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Can the “Matthew Effect” Be Turned Around in Kindergarten?

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Racing Against the Vocabulary Gap: Matthew Effects in Early Vocabulary Instruction and Intervention” by Michael Coyne, Betsy McCoach, Sharon Ware, Christy Austin, Susan Loftus-Rattan, and Doris Baker in Exceptional Children, January 2019 (Vol. 85, #2, p. 163-179), Available for purchase at; Coyne can be reached at
In this article in Exceptional Children, Michael Coyne (University of Connecticut) and five co-authors ask whether the widening vocabulary gap between students who enter school with reading advantages and those who don’t can be neutralized. Vocabulary development has been identified “as perhaps the best illustration of this powerful and self-perpetuating mechanism,” say Coyne et al. Here’s how it operates:
- Students who have been exposed to rich oral language develop larger vocabularies.
- They leverage the words they know to pick up and retain new knowledge in school.
- They also tend to engage in lots of independent reading.
- These successful learning experiences build confidence to seek out opportunities to read and interact in ways that use and expand their vocabularies.
- Students who enter school knowing fewer words have less “velcro” to pick up new words in the classroom and in other interactions.
- These students often have negative learning experiences and may avoid independent reading and oral language activities.
- Vocabulary growth in the primary grades happens almost entirely through incidental learning (there is very little intentional vocabulary instruction before fourth grade). Incidental learning favors students who enter school with bigger vocabularies.
- When explicit vocabulary instruction does happen in all-class settings, the Matthew effect still operates, with vocabulary-rich students soaking up more words than their vocabulary-poor classmates.
The researchers describe this process as a reciprocal causal relationship: “individual differences in overall vocabulary knowledge cause differential efficiency in acquiring new vocabulary during learning opportunities, and this differential vocabulary learning in turn causes further individual differences in vocabulary knowledge.” The bottom line: in most schools the vocabulary gap widens every year, most rapidly in kindergarten, first, and second grade.
Can this powerful process be reversed? Coyne and his colleagues designed and implemented an intervention in 284 kindergarten classes in a diverse group of 48 U.S. elementary schools. Instructors directly and explicitly taught new words in pullout groups of 3-4 kindergarten students identified as having difficulty after Tier-1 instruction. The challenge with this kind of intervention is that direct vocabulary instruction can’t teach nearly as many words as students are exposed to every week. But the researchers theorized that by carefully choosing the words they taught, they could make a difference. Here were the key elements of the intervention:
- Focusing on high-utility academic vocabulary taught to the whole class in Tier 1;
- Using student-friendly definitions;
- Differentiating between examples and non-examples of the words;
- Linking words to pictures, personal experiences, and other words and concepts;
- Getting students involved in conversations with peers about the target words;
- Exposing students to new words multiple times across different, meaningful contexts;
- Using extensive teacher modeling;
- Giving students extended opportunities to interact with words to promote deep processing.
Trained teachers and paraprofessionals met with intervention students 30 minutes a day outside the classroom, four days a week over the course of 22 weeks; these students received twice the amount of vocabulary instruction as their peers.
What were the results? Intervention students made significant gains in their knowledge of the target words and comprehension of those words in passages, actually outperforming a control group of not-at-risk students in their knowledge of target words. However, the program did not have an impact on standardized measures of vocabulary knowledge, and didn’t close the substantial gap among students on overall vocabulary knowledge. “Although small-group Tier-2 intervention may be enough to close learning gaps for some students,” the authors conclude, “results of this study suggest that students with lower overall language abilities may need highly intensive Tier-3 intervention to accelerate broader language development…
Therefore, schools and teachers will be constantly engaged in a race against the Matthew effect – continually having to make hard decisions about how to leverage time, personnel, and resources to intensify instruction and intervention.”

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