Nonsensical. Silly. Useless. Impediment to instruction. Unnecessary. I’ve heard all these expressions, and more, to describe the use of nonsense words in teaching phonics. A recent opinion column argued that there are enough unfamiliar words to go around, so why would teachers make up words? An interesting volume is available through Heinemann Publishers, which decries the use of DIBELS in assessing and driving reading instruction.
This is not a post about the merits or “demerits” of DIBELS for assessment; the majority of students will learn to read fairly easily without ever seeing a nonsense word. Unless they read Dr. Seuss, of course. I am writing to say that nonsense words play an important role in reading instruction for kids with dyslexia and other reading disabilities. These kids struggle with the alphabetic code. They struggle to manipulate sounds. They can’t read chapter books in second grade. They feel stupid no matter how bright they are. (Check out this article on Forward which concludes: People with dyslexia tend to be creative and out-of-the-box thinkers, the very characteristics that can mask the fact that a child is having a tough time reading.) It is unfair to paint reading instruction for all kids with the same brush. And that’s where nonsense words come into play.
For those reading disabled students who must learn phonics systematically and sequentially, nonsense words allow them to practice phonics skills on words they have not already memorized. These pseudo-words, as they are also described, allow intervention-resistant students to get the extensive practice they require. Without the use of these words for both practice and monitoring progress of their skill acquisition, these kids may not get adequate instruction. Refer to Sally Shaywitz’s terrific book, “Overcoming Dyslexia” or read her online discussion with folks from Reading Rockets for more details.
Let’s not undermine effective instruction for struggling readers by tossing nonsense words under the DIBELS bus.