Dyslexia and the Nonsense Word Conundrum

Dyslexia and the Nonsense Word Conundrum - DyslexiaTrainingInstitute

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?

Today I observed a very good teacher using letter tiles to teach spelling. She was dictating a list of real words and then veered into the nonsense word territory. What happened during this time is not inconsequential, it is downright confusing to students. Here is the list of words she dictated. I am going to give them to you in the phonemic representation that the education world uses with the IPA also provided. This teacher did not use any of the words in a sentence so I cannot know which words she wanted the student to spell. Take a look at the list and think about where it might be detrimental to a group of struggling students:

Teacher Pronunciation                     Expected Spelling

/rat/                  [ræt]                                 rat

/rāt/                  [reɪt]                                 rate

/rāting/             [reɪtɪŋ]                              rating

/rating/             [rætɪŋ]                              ratting

/batting/           [bætɪŋ]                             batting

/bāting/            [beɪtɪŋ]                            *bating

/bōting/            [boʊtɪŋ]                           *boting

/bopt/               [bɑpt]                               bopped

/hopt/               [hɑpt]                               hopped

/hipt/                [hɪpt]                                hipped

/hīpt/                [haɪpt]                             *hiped


Do you see the conundrum with the starred words? The words were being dictated by the teacher with no context. There was no conversation about what they meant. There was no conversation about their etymology. They were spelling based on phonology first. Yes, they were working on the what how to spell words with a long and a short vowel. However, when the students spelled *bating, *boting and *hiped they were praised for being correct. What are they going to do when they spell boating as boting and baiting as bating and hyped as hiped? Without context we cannot spell, period.

Dyslexia and the Nonsense Word Conundrum - Dyslexia Training Institute

3 thoughts on “Dyslexia and the Nonsense Word Conundrum

  1. Kea Herron

    THANK YOU! I’ve been wanting to see the nonsense-word craze stop! Perhaps, with your influence, it will.

  2. Paola Tayvah

    In addition to the confusion posed by invented pseudowords, they are unnecessary. If one wants to check spelling for students who have a ready bank of sight words and a tendency to “guess” words, I use words that are beyond the vocabulary of the student such as “camshaft”. I also use somewhat less common Anglo-Saxon words and Irish, Scottish, or Aussie words such as “swagging” or “birl”( spin) that are not commonly used in the US. If at all possible I strive not to squander their considerable efforts in decoding.

  3. Sarah

    Thank you, Dr Sandman-Hurley,

    I don’t use nonsense words in my teaching and am always made to feel guilty about it. This gives me great backing!

    I wonder the literature on showing children the orthography above on visual / orthographic confusion? I find it hard enough to teach the /ed/ suffix in place of overused phonetic spelling (‘t’ for hopped), without presenting words spelled that way.

    Great article!
    Sarah Mitchell


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