Why we should be using but not teaching nonsense words



Nonsense words are, by definition, words a child will never have seen before. Because children won’t have been exposed to them, they won’t be able to use their visual memories to read them. As a matter of fact, educational psychologists have long been aware of this and have used nonsense words as part of a suite of diagnostic tools to check children’s ability to decode accurately.

So, why are non-words in the Phonics Screening Check such anathema to some teachers? It’s simple. They don’t understand how useful they are. They believe that it would be just as easy to present children with real words. After all, there are thousands of real words young children of five and six years will never have seen or heard before. And, the truth is that they’re right! It would be easy to do just that.

However, there are two problems with this line of reasoning. First, it’s very difficult to second guess which words some children will have come across before. If a child had already encountered a word in a test of real, though perhaps infrequently encountered words, it wouldn’t be possible to say whether the child had genuinely decoded the word or not.

Secondly, we know that when children have to read words they have never seen before, they have to: 1) decode them by segmenting them into their constituent sounds and then by blending the sounds together to form the word; 2) or, they guess.

The way children approach words they’ve never seen before will tell a knowledgeable teacher several things: the overall strategy the child uses, i.e. do they guess or do they decode the word; how efficient their segmenting and blending skills are; and, how good their code knowledge is.

Having stated the rationale for using nonsense words, it needs also to be said that nonsense words in tests are carefully determined so that they don’t break phonotactic (sounds that go together in English) rules. The very real problem with teachers making up lists of nonsense words willy-nilly is that they are in danger to be putting together some sound-spelling correspondences that violate the rules of phonotactics. And that danger is magnified to a far greater extent when teachers try to create words that move beyond the simple one-to-one correspondences. This is one very good reason why at Sounds-Write we would never advocate teaching nonsense words. The other reason is that there multiple words that can be used as fodder to support any level of phonics teaching.

Nevertheless, there is one particular circumstance in which using nonsense words has a very powerful utility and that is when it is used as a game in which one nonsense word is changed to another by swapping one sound and substituting another.

The fundamental purpose of using such an activity is to polish to mastery level the skills of phoneme manipulation, segmenting and blending. I have explained on this blog many times why segmenting, the ability to pull sounds in words apart, and blending, the ability to push sounds together to make recognisable words, are so important when learning to read and write.

Phoneme manipulation – the skill of taking a sound out of a word and saying what is left, or the skill of taking a sound out of a word and substituting another – is the other skill found in the research to correlate very highly to learning to read and write. We use this skill all the time when we are reading. For example, when a spelling represents more than one sound, we may need to try the alternatives to see which one makes sense.

Sometimes we only need to use the context of the word itself to decide how it should be pronounced. For example, in the word ‘deaf’, although the spelling < ea > can represent the sounds /ee/ (in ‘seat’), /e/ (in ‘head’), or /ae/ (in ‘great’), the only one that makes sense in this word is the /e/. Of course, the word ’deaf’ would already have to be in the reader’s spoken repertoire for this to happen. The reader would also have to have been taught that < ea > can be /ee/, /e/, or /ae/ in order to arrive at the correct word.

Nonetheless, sometimes, we’ll need to have more context before we can decide. For instance, with the word ‘wind’, we can read the spelling < i > as /ie/ (as in ‘kind’), or /i/ (as in ‘sit’) and both could make perfect sense on their own. However, when situated within the context of a sentence, such as ‘There was a strong wind.’, we see that using the first alternative, the /ie/, doesn’t make any sense. On the other hand, using the second is immediately the obvious choice.

We teach sound swap primarily because, later, as the alphabet code becomes more complex, children will need to be able to swap sounds out of and into words instantaneously. Eventually, novice readers learn to do what fluent readers do: process words so fast that everything takes place under the level of conscious attention. We only usually become aware of the process when we are reading an unfamiliar word or one which contains an infrequently encountered spelling.

4 thoughts on “Why we should be using but not teaching nonsense words

  1. Why do we need to use Pseudo words at all? Surely the best phonics check is to give a learner a real word, ask a learner to attempt to read it, then ask what sounds they hear and what letter patterns (phonics) represent each sound in the word. If you also give them words with alternative phonemes for the phonics pattern, for example snow and cow, and they can tell you ‘ow’makes a different sound in ‘cow’ to ‘snow’ then we know that a learner is really understanding phonics. Instead of giving a pseudo word such as ‘quass’ to a child (as in the 2017 UK PSC) why not just use a real word like squash or squall or class or bass and ask what sounds the learner hears as they attempt to read the word? This would be testing phonemic awareness and phonics. Pseudo words are nonsense words and the process is nonsense and highly unnessasary. It is also nonsense to mark incorrect a real word produced with an alternative phoneme, such as in the word ‘group’ one of the twenty real words in the 2017 UK PSC. Please let common sense start to prevail and forget pseudo words in everyday classroom teaching and testing.

    1. With respect, Denyse, I don’t think you’ve read carefully enough what I wrote. Firstly, we don’t use nonsense words to prepare children for the PSC. We were using this practice for nearly ten years before the PSC was even dreamt of. As I wrote, we use it to improve children skills.
      At Sounds-Write, we only use the one-to-one sound-spelling correspondences. We don’t use Extended Code (advanced Code) SSCs for the reasons I stated.
      This morning I read several words in a story about knife crime on the streets of London. The story contained a number of words for stabbing, which included ‘cheffing’, and so on. That could easily be a nonsense word in the PSC. Nonsense words are very often words we’ve never seen before but may come into the language through usage.

  2. This is a piece of outstandingly sensible guidance and advice. The explanation of ‘sound swapping’ is particularly valuable and is a reminder of why everything I know about the Sounds-Write approach speaks of its thoroughness and the amount of care and expertise that has gone into its development. Hats off to Sounds-Write!

    1. Hi Mike, Thank you so much for your comment. It’s especially gratifying to receive it from you.
      This business of why we use nonsense words is very difficult to get across because the well has been poisoned by the anti-phonics screening check lobby. I think the Russians learned how to spread misinformation and sow confusion from them!
      Best, John

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