S3 Ep17 - Do Nonsense Words have a Place in Upper Primary?

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Hi there, it's Jocelyn here, and I'm so pleased to welcome you to this episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast, where we talk about teaching, leading and literacy. This podcast is recorded here in Pataway, Burnie, and I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands on which I work and live, the home of the Palawa people. One of the points of contention in adopting a structured approach to teaching literacy is nonsense words. These words, which are deliberately constructed to not be real words, are also known as non-words, alien words and pseudo-words. They contain allowable orthographic patterns or spelling patterns that mirror real words, but they don't mean anything. Examples are "pom hath and spame. Most teachers of early years reading who are using a systematic synthetic phonics program are familiar with nonsense words, but teachers in years three to six may not be across their purpose or how to get the best out of them.

This week, I held a live group coaching for school leaders. These leaders are working with their teams to build structured literacy practices across their schools. Part of a shift in focus has been the introduction of nonsense words, and their teams are a little worried about the impact of them.
Worries include things like,

  • if we use nonsense words,
  • will they start appearing in student writing?
  • won't the nonsense words take over real words in children's memory?
  • does it really make sense to use words that don't mean anything, surely that's a waste of time?
  • don't the nonsense words just make it harder for our students who have poor memories and vocabularies to learn and perform on assessment?

For those of us who have been on the bus for a while, these questions might be hard to understand, but for people wading their way through the whole internet of information and let's be honest, misinformation, they're an understandable worry.

Nonsense Words are for Assessment

The primary role of nonsense words is assessment, plain and simple. We aren't teaching nonsense words, we are using them to assess student ability to tackle unknown words for both reading and spelling. I'll say that again: we aren't teaching nonsense words, we are using them as part of assessment. The reason they're so important is that they help us know whether a student can decode and encode, or read and spell words that are unfamiliar to them. If we only gave students real words to read and spell, we wouldn't know whether they were able to apply their knowledge to new situations or they had just memorised the words. Let's run through the uses of nonsense words and some of the assessments where you'll see them used. 

In the early years, nonsense words should be a part of regular phonics monitoring and be present in the monitoring, assessment or screener that comes with every phonics program. Teachers using our Reading Success in Action have access to such a tool that can be used on all children who are learning the alphabetic principle, regardless of age. It's one of the first things I do with students I'm tutoring, no matter what grade they are in. I have a look and figure out whether they can recognize graphemes, read real words and read nonsense words. Resource Room members can find this monitoring tool in the planning and assessment section of the membership.

The inclusion of nonsense words allows you to assess three levels of knowledge.

  • The first is the ability to automatically recognise the grapheme.
  • The second level of knowledge is real words or, as in, can you read a real word?
  • And the third level is can you read a nonsense word?

Being able to read the nonsense words is a great indicator that the student is really starting to make progress in decoding. Accurately sounding out an unfamiliar word is one of the necessary skills that students need to begin to read decodable text and then to read more widely. It's needed because we can't teach every single word to the students, they have to be able to manage words they haven't seen before. And just an aside, when you assess students who have been learning to read for a while, you might notice that they are more accurate with the nonsense word than the real words, and my observation has been that this is due to them rushing through the real words but then they're forced to take their time with the nonsense words. It's nothing to be alarmed about, it's just something to notice.

There are other assessments that include nonsense words as a key component. Both DIBELS and Acadience, two freely available normed reading screeners, include a non-word component of the test. The Castles and Colhart Test 2, also known as the CC2, is a word reading test that contains a mix of real words and non-words. It's a single word test. This test is part of the Motif suite of assessments that is freely available online and has been normed on over a thousand children. I'm sharing details of assessments found online, but unless you're trying to determine whether a student might be experiencing difficulty, you don't necessarily need to use a normed tool such as the CC2. You can simply use the monitoring assessment from your phonics program. This does two jobs: it helps you literally monitor student progress in decoding and it informs your specific next steps in teaching. Using an assessment tool that sits outside your program has really important uses, but it doesn't necessarily help you pinpoint what to teach next. So be clear about the purpose of the assessment and make sure that you're not doubling up unnecessarily.


The other area where non-words appear is, in particular spelling tests. Just as with reading assessment, nonsense words in spelling assessment help us know whether students can apply their knowledge to unknown words or unfamiliar words. This is important because students may have accurate spelling in their writing but not really have strong conscious knowledge of how words work.
One of the questions I ask when I'm modelling in classrooms is,

"Hands up if you write words, realise that they don't look right, and then you pop an E on the end to try and fix it?"

 And I'm not kidding here; fully three-quarters of the class puts their hands up every time.
The other question I ask them is

"How many students have interesting things to say in their writing but don't use great words because you don't know how to spell them?"

 And again, most hands go up, usually with a few embarrassed looks around to see who else is putting their hand up, but these things are common in our classrooms.

Using student writing as a method of identifying what knowledge and skills students have can be misleading. Many students simply aren't using words that contain more complex or less common patterns because they're unsure of them. However, when you complete a non-word spelling test, you know exactly what students do and don't know. The nice thing about a nonsense word spelling test is that it also gives you brilliant information about students reading. It's a safe bet to assume that if a student can accurately spell nonsense words with a range of letter combinations and patterns, they can read them.

