Would your child rather do chores than read a book? Does your child avoid reading whenever possible? When it’s time for reading lessons, are there tears or grumpiness involved?
Children who dislike reading are usually struggling readers. Just as nonathletic people tend to avoid exercise, children for whom reading doesn’t come easily tend to avoid books and everything else related to reading.
Perhaps the child can’t read because he has an undiagnosed vision problem, such as convergence deficiency disorder. Maybe the reading difficulty is caused by a learning difference, such as dyslexia. Or perhaps the child simply does not have a solid phonics base.
When a child has reading problems, it sets in motion a terrible downward spiral.
Lack of enjoyment leads to less reading practice. The child doesn’t read enough to develop automaticity …
- which leads to reading becoming unpleasant
- which leads to poor vocabulary growth and poor attitude toward school work
- which affects motivation to read
- and the downward spiral continues.
Conversely, when reading comes easily to a child, it sets in motion a wonderful upward spiral.
When reading is easy for a child, he usually likes to read – and because it’s easy for him, he reads more. As a result, he develops automaticity, reading becomes even more pleasant, and he has excellent vocabulary growth. The upward spiral continues.
As you can imagine, after several years the gap between children who are on the “downward spiral” and children who are on the “upward spiral” can become quite large.
There is actually a name for this gap: the Matthew effect.
As it relates to reading, the Matthew effect refers to the idea that good readers read more, causing them to become even better readers. Conversely, poor readers shy away from reading, which has a negative impact on their growth in reading ability. This causes the gap between good readers and poor readers to widen.
The Matthew effect comes from a parable told by Jesus and recorded in Matthew 25:29. The idea behind the parable eventually worked its way into the maxim, “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” The term Matthew effect was first used in the scientific field to explain how, when two scientists independently do the same work, the more prominent scientist often receives the credit for work done by the lesser known scientist. Later, cognitive science researcher Keith Stanovich1 applied the term Matthew effect to reading when he observed the effect that poor reading skills has on all areas of a student’s academic life.
Children who are good readers experience more success, and they are encouraged by that success to read more. As they become even more successful at reading, their vocabulary and comprehension grows, which often leads to greater success in all academic areas. On the other hand, readers who struggle at decoding are less likely to want to pick up a book. They get much less practice and fall behind – often way behind – their peers. They fall behind not only in reading and spelling, but also in other content areas such as history and science.
This chart shows how the gap between good readers and poor readers widens as time goes on.
What can you do if your child struggles with reading?
The Matthew effect has such a strong negative impact on poor readers that the sooner you can intervene, the better. There are three ways you can help your reluctant reader, starting now:
- Teach your child how to read using an explicit phonics method such as All About Reading. In Anna Gillingham’s words, “go as fast as you can, but as slowly as you must.”
- Read aloud to your child every day. Hearing good literature will help your child develop vocabulary and comprehension, even while he is learning to read on his own.
- Encourage independent reading. Help your student select books that are at the right reading level for him and contain topics that interest him.
Above all, don’t get discouraged and don’t give up. Reading affects all other academic areas, so it is important to get your child the help he needs. If your child is struggling, please know that we are here to help.
Do you have a child who avoids reading? Let us know in the comments below.
1 Stanovich, Keith E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 22, 360-407.