The nonsense of teaching nonsense words

Frustrated child at school desk

Dyslexic children often experience difficulty with phonetic decoding.  Researchers and educators use nonsense words – also called nonwords or psuedowords – as a tool to assess phonetic decoding ability.  These nonsense words are letter sequences that follow regular phonetic rules and are pronounceable, but have no meaning — for example, bif or yom or mig. 

Many schools also have implemented tools to measure early reading ability such as the DIBELS assessment, which include tests of the ability to decode nonsense words.  It makes sense to include nonsense words for assessment purposes. At least in theory, that can help sort out whether a child’s reading difficulties stem from difficulty with phonetic decoding or from some other cause, such as visual or surface dyslexia.

sample of kindergarten worksheet
sample words from a worksheet

Because this is a skill that children are now tested in, it has now also become a skill that is increasingly being directly taught.  Part of this is a teach-to-the-test mentality —  if “Nonsense Word Fluency” is part of the assessment regime, then the most direct way for a teacher to assure that her students can pass the test is to invest time in teaching the underlying skill.  And because dyslexic students have persistent difficulty with phonetic decoding, then it might seem logical to invest extra effort in helping struggling readers gain this ability.  Many websites provide free instructional worksheets for teachers to use, including materials labeled as “DIBELS practice” and recommending “repetitive practice.”  Many of these materials contain words drawn directly from the DIBELS assessment.

Unfortunately, this teaching practice undermines and invalidates the use of the assessment.  According to literacy expert Timothy Shanahan, “This teaching is a waste of time for producing readers and renders useless the intended improvement in test design.”1

The whole point of testing a child’s ability to decode nonsense words is to assess their ability to rapidly decode unfamiliar letter sequences. But if children have been previously exposed to the same letter patterns via worksheets or practice sessions, then there is no way to sort out whether the child’s performance on the test is due to phonetic ability or memorization.

How this strategy hurts dyslexic kids

Rather than helping, this teaching strategy makes it more difficult for dyslexic kids to learn to read.

To start with, valuable class time is wasted teaching children to decipher words that don’t exist.

Many of the letter patterns are sequences that are unlikely to be encountered by the child in real reading environment. For example, the nonword qif found on the sample worksheet above is not only a nonsense word, but it is also impossible to decipher using common English conventions.  In English, is always followed by the letter u, and the consonant-vowel sequence qi is encountered only in a handful words derived from foreign languages that young children are unlikely to encounter in print.  And how would qif properly be pronounced?  The correct pronunciation might be “chif” (as in qi, a Chinese word meaning life-force) , or  “kif” (as in qintar, an Albanian monetary unit) — but will the teacher offering this worksheet know that?

Nonsense Word Worksheet

Even more frustrating — perhaps even cruel — is the practice of using worksheets with mixed real and nonsense words, requiring the child to identify which is real. Given all the other problems the dyslexic child experiences, including letter confusion and the tendency to reverse, invert, or transpose letters,  together with possible difficulty distinguishing certain vowel or consonant sounds, it becomes an impossible task.

Certainly it is likely to create more confusion.  For example, the “Fish Bubbles” worksheet shown here contains the word kod, directly opposite a picture of a fish.  If the goal of the exercise is to teach phonetic decoding, then it would be logical for a child to read that letter sequence as the phonetically identical real word, cod.  The same page has the nonword ros – which a beginner might mistakenly sound out as rose.  Dyslexic kids commonly confuse the letters b and d – five of the words on the page contain one or both of those letters.

An additional problem with the nonsense word approach is that  English is simply not phonetically regular or consistent. No matter how well a person learns to decode, the language is full of rule breakers, starting with common sight words that small children routinely must learn,  such as onethe, two, you, who.

So in English – in order to be certain of how a word is pronounced, we need to know more than the letters in the word; we need to know what the word means. Or, as Dr. Shanahan wrote, tests of nonsense words “prevent students from any kind of self-evaluation and adjustment of pronunciation, key aspects of decoding.”

And for dyslexic learners, meaning is particularly important.  Study after study has shown that dyslexics who become good readers do so by relying on meaning-based strategies.  After all, if the part of your brain that connects letters to sounds does not work efficiently, that is all the more reason to utilize more efficient mental pathways to puzzle out new words.

So when a beginning reader can recognize a known word, there is an immediate mental reinforcement. The child sees the letters, d,o,g; the child attempts to put the sounds together – du, oh, guh – and then the riddle is solved when the child is able to connect the sounds to the known word, dog! 

But with a nonsense word, the child is deprived of that self-reinforcing step of word recognition and confirmation.  With every mistake, the dyslexic child ends up feeling frustrated and demoralized. The experience makes it even more difficult for the child to learn to phonetically decode real words, because the child has been led to doubt his own abilities.  Instead of understanding phonics as a system of clues that can lead to recognition of familiar words in print, the child may be internalizing the message that phonetic decoding is something mysterious that he cannot do.

The use of nonwords in teaching is completely unnecessary. Despite the many rulebreakers in English, the language is also full of phonetically regular words that can be used to teach letter sounds in a fun and pleasurable way:  cat, mat, hat, sat, bat. Dog, log, bog. Hit, bit, kit.   All of these are real words that the child can recognize and understand, and which can be used to form meaningful sentences that the child can read. Because of the frequency of these very common onset-rime patterns, learning them can also open the door to reading real sentences in real stories geared to children. Teaching phonics in the context of real words also provides the opportunity to explore how vowel sounds change in combination with additional letters and syllables — how bus becomes busybit becomes bite, man becomes many. 

If any particular sound exists in real words and can be represented by a letter sequence, then those words or real syllables can be used to teach the phonetic pattern. New letter sequences can be introduced along with new vocabulary, with each pattern reinforced through exposure to multiple examples.  And of course, if that sound and letter sequence doesn’t exist — then there really was no point in teaching it.

  1. Shanahan on Literacy, “Which Should We Use, Nonsense Word Tests or Word ID Tests?” Posted 26 August 2023. ↩︎

This article was originally published on March 18, 2018; it has been most recently updated in September, 2023.