Nonsense Words

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Navigating the terrain of teaching reading involves a delicate balance of assessment and instruction, particularly when it comes to phonics—a foundational element in the science of reading. Today, let’s explore the often-debated topic of nonsense words and their place in the classroom.

Assessing Phonic Decoding Skills w/ Nonsense Words

Reading nonsense words, characterized by its seemingly whimsical combinations of letters that do not form real words, serves as a powerful tool for assessing students’ phonic decoding abilities. When presented with nonsense words, students must rely solely on their understanding of letter-sound correspondences and syllable patterns to decode and pronounce these unfamiliar strings of letters.

For example, when you decode the nonsense word frab, your brain recognizes the fr beginning consonant blend and the ab word family. Without a final e or additional vowel, your brain can correctly decode this nonsense word with a short a sound.

Through an assessment with nonsense words, educators gain insights into students’ grasp of phonics principles, identifying areas for growth and tailoring instruction accordingly. Nonsense word reading offers a window into a student’s ability to apply phonics rules independently, providing valuable data to inform instructional decisions.

Nonsense word list for decoding sh digraph
Nonsense word list for sh by Orton Gillingham Mama

Instructional Considerations with Nonsense Words

While reading nonsense words serves its purpose in assessment, its role in instructional practices warrants thoughtful consideration. The science of reading reminds us that true reading proficiency extends beyond mere phonics mastery; it encompasses the ability to orthographically map words, connecting phonemes to graphemes while anchoring meaning.

As educators, we must not rely too heavily on nonsense word reading as the cornerstone of our reading instruction. Instead, we should view it as one component within a comprehensive approach to teaching reading. Yes, phonics instruction is vital, but it must be complemented by activities that foster vocabulary development, comprehension skills, and meaningful connections to text and to the student’s background knowledge. Your time with your students is precious. So, spend it wisely by attending to all the strands of the reading rope.

This can start early with your students even when teaching short a. For example, if you have your students read the word bat, the simplest layer is to have them decode it grapheme by grapheme. /b/ /a/ /t/. But you can layer in more by discussing the multiple meanings of bat. Is it a noun meaning the object that hits a ball? Is it a noun referring to an animal that flies at night? Or is it a verb that is the act of swinging at another object? You can add another layer by having your students use the word in context and with their background knowledge: “Last night, I grabbed the bat and hit the ball.” Your students can also compare words: “How are bat and stick the same? How are the different?”

If you start to think about your instruction as layers, you will find many meaningful opportunities to engage your students in reading and using the words!

Weaving Meaning into Phonics Instruction

The essence of effective reading instruction lies in weaving together various strands of literacy—phonics, vocabulary, comprehension—to create a robust foundation for our students. While the science of reading supports a phonics-based approach, it emphasizes the importance of integrating vocabulary into instruction.

To facilitate orthographic mapping—the process of instantly recognizing words—students must engage with words in meaningful contexts, understanding not just their phonetic makeup but also their semantic significance.

Multiple meanings with vocabulary instruction and phonics
Multiple Meanings Vocabulary with Phonics Patterns by Orton Gillingham Mama

Comprehensive Reading Instruction

So, how do we strike the delicate balance between assessing phonic decoding skills and providing comprehensive reading instruction? The answer lies in intentionality and differentiation.

Utilize nonsense word reading as a diagnostic tool, pinpointing areas of strength and areas needing reinforcement. Create nonsense words that include letter strings that would actually occur in the English language and those that you have taught yout students. For example, use nonsense words like teck or hudge that follow spelling patterns found in English. Do not have your students read nonsense words that do not follow traditional letter strings found in English. For example, do not use nonsense words:

-ending in a final v (sav) since no English words end in a v.

-starting with oy (oyb) since oy is only used in the final position in a syllable.

And what you CAN do is to ensure that the majority of instructional practices encompass a broader scope, incorporating vocabulary development, comprehension strategies, and opportunities for authentic reading experiences.

Nonfiction reading with vocabulary instruction
Nonfiction decodable story with vocabulary instruction

So, while nonsense word reading has its place in assessing phonic decoding skills (and can be used occasionally to practice reading specific patterns!), it should not monopolize our instructional approaches. Every reading opportunity is precious for our students and we want the most “bang for our buck” in the words we choose. By infusing phonics instruction with meaning and context, we empower our students to become proficient readers who can navigate the complexities of written language with confidence and comprehension.

Here’s to fostering a love of reading and empowering our students on their literacy journey! What small changes can you make to layer your phonics instruction with purpose and meaning? I can’t wait to hear about your ideas!

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