Selecting Phonics Materials That Minimize or Avoid Nonsense Words

Edward Wong The Educational Parenting Blog Leave a Comment

Decodable, yet unknown, real words are just as good.

In the last post, we looked at strategies Educational Parents can use to help balance phonics education with teaching word meanings as their kids learn to read. Here I will explore a closely related topic: phonics materials that utilize nonsense words. As I discussed in the last post, it is vital to make sure your child understands the meaning of what they are reading, but this is of course impossible if they are reading nonsense words that have no meaning at all. Still, many creators of phonics materials will include nonsense words in their materials, so it is important that Educational Parents keep an eye out for those materials that overuse nonsense words and avoid them.  

Makers of phonics materials often use nonsense words because they do have value in some contexts. Nonsense words are essential to the study of language acquisition. But making materials to teach reading is not the same as researching child language acquisition. A researcher in a lab needs to use nonsense words, since there is always a chance the child will know the real word, no matter how unusual it is (which could obscure the results of an experiment). But a child learning to read has different needs: they need to learn not only to decode words, but also to learn what those words mean. And they certainly do not need to worry about experimental validity. Children who are learning to read, then, benefit most from phonics materials that use real words with real meanings.  

What can Educational Parents do to teach a child to always consider the meaning of each word? The answer is to select good quality materials that prioritize the use of real words. The following guidelines will help to give you an idea of what the most effective phonics programs do, and therefore what to look for.  

  • Select phonics materials that avoid or minimize the use of nonsense words. There are generally plenty of decodable words that can be used instead.
  • If a phonics program does use nonsense words, they should be mixed with real, decodable words. That way, the caregiver can ask what any word on the list means regardless. This means they will still think about meaning even when given a list of nonsense words. The child could either answer “there is no meaning” or “I don’t know” depending on their confidence level, developing a sense of when they think they know, when they believe, and when they merely suspect something. They also learn their options when they run into a word they are not sure is a real word, including asking someone, using a dictionary, or using a search engine (depending on their age).
  • Phonics programs can also make the nonsense words real words that children are unlikely to know yet (examples below). Seek out materials that do this. Children will likely think of the words they don’t know as nonsense words. However, when asked for their meaning, they will be reminded that words usually have meanings, even if they don’t know what the meanings are. 

Examples of real, decodable words to replace nonsense words with: 

  • lax instead of kax to test “x” 
  • hem instead of hig to test “h” 
  • zest instead of zes or yust to test “z” or “st” 
  • nape or sane instead of jabe to test the long-a sound spelled with a silent e 

Conclusion

Many makers of phonics materials include nonsense words in their programs because nonsense words are often used by speech acquisition scientists. Nonsense words are necessary for obtaining good results in the laboratory setting, but not for actually teaching children how to link words to their meanings. Good, effective phonics materials prioritize the use of real, decodable words instead of nonsense words, including some real words that children are unlikely to know yet. Parents should seek out phonics materials that primarily or exclusively use real words to empower children to always to consider the meanings of words.  

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About the Author

Edward Wong

Edward Wong is a primary tutor and the Senior Designer at English Cosmos. He teaches children how to read, coaches parents on education in the home, and has been passionate about reading education since 2019. He graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Juris Doctor degree and qualified as a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA).

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