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Is Catch-Up Growth Possible?

October 13th, 2016

Consider this scenario: Molly is a fourth-grade student but reads at a first grade level. Her teacher knows that her reading skills are much weaker than her classmates because the school conducts tri-annual universal screenings of all students. Such screenings provide data that are used alongside other information about student performance to help teachers know which students need additional instruction. In Molly’s case, the fall screening score on a broad reading measure like aReading in FAST indicates that her current reading skills are like those of a typical first grader. This means that Molly is three grade levels behind her grade-level peers in reading. Clearly, efforts to improve Molly’s reading skills are needed. If Molly’s school uses a multi-tier system of support (MTSS) for reading, she is likely to participate in daily reading intervention. Such intervention includes daily specialized lessons. An MTSS typically includes three levels of support. Tier 1 includes the general education curriculum and is provided for all students. Tier 2 usually includes about 30 minutes of targeted instruction and is in addition to the school’s Tier 1 core instruction. Tier 3 is provided to students who are significantly below grade level and can include either additional instruction beyond Tier 1 + Tier 2, or it could include a replacement program that is used instead of the Tier 1 core.  

In Molly’s case, the good news is that when such intervention is provided according to the methods validated through research, her reading skills are likely to improve. Although providing such reading intervention has been documented to improve reading skills of students with significant reading problems, teachers often ask whether students like Molly can ever catch up and read like their typically-achieving classmates. The honest answer is that for students like Molly to catch up, they will need to participate in regular intensive intervention that focuses on gaining skills at a faster pace than classmates.

The Matthew Effect in Reading

For a student like Molly to catch up and meet grade-level reading expectations, she will need to improve her skills at a faster pace than her current classmates. The reading researcher Keith Stanovich applied the term “Matthew Effect” to describe students like Molly (Stanovich, 1986). The term “Matthew Effect” refers to the Christian Bible account of Jesus explaining that “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, New Revised Standard Version, 1989).

The Matthew Effect in reading refers to how students who learn to read easily and when such skills are first introduced will go on to be good readers. By comparison, the Matthew Effect means that those students who do not develop effective reading skills as expected according to grade-level criteria will end up being behind in reading throughout their later school experiences. In other words, unless students with reading difficulties improve their reading skills at a faster rate than their classmates, they will never read at grade level.

Catch Up Growth

The good news is that it is possible for struggling students to catch up and be on grade level. In order for such students to reach grade level, effective and intensive intervention is needed. The term for the improvements needed by students who start out very behind is “catch up growth.”  This refers to the reality that when a student starts out behind other students, he or she will need to learn at a faster rate than classmates in order to catch up. Catch up growth is needed because most students improve their skills every year. The expected improvement in a student’s skills during a school year is called annual growth. For students who start a school year on grade level, annual growth will be sufficient to reach that year’s learning goals. But, for students who start out below grade level, both annual growth and catch up growth are needed in order for the student to catch up to grade level. Otherwise, the student will experience the Matthew Effect and become farther behind each school year. In other words, if a student who starts out behind improves his or her skills at the same pace as typically achieving students, gains will be made, but the student will still be behind others because his or her starting point was lower than other students.  An excellent resource to learn more about catch up growth is the book The 90% Reading Goal by Fielding, Kerr, and Rosier (1998). This book explains the success of a low-income school district in improving the reading scores of all students over many years.  

Setting Ambitious But Realistic Goals

The most important step in helping students who start out behind their classmates to catch up is to use ambitious learning goals. Ambitious goals are those that result in a student making and sustaining learning gains that are bigger than other students. For example, a third-grade student who started the school year reading at the first-grade level needs to improve his or her reading skills faster than those students who started out reading at the level expected of beginning third graders. In order for a student to make bigger gains, both scientifically-based core instruction and additional instruction are usually needed. Core instruction refers to the teaching materials and practices used to teach all students each day. For students who start out behind, providing additional instruction, also known as intervention, is needed. The best way for schools to provide additional instruction is to use a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS). Such a system is sometimes known as Response to Intervention (RTI). Both an MTSS and RTI include creating daily schedules that have time blocks set aside for additional instruction.

Having scheduled times for additional instruction is essential for students who start out below grade level. The core instruction provided for all students is designed so that they make one year’s growth during one school year. This is perfect for students who start the year on grade level but does not meet the needs of those who are below grade level. In order to support students who are below grade level, additional instruction that focuses on catch-up growth is necessary. In order to provide additional instruction time to help students catch up to grade level, each school team needs to review its daily schedule and include a time block when all students can participate in intervention lessons. Importantly, daily intervention time blocks can be used to support all students. For example, by adding an intervention time in the daily schedule, the time can be used to provide both remedial and extension lessons. Those students who are behind use the time to catch up, and those who are already at grade level can use the time to enrich and extend their prior learning.


Students who start a school year behind their classmates need to learn new skills faster than others in order to catch up to grade-level expectations. It is possible for students to achieve such catch-up growth, but only if schools anticipate these learning needs and organize daily schedules to provide additional instruction. When schools use models such as an MTSS and RTI, both general education core instruction and supplemental intervention are provided. The combination of effective Tier 1 core instruction with Tier 2 and/or 3 intervention creates a pathway for students who start out behind to catch up to peers. Creating tiered supports requires an ongoing and coordinated effort by all teachers that affirms that students who start out behind can achieve catch up growth.

Fielding, L., Kerr, N., & Rosier, P. (1998).  The 90% reading goal.  Kennewick, WA: The New Foundation Press.  

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

Dr. Rachel Brown is FastBridge Learning’s Senior Academic Officer. She previously served as Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Southern Maine. Her research focuses on effective academic assessment and intervention, including multi-tier systems of support, and she has authored several books on Response to Intervention and MTSS. 

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