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Has the teaching of synthetic phonics addressed ‘Matthew effects’?

15 March 2024

Image credit: Marisa Howenstine
Image credit: Marisa Howenstine

‘Matthew effects’

Given everything that educational researchers have uncovered about reading and the attainment gap between socially advantaged and disadvantaged children, it is dismal that the ‘gap’ has widened, even though the teaching of reading has been delivered in a specific way, across the nation for the past fourteen years.

Historically, there was a concern that an emphasis on independence in the early years classroom (e.g. Whitebread et al., 1996); and a ‘loose framing’ of learning worked rather well for children from middle class backgrounds, but less well for disadvantaged children. Going back a little further, to Hart and Risley’s (1995) research on the ‘vocabulary gap’ we can see that fundamental inequalities in educational outcomes pointed to differences in exposure to language itself in the child’s home environment.

The link between the attainment gap in reading and Matthew effects (Stanovitch, 1986) in which the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer, has been shown to play out not only throughout a child’s school career, but also in adult life as well. For decades, researchers from different nations have used ‘Matthew effects’ to explain the achievement gap in reading and eventually identified ‘school readiness’ as key (Duncan et al., 2007).

A more structured, tightly-framed and traditional form of pedagogy was proposed, but the allocation limited educational resources is always a matter of debate. Intergenerational cycles may influence these decisions, such as persisting patterns of aversion toward school. Within schools, some families have complex needs, such fundamental push and pull factors influence opinion on whether it is even feasible to reverse ‘Matthew effects’.

High standards for all children

Viewing education through the lens of equality - every child should be offered the ‘same chance’ at learning. An equitable viewpoint would offer a more nuanced approach - every child should be given the opportunity to learn in the way that is most appropriate to them. Offering every child the ‘same chance’ is too blunt a tool, whereas the equitable approach is too individualised. The nature of learning is related to the nature of everything because the set point and state of a child’s nervous system is set by their environment, and it is this that has a direct impact on a child’s capacity to learn. By improving the early environment of the child, therefore, there was a good chance that ‘Matthew effects’ could be addressed.

Policies that have improved the early environment for disadvantaged children have provided security and safety, and enabled parents to move out of a fear-based state of pure survival. Initiatives such as ‘Sure Start’ supported the early life experiences of children through a range of services that were tailored to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged families. Single parent families in particular needed support not only to budget carefully, to make healthier choices for their children’s nutrition, but also to cope with depleted reserves of energy and low levels of emotional well-being. Since austerity measures were put in place, however, many ‘Sure start’ centres lost considerable amounts of funding or were closed. In addition to losing those resources, disadvantaged families were forced to choose between heating and eating. For families who chose to eat, the growth of black mould has impacted their children’s respiratory health, whereas families who chose to heat their homes have had hungry children and have relied on free school meals and food banks.

The Rose Report

If addressing the basic needs of disadvantaged families through the ‘Sure Start’ scheme was a first step in reversing ‘Matthew effects’, the second step was a recommendation by the House of Commons Education Select Committee, that the government commissioned an enquiry into the teaching of reading. It was led by Sir Jim Rose, former Director of Inspection for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate. The report recommended that the ‘Simple View of Reading’, wherein reading was the product of ‘word recognition’ and ‘language comprehension’, as proposed by Gough and Tumner (1986), would serve as a model for reading development. An approach known as synthetic phonics became statutory, amid reservations from many influential educationalists, but this was deemed the most appropriate solution to the issue of the decade: the ‘long tail of educational underachievement’.

Gough and Tumner’s theoretical model, like most strong theories is remarkably simplistic and thus, robust. The ‘Simple View of Reading’ was proposed some ten years before the so-called ‘vocabulary gap’ had been identified by Hart and Risley (1995). Viewed through the lens of the ‘vocabulary gap’ it is not difficult to appreciate that socially advantaged children were more likely to find the vocabulary in books to be relevant and relatable. They were also more likely to have longer attention spans, constructed through years of experience ‘conversational turns’ in day-to-day life, and would be expected to sustain their attention from the beginning to the end of a story.

Perhaps most important of all, advantaged children were more likely to have had stories read to them in a nurturing environment and therefore would readily associate reading within an atmosphere of comfort and security. I would imagine that this feeling would predispose them to approach learning with ease and confidence.

Do schools widen the attainment gap?

Arguably then, children from advantaged backgrounds would experience school as an extension of home, as evidenced in Whitebread and colleagues’ chapter, “Our classroom is like a cosy little house,” (Whitebread et al., 1996) and that access to books and enrichment would be a strong part of the continuity between the two. Contrastingly, some children from disadvantaged backgrounds start school with only 30-40 words in their vocabulary according to an Ofsted Report, (2014). And according to child development experts, children would be expected to have fifty words in their vocabulary by their second birthday (Wise and Bradford, 1996).

If a child from a disadvantaged background was already struggling with a fragmented attention span and a style of language comprehension that had been forged in a stressful environment, then listening to stories, would prove challenging, (particularly if the child was also hungry). Imagine also, that this socially disadvantaged child must then cope with learning words that are deliberately nonsensical, such as ‘vol’, ‘teg’, ‘jat’ and ‘ind’ (Standards an testing Agency, 2014). This type of teaching has always been controversial, but in the context of social disadvantage it is arguably unethical and presents struggling children with an unnecessary educational hurdle, adding insult to injury to a child with an already strained nervous system.

