Phonics, although by any means, not a new concept, has moved from being a buzz word to a mainstay of kindergarten, primary and ESL classrooms all over the world. With the increased focus on phonics and decoding skills there has also been an increase in testing. (isn’t there always!) With that nonsense words have made an appearance, or reappearance into both assessment and lessons.
Nonsense words are chunks of English phonetic sounds that can be utilized to both teach and assess kindergarten or early elementary students ability to decode English sounds and words. They can be used to assess reading and decoding skills by removing the chance that students have rote learned or memorized words.
There are wildly different thoughts on the effectiveness and usefulness of Nonsense words in the teaching of English. Although in Education this divergent thinking is pretty common place. We feel while nonsense words certainly have a place in English teaching,how much of one is certainly open to debate.
What Are Nonsense Words
Nonsense words (or Alien words as we call then in class) are basically set of, mostly, phonetic sounds that may or may not form words when put together. However they can be chunked (syllables) to make longer nonsense words. When they follow phonetic rules it means once students have learnt sound blending and CVC words it means any words, including nonsense words, should be able to be read and sounded out by students.
Why Nonsense Words Are Useful
There are a few reasons nonsense words can be used to help both teach reading and to assess students reading skills. We take a look at these below.
- Nonsense words can be used for phonics and decoding assessment: Often, at least in my teaching environment, there is a chance that children will try to learn English using rote learning. This may be teacher or parent led and is an approach that with over 1000000 words in English is far from the best approach.
- Phonics instruction and assessment relies on skills based teaching, using nonsense words that students won’t have been able to memorise or rote learn will properly assess how their phonics skills are developing.
- Nonsense words help practice decoding. As mentioned in the point above phonics and decoding are skills. as with all sills they are learnt and acquired by practice. The sue of Nonsense words means children can authentically practice skills by decoding words they have no familiarity with.
- Prevent words being rote learned: In certain English (and other) classrooms there is a penchant to teach by rote memorization. Although language is mastered with practice, there are skills that need to be learnt in order to be able to practice. Using made up words allows these skills to be assessed and built on without a ”sight word” mentality taking over.
- Teach chunking and syllables: The majority of Nonsense words lists you can find and download online will be one or two syllables. this allows the teaching of syllables and the rules surround them. (we have a larger syllable article here and will link to some resources below if helpful)
- Help lead onto larger words: Although, theoretically, it is possible to get by with single syllable words ( ask Tarzan!) The aim of English students, or their parents and teachers, is to get as good at the language as they can. Learning the skills around reading, cutting and chinking larger words into syllables is a skill that will become increasingly valuable as they move through school grades.
- Nonsense words can be fun! Although i do believe nonsense words have a place in english classrooms ( more on that later) one of the often overlooked reasons to use them is the fun that can be had with them. We have some ideas below to help you if you need. However playing games, making up stories can all help engage learners and learn phonics skills!
The Problem with Nonsense Words
Despite the pretty impressive list of potential benefits of nonsense words there are also more than a few potential drawbacks as well. As with all things education, there is just never going to be a one size fits all approach that works.
Instead teachers need to develop a toolkit of approaches, strategies and resources. Trial (and inevitable error) them in class and find ones that fit your unique teaching environment.
So these drawbacks will often allude to using these as a sole method of teaching phonics and decoding, which we don’t recommend for nonsense words or any phonics program no matter how flashy they look.
Drawbacks of Using Nonsense Words to Assess Decoding
- We mentioned above there are over one million english words, plenty enough to spend all of childrens school years learning. Introducing nonsense words can be seen to be a waste of time that could be better spent learning real words. Yes there is a chance these words may be familiar, but we all need a win and realistically you can use words less likely to have been introduced to this grade of student
- It is much easier to build confidence as well as teach if you can have both some prior knowledge, AND a real world use for what you are teaching, even if that is as simple as matching a picture to an actual CVC word.
- Although Nonsense words are not particularly new, (the jabberwocky poem by Lewis Carrol for example) They have been jumped on as a half magic fix for phonics assessment and instruction. They are not, nonsense words for decoding are a tool or strategy they are not an all encompassing answer.
- Dont over use nonsense words for decoding assessment. Students need to know their studies and learning have worth just like the rest of us. Use the now and then to highlight their skills, and to help them understand if they can words like cat then they can use their reading and phonics skills to read yat, or gat, or jat etc. This will build confidence and give meaning to their prior knowledge
- Learning a language is, or should be, and authentic experience. Overusing nonsense words for decoding is the opposite. Use nonsense words for decoding sparingly and when needed, not as a go to teaching technique.
- Similar to overusing nonsense words for decoding is using them past their effectiveness. Once children are able to decode then they should be putting their time into learning new real vocabulary and words.
- Be aware of differing learning abilities and needs in your classrooms. Decoding is a skill and their are students who may struggle with acquiring it. Dyslexic students, in particular, can struggle with decoding, it may not be the best use of their time teaching them to decipher words that don’t even exist
- Taking away the pre learnt words like cat, hat, dog, man etc removes an opportunity to use students prior knowledge. They are already aware of the word as a whole with many CVC or easier English words. Using them to teach decoding allows them to actually hear words they know cut up and then constructed again. This offers them an excellent chance to realise that the word they know from kindergarten is actually made up of sounds and chucks. Nonsense words take that away
Nonsense Word Resources
As we have, hopefully, explained by now there is a place for nonsense words in a classroom, how much of a place depend son the classroom and your professional judgement as teachers and educators. So with that in mind we have listed here some resources that we have used in the past and some ideas for games ( including our favourite)
Online CVC and Nonsense Word Generator:
This is our favourite online game (on our site) just because it is so very simple. One button, generates a mix of CVC words some will be words some will be nonsense words. You can award extra points if they can guess which is which.
We haven’t actually made our own yet. (so much to do so little time) but these ones are free and good so feel free to go over and download these. We will be adding our own in the near future
Teaching has yet to fully become a production line, where we use a set of guidelines or rules and expect the same results. It is an art. There are lessons you will do that were nailed the first time and then failed horribly the next year. it all depends on you, your students, the environment , the subject, the time of day and even what day it is.
Decoding assessment and teaching using nonsense words is just another tool in your toolkit, it will work for some students and not for others. The key is as much as we have differentiated instruction for students, we have not yet developed differentiated assessments. Standardisation is king in this area of education. Try to mix up both your decoding teaching and assessment with different methods.
So nonsense words can be used to practice and assess english decoding skills, and in fact in kindergartens and early grades all over the word they are used three times a year without fail. However, it is recommended to have some other assessment and teaching methods up your sleeve for students who don’t do well with them, for whatever reason. Schools and education departments may be standardized but teachers and students are not.
The use of Nonsense words In early Elementary – Susan M Stover
How to Teach Children Large words – Marc ford