non-words · Nonsense Word Sound Swap · Phonics screening check

The whys and hows of using non-words.

Ever since the Phonics Screening Check was introduced, an argument has raged around the introduction of non-words as a means by which to test the literacy of children in Y1 (aged five to six years).

Sounds-Write has been using non-words in an activity/game called Nonsense Word Sound Swap for many years. The activity involves asking a pupil to read a nonsense word by saying the sounds in the word, in other words segmenting the sounds, and then reading the word, blending the sounds. The pupil is then asked to change the word to another word and this move involves changing a single sound. Having accomplished this, the pupil again segments the word and then blends the sounds to form the new word. Here is an example: grop -> glop -> gop -> op -> nop -> snop. [Of course, the non-words must contain sounds that go together in English.]
The activity provides terrific practice in the skills of segmenting and phoneme manipulation, both of which correlate very highly to learning to read. Notice too that the aim here is NOT to teach non-words to children but to improve their skills. Because many teachers have never had any proper training, they often don’t know the difference and seem to believe that they should be teaching lots of non-words. This is crazy! If pupils have learned sound-spelling correspondences and they have learned the skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation to mastery level, they can read any non-word anyway.

Sounds-Write has been showing teachers how to teach this activity for at least eleven years before the PSC was even a glimmer in Michael Gove’s eye and there are very good reasons why the activity is useful.

First and most importantly, the pupil has never seen these words before and therefore can’t rely on having already read them. This means that the pupil has to use the skills of segmenting and blending, neither of which are taught particularly robustly in Letters and Sounds. And, as an added bonus, the activity also recycles sound-spelling correspondences.

Second, the activity prepares pupil in the early stages of learning to read to cope with the fact that many spellings in English represent more than one sound.  For example < ea > can be /ee/ in ‘seat’, /e/ in ‘head’ and /ae/ in ‘steak’. Thus, if a pupil reads the sentence, ‘Last night I had a tasty steak’ and reads the word ‘steak’ as ‘steek’ or as ‘stek’, they can instantly substitute either of these with the sound /ae/ and arrive at ‘steak’. Of course, they will have had to have already been taught that < ea > can be /ee/, /e/ and/or /ae/ in the first place.

Another reason for using this game is that it prepares pupils for reading nonsense syllables in long, unfamiliar polysyllabic words. For example, in the word ‘petrochemical’, the syllables ‘pe’, ‘tro’, ‘che’ ‘mi’, ‘cal’ are all, as separate entities, nonsense syllables. My point is that, if we are going to provide pupils with the tools to be able to decode and encode any word, no matter how long and complex, we need to teach them how polysyllabic words are structured and how to decode and encode all the way through the word.

Finally, the use of non-words in the way outlined above encourages pupils to decode all the way through a word from start to finish without trying to guess and this prepares them for reading real words that they have never come across before.

Thanks to for images.

2 thoughts on “The whys and hows of using non-words.

  1. This post was of particular interest to me, having engaged in numerous Phonics lessons revolving around nonsense words during both my first (Key Stage 1) and third (an SEN setting) School Experience placements.

    I have seen from both such experiences how important it is for children to practice their segmenting and blending skills, which is precisely what such activities encourage them to do and may be lost if teachers strictly follow a Letters and Sounds scheme.

    I feel that providing children with decoding and encoding skills is of course, essential, yet it poses for me an issue which I feel may never be one that is solvable. It is of course the problem of comprehension. During my SE3 experience, I taught a child with autism, who was able to decode almost any word given, finishing whole stories with incredible speed. Once he finished the story however, he found it very difficult, if not impossible, to answer any comprehension questions on the text. This may of course be linked to his additional needs and therefore could not be used for an iron-clad argument against phonics teaching, but it acts for me as an example of the pros and cons of such an approach.

  2. Hello E Abel and thank you for your comment.
    i don't disagree with you at all. We obviously are of a mind on the importance of teaching the skills and, although you don't mention it specifically, presumably, the code knowledge.
    So, what about the question of comprehension? In one particular study, Italian Downs children were taught to decode (Italian being very easy to teach, as you probably know) and the teaching was successful. The only problem was that they couldn't understand what they had read.
    I am currently teaching a boy with a specific language impairment: his segmenting and blending skills are great and he understands everything I say to him. The problem is that he finds it difficult to remember the spellings for sounds and therefore stumbles all the time to such an extent that he doesn't understand what he is reading.
    I have written about some of the confusion around the issue of phonics and comprehension here:
    Of course, it doesn't necessarily apply to children with some types of special educational needs.
    However, one thing is certain, if a person isn't able to decode, they can't get past first base. And, I'm not proposing that we should be teaching phonics and then later teaching comprehension. The two go hand-in-hand, with verbal abilities greatly outstripping decoding abilities in the early stages of learning to read.
    So, if children are to comprehend what they are reading, they need to be able to decode with a high degree of fluency and they need to have acquired a lot of knowledge in order for them to understand what it is they are decoding.

Comments are closed.