Understanding When and Why We Use Nonsense Words

reading Mar 28, 2024

After one of my recent podcasts, I received a question about using nonsense words. I love using the Nonsense Word Fluency assessment to gain insight into a student's alphabetic principle and primary phonics. Students need to apply their knowledge of phoneme-grapheme correspondences to decode accurately. However, I caution teachers when using nonsense words within their lessons; why?

This is an important topic to consider as more curriculums implement nonsense words in their lessons, plus many nonsense word lists are for sale that are teacher-made on many platforms, blogs, etc. As we reflect on this practice, we want to consider the purpose of nonsense words, the orthographic patterns used, and the alphabetic principle.

Purpose of Nonsense Words

The original purpose for nonsense words was to be used within an assessment to determine if the student had grasped the alphabetic principle and primary phonics. Research has shown that using nonsense words as an assessment can provide unique and essential information about students' reading strengths and weaknesses (Laugle, 2009).

A testing measure in nonsense word reading or Nonsense Word Fluency ensures students use decoding strategies because these words are unfamiliar.

Measures of Nonsense Word Fluency provide insight into student application of phonemic awareness and decoding strategies, as students who rely on the strategy of recall or guessing can often hide that they are struggling with phonemic awareness and decoding. Assessments using nonsense or pseudo-words have been a longstanding part of diagnostic reading evaluations.

Using Nonsense Words

On the podcast, we discussed how we need to be mindful of the purpose of nonsense words - and understand that they were created for assessment purposes, as stated above. Some different programs and approaches incorporate nonsense word reading within lessons, and we discussed some reasons to pause and reflect on this practice.

If using nonsense words within a lesson, we need to analyze the nonsense words through the lens of the alphabetic principle and determine if the word list uses orthographic or spelling patterns usually found in the English writing system. Many nonsense word lists that do not follow English orthography are available to teachers and parents, posing questions about the purpose's benefits and perhaps needing clarification.

A crucial part of understanding nonsense word reading within the Orton-Gillingham approach or structured literacy is that the focus is not on reading the nonsense word itself but on syllables that are then used to read multisyllabic words.

We want our time with students to be spent reading real words or the syllables within actual words. Students will increase their performance on the nonsense word reading assessments if provided with explicit and systematic instruction in sound-symbol correspondences and phonics.

I do not use nonsense word lists or do so intentionally and sparingly within my teaching. I want to help students close the phonological processor connection of speech to print to meaning. However, there are times when I am building to multisyllabic word reading, focusing on reading the syllable type and then creating a multisyllabic word.

Mindful Application

Assessments like Dibels NWF or the Formative Assessment System for Teachers (FAST) are universal screeners that can help teachers determine student progress in the alphabetic principle. I will use these as a thermometer check at the beginning/middle/end of the year.

We often speak about how everything has a purpose, especially within dyslexia education, and that we as educators must understand the role of each assessment and instructional path to best serve our students.

What are your thoughts? Would you like more questions answered? I receive questions on a daily basis and would be happy to include them in my blogs and newsletter. Have questions —> send it here and I will do my best to get it answered. 

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