Why and How to Use Nonsense Words When Teaching Reading
By the time most of us first encountered Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, we were fluent readers. However, I am sure that you can recall the sense of cognitive dissonance that the nonsense words in this poem created.
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.’
Essentially, you were having the same experience that many beginning readers have when they see words on a page for the first time. When we encounter unfamiliar or nonsense words, we are forced to rely on our knowledge of the alphabetic code, rather than memorization, to read the words. Phonics instruction supplies learners with strategies for approaching unfamiliar words in text. Research has shown that using nonsense words in phonics instruction can increase a student’s ability to read words with accuracy and automaticity.
Benefits of Using Nonsense Words
1) They provide an effective way for teachers to assess how well a student is applying the skills that are being taught in explicit phonics instruction.
Fluent decoding is the ability to quickly attach sound to written spelling patterns in the English language. When students memorize words as a whole, it is hard for a teacher to tell if they are relying on decoding strategies or memorization skills to read.
Professor of human development and applied psychology Keith Stanovich (2000) conducted a comprehensive review of the cause-and-effect relationship between children’s overall reading ability and their ability to decode nonsense words. He concluded that the ability to fluently decode nonsense words is discovered to be a “potent predictor of reading ability at all levels” (p. 100).
2) Practicing with nonsense words improves a student’s ability to ‘attack’ unknown or unfamiliar words in text.
How often have you seen a student just stop reading when they come to a word they don’t readily recognize? Students who have practiced decoding words that they clearly know are not real words transfer the same word attack skills to real words. These skills allow them to appropriately use the context of a sentence to figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words rather than unsuccessfully over-relying on context to decode words.
3) Nonsense words can be used to effectively teach syllabication.
Many children experience a plateau with reading in third or fourth grade. Until then, they could get by with memorization and guessing strategies. By third or fourth grade, more advanced word attack skills are needed. Multisyllabic words require decoding many small “word parts” and putting them together. These word parts are like nonsense words (mul-ti-pli-ca-tion). One study found that students who practiced syllabication skills by reading and spelling nonsense words made significantly greater improvements in word identification, word attack, and reading comprehension than their peers who did not have practice with pretend words (Diliberto, Beattie, Flowers, & Algozzine, 2009).
Here are a few ideas to make effective use of nonsense words in your phonics curriculum:
Make sure nonsense words are clearly identified as words that are not real. For example, Reading Horizons methodology uses an asterisk to mark each nonsense word.
Explain to students that nonsense words do not make sense. In other words, they have no meaning unless you give them meaning (remember this book?). Teaching idea: In my first-grade class, we identified words as “alien” words or words that would only make sense to a life form from another planet. During free time, students could create definitions for these words and add them to our Alien Dictionary.
Use these words responsibly. The majority of words used in phonics instruction should be real words. In fact, if you are teaching ELL students, we don’t recommend using nonsense words as your students are trying hard to make sense of the real words they are learning in English.
Students cannot read for meaning if they cannot decode words. Nonsense words can be a fun format for readers to apply their skills to unknown words. The pay-off for teachers will come as you see your students’ ability to fluently read and comprehend what they are reading.
Diliberto, J., Beattie, J., Flowers, C., & Algozzine, R. (2009). Effects of teaching syllable skills instruction on reading achievement in struggling middle school readers. Literacy Research and Instruction, 48 (1) 14-28
Stanovich, K.E. (2000). Progress in understanding reading. New York, NY: Guilford.
Research has shown that using nonsense words in phonics instruction can increase a student’s ability to read words with accuracy and automaticity.