Coined by sociologist Robert Merton, the Matthew Effect derives its name from a verse in the New Testament (Matthew 25:29) which reads, “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,” and roughly translates to, “Those who are successful are most likely to be given the special opportunities that lead to further success, and those who aren’t successful are most likely to be deprived of them.”

Wikipedia handle the term here.

David Didau presents an intuitive argument that having access to more culturally rich knowledge can spiral into advantage:

  • more knowledge potentially gets you into a better class at school, which pushes cognitive development compared to a weaker class
  • more cognitive development plays a part in determining the type of people you hang out with
  • those associations with people of equal or higher levels of cognitive development push and strengthen further cognitive development
  • higher cognitive capability opens access to cognitively demanding jobs, which are normally higher paid
  • intellectual levels are maintained via environmental contexts and demands

In a schooling context, what this means is that students who enter the system coming from households where books are read to them, where conversations overheard and even to themselves are rich in vocabulary , where world events and politics are openly analysed around the dinner table, are more able to comprehend much of the reading materials that dominate almost every subject they encounter, including mathematics. This is because understanding vocabulary is critical to comprehension, and students coming from backgrounds mentioned here are able to comprehend text that is essential to learning simply because they know the words and the contexts they would be used in. The other benefit to this cultural literacy is that vocabulary is heard in multiple contexts , and so the student is able to differentiate words and their intended meanings, further strengthening comprehension. Homework is easier as a parent can assist if certain words are not known, so any learning gaps that begin to surface are quickly filled, and student motivation remains strong.

Another key factor here is the continuous observation and practice of social norms of how to behave in public and social settings. These behaviours are observed and absorbed, which means that in a school setting, modelled on similar behaviours, such students avoid getting into trouble and missing learning time.

These outcomes can be different for a student who comes from a context where cultural literacy is not as present. Their reading comprehension is reduced simply because they haven’t had anywhere near as much access and exposure to the vocabulary required. Continued miscomprehension can significantly reduce motivation, and progress, and it is then when the gaps begin to widen, and because so much learning is sequential in nature, these gaps understandably become exponential as time goes on. Students who struggle to grasp the behaviour norms expected in the school are also at great disadvantage because they will miss valuable learning time, which exacerbates the gaps.

Clearly, a school can only do so much to address such an effect, ultimately not able to alter student home contexts, but they can do something:

  • Pre-teach vocabulary. Such a strategy would involve providing meanings to words that the teacher believes students may not understand before reading is engaged with. This most likely would look like a glossary at the top of the text, with the teacher discussing the words before the reading is undertaken.
  • Using texts that build in vocabulary complexity provides a baseline knowledge for the teacher, where introduced vocab can be easily identified. When you know that students are comfortable with certain words, then it is only the introduced words that potentially could be misunderstood . This requires a highly organised curriculum. Ideally, this would be a school wide approach to literacy, beginning in early years education, where each year level is aware of words that students have been exposed to.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of the curse of knowledge, where the teacher may assume that students should/would know certain words.
  • Create supportive classroom contexts where students feel they are able to make it known that they do not understand certain words.
  • And finally, continuously retrieving these introduced words so that they become heard and used multiple times, as they would be in the culturally literate household, is imperative to avoid and mitigate the Matthew effect.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching resources and discussions.


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