• The Matthew Effect: Why extensive reading is so important to literacy developmen


    The Matthew Effect:

    Why extensive reading is

    important to literacy development

    Sarah Murray

    Sarah Murray is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education at Rhodes University, specializing

    in English as an additional language. Literacy is her main teaching and research interest.


    It is common knowledge that, generally speaking, South African children don’t read and write well.  In a recent international study of reading achievement, South African Grade 4 and 5 learners came last out of 40 countries (Howie et al 2008). Eighty-seven percent of South African Grade 4s and 78% of Grade 5s were unable to reach the lowest benchmark of the test demonstrating basic literacy even though the majority of children were tested in their home languages. On average, in the other countries, only 6% of Grade 4 learners failed to achieve basic literacy.

    In an assessment of reading achievement in 14 African countries (Moloi & Strauss 2005), South Africa did not fare much better.  Our Grade 6 learners were ranked eighth whereas Kenya, a country that spends much less on education than South Africa, came second.  In Kenya, 83.6% of Grade 6 learners can read for meaning, whereas in South Africa this can only be said of 49.9% of our learners.

    If you are interested in learning more about South Africa’s performance in these evaluations, you can check out the following websites:



    Although this research refers to primary schools, we know that things don’t improve much as learners go up the school. So, if similar tests were carried out in high schools, the results might be just as shocking. [The introduction of Grade 9 tests will reveal this in due course – Ed.] However, the good news is that there is something we can do about this situation! If we could just get learners to read more outside of class time, their levels of literacy would improve dramatically.

    It would seem self-evident that the amount of reading done will affect performance. In many other fields of endeavour, we readily accept that practice is important. For example, we know that if you want to run Comrades, you need to practise every day. However, when it comes to reading this message doesn’t seem to get through to all our learners, and in some cases, even to their parents and teachers.

    Perhaps it would help if we could explain how the volume of reading learners do affects their performance. Let’s start by looking at how children learn to read.

    In Figure 1 below, taken from an article by Helen Scarborough (2002), you can see that there are two components of skilled reading. The first is decoding. When children start learning to read they identify the individual sounds of the language (or phonemes) and link these sounds to the letters of the alphabet. They have to be able to blend these sounds in order to decode. On its own, of course, this is not reading. To read with understanding, the child has to know the meaning of a word; it has to be in the child’s oral vocabulary.

    This leads us to the second component of skilled reading:  comprehension.  In order to comprehend written text, you need to know well the language in which the text is written; you need a wide vocabulary and a good grasp of its grammar.  You also need to be familiar with the subject matter of the text. Comprehension supports decoding; if you know the meaning of a word and you can understand it in a sentence, it is easier to decode it.

    Figure 1: Strands of early literacy development (Scarborough 2002)

    In order to read fluently, decoding must become automatic, which requires practice. Instant word recognition is the mark of fluent reading, and according to Abadzi (2008) this sets up a neural pathway in the brain that enables the reader to increase reading speed. Fast decoding improves comprehension. If children read too slowly, this places too great a demand on their short-term memory and they won’t understand what they are reading. Abadzi (2008) believes that by the end of Grade 6, the average learner should be reading at about 150 words per minute.

    Learners who read a lot will get the practice they need to achieve fluency. Moreover, there are other benefits resulting from extensive reading.  Vocabulary is one of the keys to reading comprehension. The wider your vocabulary, the better your comprehension will be. However, a wide vocabulary is also a result of extensive reading. Cunningham and Stanovich (1998) have shown that written language contains a much richer vocabulary than spoken language. The amount of reading that children do has a dramatic effect on the number of written words they are exposed to,  as shown in Table 1 below, taken from Cunningham and Stanovich (1998). These figures refer to research carried out by Anderson, Wilson and Fielding (1988) into the out-of-school reading done by American Grade 5 learners.

