Monday 23 May 2011

Research Bulletin: Finding Matthew

It’s practically a truism that reading does wonders for one’s verbal ability. This idea is one of the major reasons why early literacy is stressed so heavily, long before children can read on their own. Children who are exposed to books at an early age are thought to develop better abilities that relate to reading (e.g., word recognition) and this in turn promotes a reading habit. Those who are better at reading are likely to do it more often, which in turn further improves their ability to read and so on. This circular or reciprocal causation is sometimes known as the “Matthew effect,” in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In the case of reading, those who read get better at reading and read more, whereas those who don’t read get worse at reading and read less. The Matthew effect originated in sociology and refers to this biblical passage:

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
- Matthew 25:29

Keith Stanovich was the first to import this term from sociology into the field of education and reading. Dr. Stanovich is a long time colleague of Dr. Keith Oatley, one of our editors, and Dr. Stanovich has been a valuable influence for many of us here at

Recently, a wonderful meta-analysis summarizing the results of many previous studies was conducted by Drs. Suzanne Mol and Adriana Bus (Leiden University), examining how reading relates to verbal ability. Their analysis found ample evidence that reading is associated with better performance on a wealth of different verbal tasks, across the lifespan (from preschoolers, through grades 1 to 12, all the way to undergraduate and graduate school years). Moreover, these findings were based on a large number of studies (i.e., 99) which tested a great number of participants (i.e., 7,699). This, combined with the careful conduct of the meta-analysis, greatly increases our confidence in their conclusion that reading is a highly important activity when it comes to language development and perhaps even intelligence in general. Although the data available to them did not allow for a direct test of the Matthew effect, their findings were consistent with a “rich get richer” phenomenon for reading. Meta-analytic reviews such as this are very difficult to conduct, yet the provide the best picture available for what science can tell us about a particular topic. These authors are to be commended for their efforts, for we now know with a reasonable amount of certainty just how important reading is across the lifespan.

(As always, readers interested in a copy of this important paper are invited to contact me; e-mail available in profile.)

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

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