The use of nonsense words in intervention programs for reading and spelling to struggling readers is ubiquitous. It is ubiquitous in assessments too. Publishers use the rationale that nonsense words help the teacher and assessor know whether or not the student is able to transfer what they have learned about decoding to new words and this signals progress. The problem with this is twofold. First, many of the nonsense words that are used are not possible letter strings in the English language. (For a detailed and well-support description of this, please read Gina Cooke’s article). Secondly, the English writing system is based on meaning before phonology, so when a student is reading a word with no meaning, it can be impossible to really determine what the correct pronunciation is. In teacher trainings, we always ask the group, how do you pronounce the letter string *<chom>? The answer we always get is /chom/ or [ʧɑm] in IPA. The problem with this answer, is that the correct answer is really, we can’t know what the correct pronunciation is until we know what the word is. In the case of a digraph like <ch> the meaning and etymology of the word will drive the pronunciation. Look at the following three common words: chip, machine and ache. Their histories drive their pronunciations, so how in the world can a student know which is correct?
Have you heard the buzz about Structured Word Inquiry (SWI)? Are you curious how Structured Word Inquiry answers the call for Structured Literacy for our students with dyslexia? No one can explain it better than Gina Cooke does in the following article, Is This OG?, from Linguist-Educator Exchange. But you must read it, and I mean read it carefully, with an open mind and an understanding that we do the best we can with the information we have at the time. So, what will you do with the new information you are about to acquire?
Do you snarl when you say snivel, snout, snoot, snub, snot, snob or snotty? Do you feel a certain sensation or emotion when you say sneer, sneeze, snoop? Maybe you curl your lip or say them with your teeth close together. Did you notice that words that have meaning related to the mouth or nose can start with the same two letters like the <sn> in snore. These letter strings that coincide with feelings and sounds are called phonesthemes which is derived from Greek φωνή phone, “sound”, and αἴσθημα aisthema, “perception” from αίσθάνομαι aisthanomai, “I perceive”.
It is not uncommon to sweep the schwa under the rug or give it a cursory nod in a short lesson and then move on. Instead many instructors choose to over-pronounce a word and avoid the schwa altogether. Think about this, the schwa is the most common utterance in the English language, and it deserves to be understood. Here is a quiz for you to become schwaducated and when you are done, you can peruse the answers to learn more about the schwa. Continue reading