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The Matthew Effect and Educational Accomplishments

The Matthew Effect and Educational Accomplishments

The three R's of education, reading, writing and arithmetic are always emphasized as the 3 key skills a child must learn during the early years of school. The ability to learn how to read is one of the most difficult yet important skills, a child must pick up. Scroll below to learn about the Matthew effect and how it is relevant to poor reading skills.
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Everyone is not equal in terms of wealth. Some are rich, some are poor and some are middle-class or average. But there is a trend that is dominant in richness or wealth, that those who are rich tend to get richer. And those who are poor, remain poor. The catchier phrase is "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer". One could say the rich know how to make money, so making more money is natural to them. But the poor do not have the skills or the capital to make money and even just living makes them poorer. Such a bitter but common observation comes under the long and never-ending "Life is not fair" list. It is even there in the Bible. The Gospel According to Matthew states:

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. - Matthew 25:29, New Revised Standard Version

In less fancy terms using street language, if you got it, flaunt it and grow with it. If you ain't got it, no way you are going to get it. This observation is aptly termed as the Matthew Effect or accumulated advantage. Consider the following examples of the Matthew Effect:

In a research team, the credit for a new discovery is always given to the most famous or known scientist of the group, even if others have done equal or more work in the team. They will get some praise but more often than not, the fame and glory goes to someone who is already renowned.

In the world of entertainment, the actor or actress of a movie gets all the fame and praise that comes with a movie's success. This fame in turn adds to his/her notoriety. The director and his team stand in the dimmer or not-so-bright spotlight of praise, unless the director is also famous like Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese.

The Matthew Effect in Education

Wealth or praise is one sphere of life in which the Matthew effect is observed. It is more disturbing an impact in the field of education. Keith E. Stanovich, current Canada Research Chair of Applied Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto, observed this effect in the learning abilities of children. To illustrate the situation, consider the reading skills of two boys, Sam and Chris.

Sam learns to read at the age of five and within two years, can read a storybook with pictures quite easily. His reading ability hones and perfects itself. By the age of 10, Sam can read an Agatha Christie or a complete novel. His reading appetite is voracious, he can read quickly and well, his vocabulary is excellent for his age and his writing and oratory skills are also superior. Sam has no problem reading bigger and more complicated books and learns more with each book. His knowledge levels increase in leaps and bounds.

Chris is learning how to read at five. He finds it difficult and does not put much effort into learning to read. In the third-grade, Chris still finds it difficult to read, he's still reading at an a, b, c level while his peers can read picture books and fairy tales. The strain in reading makes Chris even more reluctant to read. As he hates to read, he cannot keep up with the class. His poor reading skills affects his writing and math skills and even while speaking, he is hesitant. Chris has a very poor vocabulary. By the age of 10, reading a picture book is a horrible strain for him. His speech patterns are also affected.

Plot a chart based on the above cases. A clear, steady and upwards graph is formed of Sam's reading ability. With each year, the graph climbs a point upwards. It does not dip or drop. But Chris's graph has a slow start and never rises. With the passage of time, his graph dips and drops alarmingly. He starts in the red and remains in the red. This is a clear case of the Matthew effect. The ability to read is nurtured and improves with time but if you do not grasp the knack to read at the right time, you can lag behind and your ability deteriorates even further. Poor reading skills start a vicious circle, where you can't read well, your speed of reading slows down, you start to hate reading and so avoid it at all costs, just worsening your ability. Poor reading also affects your analytical and logical skills as well as writing and speaking. So when children are bad at reading, they tend to get worse over time. But those who are good at reading just get better.

The Dangers of The Matthew Effect

Just like wealth, the ability to read can be in-built or inherited. A child in the 1st grade can read at a 3rd grade level, maybe due to superior intellect or better kindergarten schooling. This skill of his/hers does not deteriorate with the lack of challenge but is in fact encouraged. Once a child knows he/she is good at something, he/she does his/her best to excel and advance further. So a good reader today will become a good writer, a better mathematician or an excellent all-rounder in the future. The growth is always upwards. But a child with normal or poor reading skills, needs to pick up the pace and learn to read at the appropriate age. The increase in school workload only adds to the uphill task. If a child finds it difficult to read "dog" and "mat", small 3-letter words, then reading a sentence like "the dog is on the mat" is next to impossible. Sentences become paragraphs, paragraphs become articles, 3-letter words turn into 8-10 letter words. In short, a child should be capable of increasing his ability with the increase in difficulty.

The sad part about this effect is that, those who are poor in reading get worse with time. The first school years of a child are meant for learning to read, where the child actually begins learning how to read. If the child does not learn how to read in these years, then the gap between him and his peers reading skills widens and widens. Soon the child struggles with the overpowering need to learn how to read. Sort of learning to swim only when you start to drown. After the fourth-grade, it is very difficult for a child to grasp the ability to read, even if extra help and attention is provided. The child's growth is stunted forever. He/she will have problems in learning anything, fall behind in grades and academic growth is minimal or non-existent. Such students tend to drop out of school, frustrated with their own inability to learn.

The lesson to learn from the Matthew effect is summed up through the motto "a stitch in time saves nine". Early diagnostic tests can help identify slow readers and the extra attention they need can be given to them in time. At home and in school, the child can be trained extra and in a more conductive manner, to hone up his/her reading skills. Aside from tests, the attitude of an educator should also be addressed. One tends to treat slow or difficult readers with indifference or a "they'll pick it up as they get older" attitude. Reading is one life skill that improves with practice and age, if it is learned and understood at the right age. You can't teach an old dog new tricks, similarly the older a child gets, the more difficult it is for him/her to learn how to read. Avoid the wide and bitter gap between rich and poor in terms of reading, by giving the correct help and attention to a child at the right time.