The Matthew Effect


By Steve Figurelli

The Matthew effect refers to the notion that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Research has identified (and any teacher can attest) that some children enter school “wealthier” than their classmates when it comes to literacy foundational skills. Children who start out with advantages, in terms of early reading skills and vocabulary, tend to thrive and grow academically, while “less wealthy” children tend to fall progressively further behind.

With alarming studies like the 30 Million Word Gap reiterating the catastrophic long term effects on students that do not possess these foundational skills, it is incumbent on our country to stem the tide. Consider the graph below that illustrates this point.

Matthew Effect Chart

And that data just represents the first three years of a child’s life. Now compound this divide over the next three, six, nine, or twelve years (when the children would be sophomores in high school). Research is clear: knowledge of words is knowledge of the world. So, how can we as a collective curb the Matthew effect and level the playing field? Below are a few ideas with which to start the conversation.

Intervention Programs

Early intervention is crucial. High-quality preschool is absolutely essential. All children deserve the opportunity to start their school career on or relatively close to grade level, instead of several years behind.

Additionally, we must advocate for and implement intervention programs in the primary grades to bridge gaps and support student development. All too often, we see intervention programs attempting to mend the disconnects children face in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade. It’s disingenuous. Generally speaking, intervention in 4th and 5th grade is about targeted skill instruction to help pass a test. But if we don’t begin intervention programs until students hit the intermediate grades in elementary school, we’ve missed our opportunity. Our programs should focus on K–3 students. We need to identify gaps and provide remediation early. Without early intervention, the gap widens over time and is almost insurmountable by 4th grade. Research indicates that in 5th grade and above, literacy intervention programs are only successful with about 13 percent of struggling readers.

This makes sense because there’s a dynamic shift that occurs in 4th grade. From birth until 3rd grade, children learn to read (oral language, phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, etc.). But from 4th grade on, they read to learn. Thus, when students are disfluent and lack depth when it comes to vocabulary, they end up on a path to underachievement for the rest of their school careers. Often, this path to underachievement leads to a negative sense of school and self and a greater likelihood of dropping out and not graduating. It’s an absolute stark issue that we must stop ignoring.

Word Exposure

The research is clear: children must be exposed to words early and often in order to increase vocabulary. Whether this occurs through conversation, song, or reading aloud, children need to hear words all the time. How can we, as educators, support this? Here are a few ideas (not the end all be all, but a start):

  • Use music to expose children to language. Provide opportunities for students to come early or stay late and let them listen to and be immersed in music. Let them hear the poetry in lyrics as a means of modeling fluency and increasing vocabulary. Music is multidimensional and magical. It connects to us auditorily and emotionally.
  • Create buddy situations between younger students and older students (upper elementary, middle, or high school students). Encourage buddies to engage in conversations and ask one another questions. With the advent of technology, this isn’t simply limited to face-to-face sessions. Give students an opportunity to participate in a Google Hangout or Skype Regardless of the medium, just give them an opportunity to talk to develop oral language.
  • Host informational day/evening sessions for parents and other stakeholders and live stream them to enable folks to attend virtually. Share strategies that parents and stakeholders can employ at home, in the car, or even at the park to help children develop language. The more we can spread the word about the challenges children face, the stronger our potential to overcome them.
  • Read aloud to children every day. Experts recommend 15 minutes per day of a sustained read-aloud time. Reading aloud to children (of all ages) is a great way to model fluency and is vital to developing vocabulary and comprehension.
  • Create initiatives in school around words that are meaningful. Reading a word, definition, and sentence over the PA during morning announcements doesn’t add value for students. Rather,
    • Put the word of the day on the bathroom or hall pass. As students head to their destination, engage them in a dialogue around the word.
    • Use Remind to send an alert to students and parents that contains the word of the day and then have students use the chat feature to share examples of how they used the word in context outside of school. To amplify this opportunity, don’t take weekends off! Send alerts on Saturdays and Sundays to keep the conversations going.
    • Get your students and parents on Voxer. This idea may be a little unorthodox, but Voxer allows them to engage in conversations on the word of the day through their device. This not only provides students an opportunity to connect to parents and classmates beyond the school day but also yields valuable formative assessment data for teachers.
    • Rethink vocabulary instruction. Research suggests that most words are learned by reading or being read to—not by completing workbook pages. Vocabulary books that present 20 words per week are not simply devoid of context, they’re devoid of meaning. By utilizing a Google extension like Read&Write for Google and providing some autonomy, students can create personalized vocabulary lists based on the texts that they are reading. This, of course, isn’t standardized, which is why it creates a more meaningful experience for students.

The ideas above are meant to simply start a dialogue. The Matthew effect is detrimental to our students’ future, and one thing is abundantly clear: we cannot simply sit idly as the issue continues to manifest. We must all work together to help bridge this gap—not only for the sake of our children, but for the sake of our nation.

Steve Figurelli is passionate, progressive, solutions-oriented, and fully committed to challenging the status quo to effectively merge pedagogy and technology and foster authentic learning experiences for our students. His work, at the local and national level, has been grounded in the meaningful infusion of research-based instructional strategies and technological trends; fostering positive teacher-student relationships; personalizing instruction to meet the needs of a wide array of learners; and empowering student voice. Figurelli believes the time is now to embolden educators to prepare children to be Future Ready innovators, makers, and dreamers.

Figurelli serves on Remind‘s Teacher Advisory Board, was a co-author of‘s Student Voice In A Box, and is a member of the steering committees for EdTechNJ and the NJ/PA Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET2) conferences. Connect with Steve on Twitter: @SteveFigurelli