Furthermore, the relationship between frequent reading and reading achievement is reciprocal (Stanovich, 1986), i.e., frequent reading leads to higher achievement which leads to more frequent reading. This means that the gap between more and less frequent readers will grow over time. Stanovich (1986) dubbed this phenomenon the “Matthew effect” as a reference to the biblical passage about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer (Matt. 13:12).
This research on frequent reading is consistent with cognitive theories suggesting that regular extensive practice in a skill promotes proficiency (Anderson, 1995; Ericsson & Smith, 1991). Practice at earlier stages of learning is thought to be more beneficial. As a learner increases in skill, additional practice is likely to bring diminishing returns (Anderson, 1995). Thus, additional reading practice in the early grades when many children are learning to read could be especially important. It is noteworthy that most studies of the effects of frequent reading have been done with older children, presumably because younger children are not yet fluent readers. Because of the Matthew effect, the potential value of frequent reading for younger children could be even greater than the results of these studies suggest.
Translating these findings into classroom practice is not straightforward (Byrnes, 2000). While the research seems to suggest that providing more time for reading, especially in the early grades, would lead to increased reading achievement, there is also evidence that certain conditions of practice may be more effective in promoting achievement. For example, at early stages of acquisition, learners often need expert advice to help them understand how they are doing. Formative assessment (and instruction based on that assessment) is especially important for struggling readers who benefit more from scaffolded tutoring than from attempts to read literature on their own (Juel, 1996).
Guthrie (1980) also makes a distinction between the time allocated for reading and the time that students are actually engaged in this task. Teachers differ in their instruction and classroom management strategies and in their ability to keep children “on task.” Independent reading attempts by unsuccessful beginning readers can lead to frustration and lack of engagement (Williams, 2000). Thus, allocating time for independent reading is not enough to improve reading performance, especially for beginning and less successful readers. These readers also require feedback and instruction to make the additional time beneficial.
Finding time to provide individual feedback during children's reading practice is difficult for teachers who often have 20 or more students in their class in the early grades. Thus, class size is likely to be a constraint on students' opportunities for the type of reading practice that might be most beneficial.
It is possible that new developments in speech recognition technology could increase opportunities for individual reading practice with feedback, as well as collecting assessment data to inform instructional decision making. In the next section of this paper, I describe Watch Me! Read, a computer-based reading environment developed by IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center and currently being tested in the Houston Independent School District as part of IBM's Reinventing Education program.