness can be heightened in kindergarten and first grade children (as well as older learning disabled children) through direct instructional activities. (Ball and Blachman 1991; Blachman et al, 1991, Bradley and Bryant 1983; Cunningham 1990; Fox and Routh 1984; Lundberg, Frost and Peterson 1988; Treiman and Baron 1983; Williams 1980)” (p.46).

Blachman, B. (1991). Getting ready to read. In Kavanagh, J. (ed.), The language continuum: From infancy to literacy (pp. vii-ix). Parkton, MD: York Press

“These findings indicate that kindergarten, early elementary, and remedial classes need to incorporate direct instruction in the structure of language in order to provide the foundation children need to become skilled readers and spellers”.

Moats, L.C. (1994). The missing foundation in teacher education: Knowledge of the structure of spoken and written language. Annals of Dyslexia, 44, 81-102.

Implementing Direct Instruction Successfully: An Online Tutorial

When implemented fully, Direct Instruction (DI) is unparalleled in its ability to improve student performance and enhance students’ self-esteem. In order to implement DI effectively, much more is required than simply purchasing instructional materials. The following two-part tutorial guides administrators, teachers and coaches through the key features of a successful DI implementation. Part I provides an overview of the steps schools need to take in preparation for a DI implementation before school starts while Part II provides an overview of the steps schools need to take after school has started.

rating starIMPORTANT: This tutorial is an intensive video series comprised of 18 segments, each followed by a series of questions. Users should allow approximately three hours to watch the videos and complete the questions. NIFDI recognizes the high demand for time placed on school officials and, for this reason, has structured the tutorial so users may stop at anytime and later resume where they left off.


Have a slow connection? You can view the quiz portion (no videos) of the tutorial here. To get a copy of the videos on disk to use with this method, please contact us at 877.485.1973 or

New to Direct Instruction? Watch the Introduction to Direct Instruction Video Series before taking the online tutorial.

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