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What is the Matthew Effect?


Sociologist Richard C. Merton and his wife, Harriet Zuckerman are credited with creating the term "Matthew Effect" in the scientific community in 1968. Later, Keith Stanovich, a psychologist who has done extensive research on reading and language disabilities, applied it to education and more specifically, reading. In the educational community, "Matthew Effect" refers to the idea that, in reading (as in other areas of life), the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

When children fail at early reading and writing, they begin to dislike reading. They read less than their classmates who are stronger readers. When children with disabilities do not receive adequate remediation, they read less – and learn less from reading - than non-disabled children.

As a consequence, they do not gain vocabulary, background knowledge, and information about how reading material is structured. In short, the word-rich get richer, while the word-poor get poorer. This is called "The Matthew Effect" and also known as The Matthew Effects.

Because some IQ subtests measure information learned from reading, poor readers will score lower on these subtests. Over years, the "gap" between poor readers and good readers grows.


For children with disabilities in the primary grades, reading and writing failure is pervasive. Nearly all children who are identified as having a disability have reading and writing difficulties.

Legal Issues

The Matthew Effect was a key issue in James Brody's case.

James was found eligible for special education in 3rd grade. After three years of special education, he was re-tested. According to the new testing, his IQ dropped from 127 to 109. Two years later, James was re-tested again his IQ had dropped even further.

The experts testified that James’ declining IQ test scores was an example of the Matthew Effect - and evidence that James was not receiving appropriate remediation.

The Administrative Law Judge and the Review Officer agreed and found that the school district had not provided James with an appropriate education.

Resources: The Matthew Effect

Note: this webpage was created in 2003 with links to the resources listed below. Fifteen years later, almost all of those links have changed and and result in "Page Not Found." Since 2003, there have been many more articles, publications, and cases that refer to the work by Keith Stanovich and Matthew Effect. Google both. We have deleted the invalid links, but kept the quotations and provided the source.

Matthew Effect - In education, the term "Matthew effect" has been adopted by Keith Stanovich, 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. (Summary from Wikipedia)


Reading: The First Chapter in Education
- "A strong body of evidence shows that most students who fall behind in reading skills never catch up with their peers become to fluent readers. They fall further and further behind in school, become frustrated, and drop out at much higher rates than their classmates. They find it difficult to obtain rewarding employment and are effectively prevented from drawing on the power of education to improve and enrich their lives. Researchers speak of this syndrome as the "Matthew Effect" — the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. (From PA Neuropsychologist Margaret Kay's website.)

Reading, Writing, and Math Difficulties - Reading and writing failure begins in kindergarten and is difficult to remediate beyond the primary grades. When children fail at early reading and writing, they begin to dislike reading, read less than their classmates who are stronger readers, and as a consequence, lose a means for gaining vocabulary, background knowledge, and information about how reading material is structured. In short, the word-rich get richer, while the word-poor get poorer. Some have dubbed this "The Matthew Effect". For children with disabilities in the primary grades, reading and writing failure is pervasive, with reading and writing difficulties affecting nearly all children who are identified as having a disability. (From Vanderbilt University)

The Matthew Effects - According to Dr. Kerry Hempenstall, "The Matthew Effects are not only about the progressive decline of slow starters, but also about the widening gap between slow starters and fast starters."

"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) outlines a model in which problems with early phonological skills can lead to a downward spiral where even higher cognitive skills are affected by slow reading development." (From Education News website.)

Dyslexia: What is it, really? In this essay, attorney Emerson Dickman describes dyslexia, the Matthew Effects, the EIF approach to teaching reading (embarrassment is fundamental), discrepancy formulae, compares remediation, compensation, modification, and more.

"... early reading failures seem to result in a progressive diminution in IQ scores and general cognitive skills. In the words of Keith Stanovich, who has developed this argument with scholarship and force:

"Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many academic tasks ... 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." (Adams, 1990, pp. 59-60). (From NJ Attorney Emerson Dickman's website.)

Revised: 02/02/18
Created: 12/29/03

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