When I work with a school, I often have them complete a non-word spelling test focus on phonics that includes questions such as,  "Write down all the ways you know how to spell the phoneme /a/." While you aren't looking for them to know every single phoneme- grapheme correspondence in existence, we do want to see that they have a reasonable grasp on the alphabetic code. If you don't have a specific non-word spelling test, I recommend using your school's phonics monitoring tool and then apply it as a spelling test in year three to six. It's much more efficient and it gives you a lot of information. If you do this, make sure that you include the nonsense words and those questions about: write down all the ways that you know how to spell, whatever the phoneme is. That will really round out the information for you.

You can find a nonsense word spelling test on the Motif site called DISTn the Diagnostic Spelling Test Non-Words. This examines 40 sound-letter rules over about 70 words. It contains norms from testing on over 600 students, so not thousands of students, but the norms are still there for you to refer to. Again, if you're trying to determine whether a student is experiencing difficulty, give them this test. If you want to know what they do and don't know, in order to fill gaps, you've probably already got something in school that will serve your purpose.

Morphology Assessment

The final area that we use nonsense words in is morphology assessment. Last year I created a morphology diagnostic to test whether students were able to use the most common suffixes and suffixing conventions, such as doubling, dropping the e and changing the y to an i. These conventions help students enormously in their spelling. Our assessment contains 28 words that are all nonsense. They make sure that the fact that the base word is a nonsense word isn't the reason that students might struggle to correctly spell the word. We ensure this by providing a student response sheet that contains the nonsense base word. I wanted to make sure when I created this assessment, that we were really testing students' knowledge of using suffixing conventions, not making them confused by the use of the non-word itself. I have had many schools administer this assessment and every one of them has been surprised by the results.

Year three to six teachers develop impressions of students' skill and knowledge in spelling from real word writing, both at word and text level. These impressions are often not very accurate. Consistently, the students perceived to be the strongest spellers don't perform as well as the teachers thought they would, and it's a real surprise when they see that they actually don't have a solid grasp on many of these concepts. My view of this is that these students are often running on instinct in their spelling. They know what looks right and, yes, that's important, but it's also critical to know why words are spelled the way they are. Equally, students who have had strong intervention in systematic synthetic phonics that has had a morphology component perform better than expected. So these students are generally considered weaker in literacy across the board, across all areas, but they tend to perform against expectations when it comes to this assessment. Nonsense words in this context give a much clearer picture of student understanding of how words work than a standard real word test.

I've included the link to download our morphology diagnostic assessment for year three and beyond in the show notes for this episode on our website. So, why not try it out and see what happens? Then, once you've discovered where your students are up to, you can get started filling those gaps. You'll either have something already available to you or Resource Room members already have access to all they need in this regard through our early morphology lessons. They're also called the pink lessons. In this diagnostic you'll also find a table outlining where you can find particular lessons to address your student gaps in our Spelling Success in Action 1 book. That one's available on our website, but you'll be able to tell from the assessment where the gaps are and then you can start to fill them.


Another area that we use nonsense words in morphology assessment is in our Spelling Success in Action 2 program that focuses on prefixes and suffixes. At the end of each unit there is an assessment that covers both meaning and spelling. The spelling component contains two nonsense words with differing levels of orthographic complexity. The base of these words is real, so the whole thing is not nonsense, but the combination of the real base and prefixes and suffixes is not actually real. This helps you identify whether students are using the prefix or suffix in the context of real words only or whether they can apply it to unknown circumstances, and that's one of the levels of development that you're looking for.


I'd like to end this episode by addressing the concerns about nonsense words from the start of the episode.

Q - If we use nonsense words, will they start to appear in writing? And won't the nonsense words take over the real words in children's memory?

A - Neither of these things will happen, because we aren't teaching these words, we're not repeating them. We're using them as a one-off way to assess.

Q - Does it really make sense to use words that don't mean anything? Surely that's a waste of time.

A - The nonsense words have a purpose, which is to test whether students actually have the knowledge and skill we think they do, or whether they're just relying on memory. The other thing about making sense of nonsense words is if you've ever read a Dr Seuss book, it's full of nonsense words. The point has been made over and over in various places that Harry Potter is full of nonsense words. Children are going to encounter words that are made up, and let's remember that a large proportion well, not a large proportion, but Shakespeare himself was responsible for the creation of a very large number of words that he just made up. So not everything in language is static. We're going to come across words that we're not familiar with. We need to know how to tackle them.

Q - Don't the nonsense words just make it harder for our students who have poor memories and vocabularies to learn and perform on assessment? Now, on this point, I have to acknowledge some truth here, sort of. Yes, nonsense words may be harder for students with phonological processing difficulties. They may also be harder for students with English as an additional language to work with, because these kids spend so much of their time trying to make the thing they sound out be real. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't use them. Their value has been shown over time and shouldn't be underestimated.

If students find the nonsense words tricky, we shouldn't reduce our expectations of performance. We should adjust our teaching to ensure that our students develop the skill and knowledge they need to be strong readers and spellers. This is one of those areas of assessment that I think we need to keep in mind. Students not performing well on the assessment doesn't mean we lower the expectation or we make the assessment easier. It means we have to think about how we adjust instruction to support these students even better. If your team is expressing doubt about the inclusion of nonsense words in assessment, please reassure them that we aren't harming students. The nonsense words enable us to go deeper with our exploration of student understanding and skill. I wish you all the best for your week ahead. Bye for now.

Download your copy of our morphology diagnostic below. 

Looking for resources and support to make teaching literacy easier? Join us inside the Resource Room here.

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