Reading Efficiency

I recently came across the concept of the “Matthew Effect” and how it applies to reading, and so I thought I’d share some of my learnings here and combine it with some of the literature I’ve been reading.

Firstly, the Matthew Effect is a concept that has been around for a very long time – it originates in the bible… The passage that inspired this concept comes from the New Testament and says…

“For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

Gospel according to Matthew, 25:29.

When I first read that I found it quite confusing, but after breaking it down, it essentially means that there are two types of people. The haves and the have nots. The haves are more likely to get more of whatever that the ‘thing’ is that makes them the haves. The have nots are not likely to get that ‘thing’ and, in fact, may even end up owing that thing.

Still confused? I think this old quote by Percy Bysshe Shelley sums it up quite nicely…

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Poetry Foundation (2009)

So, what does this have to do with reading? Well, Keith Stanovich (1986) has published research on the Matthew Effect and reading effeciency. The argument that Stanovich makes is that readers who read well are more likely to engage in reading and will therefore experience success. Experiencing this success results in these readers to continue reading, and so the cycle continues. This concept is reflected in the research of Mol and Bus (2011).

Mol and Bus (2011) suggest that as readers continue to engage in reading, they experience an upwards trajectory of reading ability that they refer to as the spiral of causality. This spiral is essentially a visual represenation of the Matthew Effect. Furthermore, according to OECD this spiral can mean that “students who read daily for enjoyment score the equivalent of one-and-a-half years of schooling better than those who do not” (OECD, 2011, p. 2). It is clear that being a profficient reader has a significant impact on students’ academic success.

In addition to an increase in academic success, Stanovich explains the impact that reading level has on a student’s abiltiy to improve their reading. He argues that a student who is more fluent in reading is more likely to be able to improve their vocabulary through their ability to rely on the context of what they are reading to decode new words (Stanovich, 1986, p.366). Struggling readers are more likely to require images to provide context to understand new vocabulary rather than being able to rely on the context of the text. Furthermore, students who are proficient readers are better at processing information in every sense. Essentially, a student who can decode meaning by using the context provided by the text can read more efficiently. This is because they are able to easily combine images and context to improve comprehension rather than readers that must first decode the images to support their understanding of the text (Stanovich, 1986).

When I first read Stanovich’s work I got very excited and reflected on my own practices regarding my reading and the material I recommend to students. The first thing that sprang to mind was the power of graphic novels and how I could use them as a way to increase student reading ability. In my mind, a student that requires the addition of images to provide context to increase their vocabulary would benefit greatly from engaging with graphic novels. I also realised that using nonfiction resources that couples images with text might also be a good way to engage these struggling readers. I have since broadened my approach to recommending reading material to students to include graphic novels and a selection of nonfiction. So far, this approach appears to be working with students that I had previously found it difficult to engage in reading fiction novels. I will continue this practice and will hopefully have some positive annecdotes to share with you all soon!


Mol S. E., & Bus, A. (2011). To read or not to read: A meta-analysis of print exposure from infancy to early adulthood. Psychological Bulletin, 137(2), 267-296.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD]. (2011). Do students today read for pleasure? PISA in Focus 8. 18 September Retrieved from

Poetry Foundation. (2009). A defence of poetry by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Stanovich, K. (1986). Matthew Effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21(4), 360-407.

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