Phonics myth buster 3 “Nonsense words are silly and we should teach reading in context.”

“Nonsense words are nonsense” is utter nonsense!

One myth that immediately shows the tigers stripes is the myth about nonsense words and context. Straight away your opponent has shown their lack of understanding of learning to read, the importance of phonics and their alliance to multi cueing.

Are nonsense words really nonsense? After all any word that is not in a child’s vocabulary is a nonsense word. Without the ability to decode nonsense words the reading of some of the best children’s literature would be impossible!

Crodsquinkled’ – The BFG by Roald Dahl

Woozles’, ‘Wizzles’ and ‘Heffalumps’ – Winnie The Pooh by A.A. Milne

Hornswogglers, snozzwangers, whangdoodles and Oompa-Loompas –Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Nonsense words or pseudowords are an essential part of the phonics check. Pseudoword decoding issues are a well established predictor of reading difficulties. Nonsense word tests such as DIBELS have been used for some time as an indicator of decoding difficulties.

Keith Stanovich (2000) …cites several experimental studies that conclude;

• “the speed of naming pronounceable nonwords is one of the tasks that most clearly differentiates good from poor readers” (p. 40).

• It thus is not surprising that pseudoword naming is discovered to be a “potent predictor of reading ability at all levels” (p. 100).

• there is an “incredible potency of pseudoword reading as a predictor of reading difficulty” (p. 207).

The phonics Screening check has been examined for validity. “Our analyses show that the phonics screening check is a highly valid measure of children’s phonic skills. The check showed convergent validity by correlating strongly with other measures of phonic skills (e.g., teacher judgements of phonic ability and psychometric tests of nonword reading and spelling) and with broader measures of reading (e.g., single-word reading accuracy, prose reading accuracy and comprehension). It also demonstrated discriminant validity, by showing weaker correlations with more distal skills (e.g., vocabulary and maths).

Furthermore, the phonics screening check seemed to be sensitive with respect to identifying children at risk of reading difficulties.” (Duff 2015)

It needs to be emphasised that this is a simple check of one essential element of reading. An element that can certainly derail a child’s road to effective reading quickly. We also now understand that the majority of children with Dyslexia have a phonological deficit and these children make up the great majority of children who fail to learn to read and require intensive intervention.

In my daughter’s case we were told time and time again she was going ok despite the fact that my parent alarm bell was ringing. It wasn’t until half way through year 2 ,when our new school learning support teacher tested her phonics, that we knew something was really wrong. My daughter could not decode even the most simple nonsense words. Yet she had given the impression she was reading for over 2 years due to her wonderful ability to “guess”. My daughter was read to from a young age and has an enormous vocabulary so she has the ability to guess in context. She would often finish sentences that were over the page. This is not reading.

I’ve heard teachers and parents claiming good readers fail the test and they get tricked by the nonsense words. Nonsense Words are clearly indicated with a monster symbol! There is only one correct pronunciation!

It’s highly Likely that these mystery children have been taught to read using context clues and guessing strategies. These children also may have had the phonics check nonsense word section poorly explained to them. They are also likely to be at risk of reading failure later due to inability to decode.

What about the teachers who in the UK are teaching nonsense words? I’ve heard this as an argument. I haven’t seen any evidence. If they are teaching nonsense words then this is the fault of the teachers and not the check. The only way to teach how to decode nonsense words is to teach decoding explicitly and systematically.

There are some situations when a very limited teaching of nonsense words is valid. It is probably appropriate to explain to children before the phonics test what a nonsense word is, give some examples and show that it is indicated by the monster. Also explain to kids these words have to be decoded. In the case of my daughter we use nonsense words as a diagnostic tool. She has such an extensive vocabulary and has poor guessing habits so we need to test whether she can actually decode. Whether she has learnt a phoneme or guessing is very evident once we throw in a few pseudowords.

Using cues in context for reading comprehension as an adult or a capable reader is a useful strategy. Reading in context for word identification using multiple cues for beginning readers is not a useful strategy and is often a fallback coping mechanism for the poor readers. Encouraging of guessing is not reading and is a very difficult bad habit to undo in struggling readers. It took a long time for us to teach our daughter to decode rather than guess. Going through every word starting with a “D” that you know when faced with an unknown word is not efficient. As a parent it is maddening when my child does this. When she is encouraged to decode she will get the word quickly.

Scientific evidence strongly demonstrates that the development of skilled reading involves increasingly accurate and automatic word identification skills, not the use of “multiple cueing systems” to read words. Skilled readers do not need to rely on pictures or sentence context in word identification, because they can read most words automatically, and they have the phonics skills to decode occasional unknown words rapidly. Rather, it is the unskilled readers who tend to be dependent on context to compensate for poor word identification.”

The year 4 reading slump is well documented and is often when children with Dyslexia are diagnosed. In year 3 we switch from learning to read to reading to learn. The text becomes much more difficult at this point and the pretty pictures that children have used to help them guess have vanished. Lack of ability to decode unknown words becomes very evident at this point and affects fluency and comprehension if decoding is not automatic. Reliance on multiple cueing systems fails miserably.

“The 3-cueing approach is a microcosm of the culture of education. It didn’t develop because teachers lack integrity, commitment, motivation or intelligence. It developed because they were poorly trained and advised. They didn’t know the relevant science or had been convinced it was irrelevant. Lacking this foundation, no such group could have discovered how reading works and how children learn.” (Seidenberg, 2017, p.304) For further information on the three cueing system read

Anyone who declares nonsense words are nonsense does not know how to teach reading or how to identify children at risk of reading. I need a big digital stamp for every time I hear this nonsense.

Let me leave you with a little nonsense.

Jabberwocky a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:

Long time the manxome foe he sought —

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,

And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

An explanation of the poem can be found here….including how he made up the words.

Cutting down phonics Screening Check myths feels a bit like slaying the Jabberwocky …


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Dekker Delves into Dyslexia

Advocate for the introduction of the phonics check in Australia. Advocate for the teaching of evidence based literacy instruction for every child in every school. The explicit and systematic teaching of Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary and Comprehension. Advocate for Dyslexia Awareness I support reputable organisations such as the Australian Dyslexia Association (ADA), Learning Difficulties Australia (LDA), the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), the FIVE from FIVE Project, and the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction (IFERI) AUSPELD and State-based SPELD organisations, as they all recommend the use of EVIDENCE-BASED TREATMENTS/PROGRAMS for learning difficulties. Mum to 2 delightful, amazing and creative kids. Mum to a kid with Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia and anxiety. Admin of Dyslexia Support Australia Group, Dyslexia Awareness Australia and Dyscalculia Awareness Australia. Board of Directors SPELD NSW 10 Years a High School Teacher All my opinions are based not only on experience as a teacher, a mum and an administrator of Australia’s largest Dyslexia Support group but on research. I believe in the scientific method and the need for education to meet the same rigorous evidence based standards as the medical profession.

4 thoughts on “Phonics myth buster 3 “Nonsense words are silly and we should teach reading in context.””

  1. I agree with your opinions about nonsense words being an effective way to strengthen phonics & reading ability. I use this mainly as an assessment tool for dyslexia & for beginner readers. I have found that prolonged emphasis on reading nonsense words can be somewhat counter-productive to the child who is a developing reader & needs to derive meaning from their reading.

    Liked by 1 person

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