Verifying ‘Matthew effects’

Educational policy alienates all children, through the Year 1 Phonics Check, which tests children’s knowledge of phonemic-graphemic correspondence by including pseudo-words. Perhaps this amounts to nothing more than a playful ‘curved ball’ for some children, but by Year 1, teachers have already identified those at risk of failing the phonics check and have informed their parents to this effect.

Thus, ‘Matthew effects’ are verified, even at this early stage. One of the functions of baseline testing is to place the children on trajectories of predicted progression, and to hold schools accountable to realising those outcomes. An idealised view of an education system would include the aspiration that it mitigates social disadvantage. The current system however, does not appear to aspire in this way. Typically, it is the children in need of the most support who spend the most time out of the classroom, working with the least qualified members of the teaching team. The most qualified members of the team meanwhile stay in the classrooms, working with socially advantaged children.

The pandemic has widened the attainment gap. Children are still suffering and CAHMS is overstretched, with long waiting lists, with high levels of risk of self-harm placing children and adolescents in urgent need of professional help. At the same time, the culture of scrutiny, and accountability in schools has intensified, and now more than ever, there is an urgent need for balance in education.

Children are more likely to recover their equilibrium and confidence following the pandemic with regular access to opportunities to develop their self-expression. The mode of self-expression would of course vary from child to child and might include sport, martial arts, storytelling, pottery, art, music or dance. As a nation with a strong creative sector, we have ample resources to support children in this way. Time spent in nature, nurturing friendships, and in recreational play is also necessary for well-being, and will help children to gain a sense of safety in the wider context of social life.


Together, children with their capacity for play and self-expression can help each other to feel a renewed sense of safety and belonging through friendship, creativity and self-expression. Most importantly, when children feel safe, they begin to focus their attention. This enables generalised states of vigilance and anxiety to stabilise and move towards a more balanced state. When children realise that they are able to learn, their desire to learn grows.

The sense of relief that follows, relaxes their muscles around the shoulders, the voice and the neck. They perceive phonemes more clearly and begin to enjoy their learning journey. A structured, small group teaching environment is highly effective in this context and resets a child’s feeling of ease in their social environment. The Rhythm for Reading Programme has a strong track record in helping children to feel happy at school (in mainstream and special schools alike) as well as improving their early reading skills and phonological processing.

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If you enjoyed this post, keep reading!

Conversations and language development in early childhood

The Hart and Risley (1995) study showed perhaps surprisingly that infants initiate conversations with their parents more than the parents do. This may happen at the most inconvenient moments for the adults, but if parents are aware that their child needs to interact in order to develop language skills, that would set them up for life: they would probably pay closer attention to these subtle attempts to initiate interaction.

Conversations, rhythmic awareness and the attainment gap

Although the richness of vocabulary was hugely advantageous for children from better-off homes in the Hart and Risley study, researchers have discovered that the opportunities for conversational turns between parents and their children, for example when sharing a book, were even more beneficial than vocabulary development. Conversations have also been identified as a marker for maternal responsiveness, positive emotional exchange and social engagement (Paul & Gilkerson, 2017).

It’s anti-bullying week: How does fear affect learning?

Recently, I read that an act of aggression is a natural ‘active coping strategy’ and is rewarded by a dopamine hit. Conversely, a submissive, ’passive coping strategy’ results in stress-induced withdrawal and even generates a ‘shutdown’, an immediate energy-conserving behavioural response. The setting for these social experiments was a laboratory. The brains of mice and rats were dissected following each behavioural task. Slices of tissue were examined to determine the levels of reward and stress induced by each type of ‘social situation’ manipulated by the researchers.

How does this relate to anti-bullying week? Well, in terms of brain structure, neurochemistry and behavioural responses, mice and rats are considered to bear a close enough resemblance to humans to deem such work ethical, justifiable and relevant.

Child development in 2024: Learning versus hunger

In recent weeks, there has been coverage on the rapid rise of ‘baby banks’ (Chloë Hamilton, The Guardian Newspaper). These are like food banks, but specialise in providing free nappies, baby formula, clothes and equipment. We have 200 branches in the UK and just as the Christmas holidays were about to start, there was also a piece about headteachers reporting malnourishment among their pupils (Jessica Murray, The Guardian Newspaper).

Having delivered the Rhythm for Reading programme in schools that also function as community food banks, and having seen children faint from hunger while at school, I am in no doubt that nothing can be more important to a civilised and caring society than children’s physical well-being - hungry children cannot learn anything at all.


Duncan et al. (2007) School readiness and later achievement, Developmental Psychology, 43 (6), 1428-1446.

Gough, P. and Tumner, W. (1986) Decoding, Reading and Reading Disability, Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6 -10

Hart, B. and Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American Children, Baltimore, M.D., Brookes.

Office for Standards in Education (2014) Are you Ready? Good Practice in School Readiness, London

Rose, J. (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (The Rose Report). London Department for Education and Skills.

Standards and Testing Agency (2014) Phonics Screening Check: Children’s Materials. London: Standards and Testing Agency

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

Whitebread, D. Et al., (1996) “Our classroom is like a little cosy house!” Organising the early years classroom to encourage independent learning, In D. Whitebread and P. Coltman, ‘Teaching and Learning in the Early Years, London and New York: Routledge.

Wise, D. and Bradford, H. (1996). “You’re supposed to tell me your name now!” Speaking and listening in the early years. In D. Whitebread and P. Coltman, ‘Teaching and Learning in the Early Years, London and New York: Routledge.

Tags: reading with ease , socially disadvantaged children , phonemes , Rhythm for Reading programme , A simple view of reading

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