Teaching more nonsense words could have been harmful.
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Darren is 7 and reads below grade level.
Recently, I was tutoring a 7-year-old in Grade 2 (let’s call him Darren) to improve his reading. His spoken English seemed fluent, although English was not the language used in his home. I planned to have Darren read both children’s literature and guide him through a primer in phonics. Darren was able to read most one-syllable words, but struggled with some of them. He had a harder time reading two-syllable words. At the end of a page, which usually had 4 or 5 complex sentences, I would ask questions such as “What is the queen trying to do?” or “What does this word mean?” He seldom had an answer for me that demonstrated he understood what he was reading.
I gave him systematic phonics instruction.
Since Darren made some mistakes with one-syllable words that were perfectly decodable, which means that he should be able to identify the word from its letters and the sounds they make, the primer in phonics made sense. Phonics is the method of teaching reading that is based on “sounding it out.” It is essential to start with this method because “sounding it out” is a necessary strategy when reading unfamiliar words in text. Many schools in North America do not teach it despite the scientific consensus in its favour.
To test which sound-letters Darren needed to brush up on, I tested him with nonsense words.
Darren knew his letters and the sounds they made by heart. He just needed some practice with decoding, especially for multi-syllable words. That’s when we started the page of nonsense words. These are the words common in phonics materials that test whether a child is truly “sounding it out,” as opposed to cleverly determining the word in other ways such as guessing the word after looking at one letter, or the pictures, or the context. The words he was asked to read included hig, nud, tal, sug, pum… etc. As I type these words, the spell-checker has dutifully placed a red squiggly underline beneath each of them, showing me they are not real words, or words in my computer’s dictionary, anyway.
He was surprisingly skillful at reading nonsense words quickly.
A few weeks went by. After reading that page of nonsense words, the next unit in the phonics primer taught the “th”, “sh” and “ck” digraphs. The nonsense words in that section included thed, geck, fesh, shud, and thock. He read them well. I even offered to race him on the next page to reduce the monotony of testing what he had already mastered. He was happy to beat me almost every race (I read at about half my maximum speed, adjusting it to give him a high probability but no guarantee of winning). I noticed a tendency for him to do better on nonsense words than words of comparable or lesser difficulty in actual literature.
Darren said he loves nonsense words.
At this point, I was jumping to the nonsense words as a test to decide whether to skip the section in the phonics primer. After all, Darren already knew his letters and it would be a waste of time and an insult to his intelligence to go over things he already knew. Like most researchers, I believe nonsense words are an excellent way to test decoding skills, that is, “sounding it out,” though not necessarily to teach them.
At the next section, I said, “Let’s do the nonsense words.”
Darren replied, “I love nonsense words!” He meant every word.
Why Darren’s preference for nonsense words became a red flag.
Since then, I have mulled over what it means for Darren to love nonsense words as opposed to real words. He still had few answers when asked the meaning of what he was reading. That’s when it hit me. He often wasn’t thinking about the meaning of what he was reading, probably because he doesn’t like to. By telling him that the page is full of nonsense words, the materials have explicitly told him the words on the page have no meaning, giving Darren a licence not to think of the meaning of the words. In this light, his love of nonsense words actually meant two things about his preferences:
- He likes decoding the complete sound of a word based on its letters. If he did not like this task, he could not like reading nonsense words which force him to do exactly this.
- He does not like thinking about the meaning of the words he is reading. If he liked thinking about the meaning of words, he would prefer real yet decodable words, like hug instead of hig, or sun instead of sug. At the very least, it is doubtful his preference for nonsense words would be so strong. (I don’t believe his strong preference is derived from the fun of how silly some of the nonsense words sound, since I did not detect a grin, a laugh or any other sign of mischievous pleasure as he read them.)
I used my judgment and why you as an Educational Parent should too.
Most studies have not shown any link between too much phonics and harm to a child’s reading, right? Yes and no. Yes, because there are few or no studies examining early reading education that suggest phonics could be harmful for any group. No, because science cannot diagnose your child any more than you could decide what medicine to take by reading hypochondria-inducing statistics of the most common illnesses.
Contrary to the opinions of some, a doctor does not use science to diagnose your condition; she uses judgment. A doctor uses instruments or the unaided eye to observe signs of your condition and listens to your reported symptoms of your condition. When these signs and symptoms are passed through the lenses they have from their experience, scientific knowledge, and procedural training, they can diagnose your condition using their judgment. In the same way, science is not an excuse to avoid the use of judgment in teaching your child to read.
I gave Darren a diet of general knowledge and literature instead.
My hypothesis was that Darren’s weakness was in vocabulary and general knowledge as communicated in the English language. It’s quite possible that given that his family does not use English in the home that vocabulary was more limited compared to other students, so skill with decoding did not translate to increased comprehension. Now, my general theory is that when your child loves nonsense words it may be a red flag that they are weaker at processing the meaning of each word in real literature than they are at decoding words.
I changed my lessons with Darren to de-emphasize decoding, and emphasize literature and general knowledge instead. I gave him more literature to read. I would ask him more questions about the text he was reading. If he didn’t know what something was, which was fairly often, I would pull up my smartphone, Google the word, and show him images of the thing. He would light up with curiosity each time I did this.
More nonsense words could have been harmful to his future motivation to read books (since the real literature at his grade level would become harder with time) and could even reinforce not thinking about the meaning when sounding out any English words. (A possible split between how he reads words in phonics workbooks and real literature is a complex subject for another post!) Thus, I decided to avoid them for the foreseeable future. In a sense, I ran away from phonics for a time given Darren’s needs.
A note of caution
Before you do this as well for your child who loves nonsense words, you should be aware that:
- Darren demonstrated his ability to decode words based on the letter-sound relationships. He had no problems with the nonsense words he loved. He demonstrated that sounding out all the letters from left to right was his primary strategy, that he already had the good habits of looking at the letters, not guessing from the context.
This does not mean he no longer needs phonics ever again, but it does mean that he was ready to move on from phonics at his current level.
In my next post, I will share what you can do to help your child to understand what they read. If you wish to be notified when this post is up, please subscribe to our email list (you’ll find the sign-up form on the top right hand side of this page)!
Phonics instruction is necessary for the first essential habit of reading, sounding out unfamiliar words using all the letters. The second essential habit is to consider the meaning of all the words. Judgment should be used by all Educational Parents; science is not an excuse to avoid using judgment. When your child loves nonsense words it may be a red flag that they are weaker at processing the meaning of each word in real literature.
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