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The Matthew Effect

Read by third grade – or else!

Your once happy-go-lucky 6-year-old has grown sullen. He used to love it when you read to him but now that he is learning to read on his own, books frustrate him. He’s about to start first grade and you figure he will learn all he needs to know, so you stop worrying. Hold that thought. New research suggests that, in fact, your son may have an underlying problem called the Matthew Effect — a Biblical allusion that means the academically rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

“The Matthew Effect refers to students coming to school with deficiencies in vocabulary and phonological awareness,” explains Jonni Wolskee, reading specialist at East Dover Elementary School in East Dover, DE and co-author of Making the Most of Your Core Reading Program. “Without early intervention for remediation, by the time these students get to third grade, there’s really no saving them.”

A study released last year by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that third-graders who lack proficiency in reading are four times more likely to become high school dropouts. Why is third grade so crucial? “During those primary years between Kindergarten and the end of second grade, children are learning how to read. In third grade and beyond, they enter the process of reading to learn,” explains Dr. Rahmanda Salamatú Campbell, CEO of the Reading Clinic, Inc. in Philadelphia and Newark, DE.

“By third grade it’s a self-fulfilling cycle — the child who is struggling isn’t getting praise or emotional fuel; she doesn’t find the process of reading gratifying, she avoids it. That’s a shut-down learner and is illustrative of the Matthew Effect,” adds Richard Selznick, PhD, director of the Cooper Learning Center in Voorhees, NJ and author of two books, including School Struggles.

Got a son who doesn't like to read? Learn how to get boys engaged in reading here.

The right reading start

You are your child’s first teacher and education begins right after birth.

  • Spend time having conversations to help your child develop his vocabulary.
  • Read to your child often, including nursery rhymes.
  • Keep tabs on what your Kindergartener or first-grader is expected to do by the end of the year and monitor her progress.
  • Don’t delay. The Common Core State Standards require Kindergarteners to demonstrate understanding of spoken words, syllables and sounds; know and apply grade-level phonics and word analysis skills in decoding words; and read emergent reader text with purpose and understanding. (Click for specifics. Then read our story on the controversy surrounding the Common Core State Standards)

Signs for concern for early readers

Keep track of early warning signs, such as:

  • A child resists new things and is no longer a learning risk-taker.
  • Anxiety develops over assignments, homework and tests.
  • Your child suddenly dislikes school.
  • You see a drop in grades or test scores.
  • The child becomes frustrated, struggles with homework or seems to shut down.
  • When reading, your child is unable to blend, isolate or characterize sounds. For example, if you replace the c in “cat” with a b, he should be able to read “bat.
  • It takes your child two or three hours to complete homework.
  • Your child can read but doesn’t comprehend the text.
  • Your child is a poor speller, which can indicate an inability to understand the placement of letters in relation to sounds.

Jump to the reading rescue

As soon as you suspect your child may be falling behind, get involved. Be proactive, not reactive, and remember that you are the first line of defense. “Some parents don’t understand that they have full advocacy of their child and they can request updates about their child’s progress,” says Campbell.

“While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, the best answer is grade-level remediation, either at school or home, but hopefully both,” says Wolskee. “This will help stop the confidence erosion and reading or learning delays that are undermining performance at school.”

Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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