    Table 1: Variation in amount of independent reading (adapted slightly from Cunningham & Stanovich 1998)

    Percentile Independent reading

    Minutes per day

    Words read per year























    1, 823,000










    Thus learners who read a lot get into what Stanovich (1993) calls a positive feedback loop:  the more they read, the wider their vocabulary becomes; the wider their vocabulary, the more they comprehend and the greater their enjoyment of reading; these learners then choose to spend more time reading.  Moreover, according to Cunningham and Stanovich (1998), extensive reading also contributes to general knowledge and verbal skills, which in turn result in improved reading comprehension.  For learners who are reading in their additional language, extensive reading provides exposure and promotes language acquisition (Krashen 1993).  These are what Stanovich (1993) calls the reciprocal effects of extensive reading, and they result in what he calls the ‘Matthew effect’: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer – a gap opens up between learners who have entered this positive feedback loop and those who have not.

    These are strong arguments for engaging learners in an extensive reading programme. For such a programme to work, you need a range of interesting books that learners will genuinely want to read for information or pleasure. It is also important that texts are at the right level for individual learners. Waring and Nation (2004) claim that for a text to be adequately comprehended and for reading to be pleasurable, at least 90% of the vocabulary must be known.  This suggests that teachers need to grade texts in class and school libraries. They also need to be knowledgeable about the reading levels of learners and match texts to learners.

    Pretorius and Currin (2010) report on an extensive reading project at a non-fee-paying primary school in a township near Pretoria. The project team built up library resources – over a three-year period, the number of books in the library increased from 200 to over 5,000. The team also developed teachers’ and parents’ capacity to support learners’ reading.  Grade 7 learners were tested in both Sepedi – their home language – and English, before and after the intervention.  As shown in Table 2 below, the learners made gains in both comprehension and reading speed. These gains were greater in English than in Sepedi because learners were exposed to more texts in English: of the 5,000 books in the school library only 170 were in Sepedi.

    Table 2:  Grade 7 Reading achievement 2005 and 2007 (adapted from Pretorius & Currin 2010)

    English Sepedi
    2005 2007 2005 2007
    Mean comprehension score 29.5% 47.8% 30% 38.7%
    Mean reading rate 106 wpm 143 wpm 93 wpm 119 wpm

    Pretorius and Currin’s study shows that, with effort and enthusiasm, it is possible to improve learners’ reading achievement even in disadvantaged schools.  What is needed is to get more books into schools and to set up ‘living and breathing’ libraries. Where there is no room for a school library, language teachers can set up class libraries. Class libraries need a range of books that appeal to readers at that grade level, and the books need to be graded according to reading level.  Teachers need to put systems in place so that learners can borrow books on a regular basis and build up confidence and enjoyment in reading.  In this way, they may enter a ‘virtuous circle’ in which extensive reading builds speed, vocabulary, comprehension and enjoyment, and this experience creates the desire to read more.



    Abadzi, H. (2008). Efficient learning for the poor: New insights into literacy acquisition for children. International Review of Education, 54, 581-604.

    Anderson, R.C., Wilson, P.T. & Fielding, L.G. (1988). Growth in reading and how children spend their time outside of school. Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 285-303.

    Cunningham, A.E. & Stanovich, K.E. (1998). What reading does for the mind. American Educator, Spring/Summer.

    Howie, S., Venter, E., van Staden, S., Zimmerman, L., Long, C. du Toit, C., Scherman, V. & Archer, E. (2008). PIRLS 2006 Summary Report: South African children’s reading literacy achievement. Pretoria: Centre for Evaluation and Assessment, University of Pretoria.

    Krashen, S. (1993). The power of reading: Insights from research. Englewood, Colo: Libraries Unlimited.

    Moloi, M. & Strauss, J. (2005). The SACMEQ Project in South Africa: A study of the conditions of schooling and quality of education. Harare: SACMEQ.

    Pretorius, E.J. & Currin, S. (2010). Do the rich get richer and the poor poorer? The effects of an intervention programme on reading in the home and school language in a high poverty multilingual context. International Journal of Educational Development, 67-76.

    Scarborough, H.S. (2002). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory and practice. In S.B. Neuman & D.K. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (pp. 97-110). New York: Guilford Press.

    Stanovich, K.E. (1993). Romance and reality. The Reading Teacher, 47 (4), 280-291.

    Waring, R. & Nation, P. (2004). Second language reading and incidental vocabulary learning. Angles on the English speaking world, 4, 11-23.

    Sarah Murray is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education at Rhodes University, specializing in English as an additional language. Literacy is her main teaching and research interest. (s.murray@ru.ac.za)

    Categories: Issue II