Uh Soodoe Whird Kamidey

For the last couple of days, I’ve been running into a lot of online phonics apologia about the use of nonwords, nonsense words, pseudowords, word-attack words, phonemic decoding items, and/or so-called “detached syllables,” in instruction, intervention, and assessment. For starters, the fact that these things have so many different names should cue us in that they are not an actual thing, not a scientific thing, anyhow (just like so-called “sight words”). They are not an actual category, if for no other reason than that many of the examples I’ve encountered over the years are actually real words in use in English, like cam, pate, lander, din, rayed, oft, knap, sedge, bi, [P]og, ta, lat, lum, barchan, and a lot more. Some people collect stamps; I collect linguistic scat from literacy educators and I study it.

People like to argue that nonwords are an effective means of teaching or assessing a student’s knowledge of what they call “grapheme-phoneme correspondences,” or GPC. But every single one of these nonword materials and studies misapprehends both a G and a P, as evidenced by such fabricated baloney as the “quadgraphs” [sic] like *<ough> and *<eigh>, and by the failure to even consider the difference between phones and phonemes. The fact of the matter in our writing system is that no G has a C to a P outside of an M, and M stands for morpheme. Once you remove phonemes and graphemes from a meaningful context, they’re no longer phonemes or graphemes.

To a resource, they all erroneously assume phonological primacy; that is, they remove orthographic phonology from its meaningful context because they wrongly assume that it’s primary to the meaningful constraints and influences of morphology and etymology. That very practice effectively means it’s no longer phonology, because phonology — including phonemes and the graphemes that spell them — is distinctive for meaning and it’s language-specific; nonwords are neither. It is noncontroversial that English orthographic phonology is delimited and constrained by meaning, structure, and history, regardless of how that fact makes people feel.

More than one person has suggested that nonwords were the only way to “break” a student of the habit of guessing at words, often in isolation. Well, you can break an overeating habit by taking up smoking, too, and you can kick a heroin habit by taking up methodone, but that doesn’t mean that the new habits have no harmful consequences. I’d rather focus my scholarship on what I can build than on what I can break.

I’ve also heard from a number of people working with “older” children who are called “treatment resisters” or “treatment fatigued” — kids who spend YEARS in Barton or Wilson and never get past so-called closed and open syllables [sic]. They may begin to “read” better (depending on what you think “read” means), but they continue to spell and write years behind their eulexic peers, largely spelling everything based on the way they pronounce it, because that’s exactly what they’ve been taught to do. I’ve heard from teachers and parents of children who read years ahead of their peers too, kindergarteners who read 3rd grade chapter books with ease, but have no idea how to spell or how to “decode” unfamiliar words, so they’re subjected to nonword drills in order to “measure” their “knowledge” of “alphabetics” or of GPCs.


So here is my analysis of all of the nonwords featured on a publicly available assessment called The Nonword Reading Test. The test instructions say “Either a regular or an irregular pronunciation is acceptable,” but no definition of “regular” or “irregular” is offered beyond that for <soser>, “soaser” would be “regular and rhyming with “loser” would be irregular.

First of all, there is NO ENGLISH WORD spelled with the sequence <oaser>, or even with an <oase> to which we could add an <er>. So how on God’s Grapheme Earth is that “regular”? Moreover, they do NOT specify how the <oa> or the medial <s> in “soaser” would be pronounced. Is the <oa> pronounced as in boat or as in broad or as in oasis? Is the <s> pronounced as in wiser, eraser, or pleasure? And how is the child or the teacher supposed to know or understand that?

You know why <loser> is spelled with an <o>? Because <looser> is a different word, and <lose> is cognate to <loss> and <lost>. What’s “irregular” about that? Just because teachers and researchers and psychometricians are generally ignorant to that breathtaking fact makes it no less a breathtaking fact. Context matters to so-called GPCs. Otherwise they’re neither Gs nor Ps, and any Cs you think are there are not real.


While we’re talking about <soser>, we may as well take a closer look at, um, <closer>: in“this street is closer than that street, the medial consonant is [s]. In he’s the best sales closer of the month” it’s a [z] — those two examples have two different suffixes that happen to spelled and pronounced the same, but don’t share a meaning! The ONLY way you know how to pronounce that word is if you know what it means. And that’s not even considering the pronunciation of the <s> in <closure>.

My analysis provides incontrovertible evidence against the motivating characteristics of all nonword resources: That dusty old crooked Assumption of Phonological Primacy.

The CrAPP.

Here’s the list from this test, along with English words I provide that share (some of) the same sequences of letters. If it feels like some kind of shameful hell for you to read through these, just imagine you’re a 12-year-old dyslexic with an IQ of 138. Or really, anyone.

One Syllable
1. plood: food, good, blood

2. aund: auberge, auto, Auschwitz — and <aunt> can rhyme with pant [ænt], haunt [ɔnt], or font [ɑnt], depending on your dialect.

3. wolt: colt, but also wolf, wolverine, woman, word, work, worm

4. jint: pint, lint — in many dialects lint and lent rhyme.

5. hign: sign, malign, benign, but signal, malignant; also hour, honor, and herb.

6. pove: shove, move, stove

7. wamp: ramp, swamp, swam

8. cread: bread, bead — for crying out loud, <read> is both [riːd] and [rɛd] — and how about create, or triad?

9. slove: glove, stove, prove — haven’t we been here before?

10. fongue: tongue, fondue, wrong, humongous, segue

11. nowl: bowl, fowl, snow, now, lowly, bowlegged

12. swad: swan, swam, swamp (is there an echo in here?)

13. chove: choir, cholera, chop, chef, and see pove and slove

14. duede: suede, due, clued, cued, swede, educate

15. sworf: sword, swollen, sworn, swore, word, work

16. jase: base, phase — vase, for crying out even louder, can be [veɪs], [veɪz], or [vɑz]

17. freath: breath, wreath, great, smooth

18: warg: war, warm, forward, wary, argue (there is no English word that ends in <arg> — if it’s a detached syllable, then what about larger?)

19. choiy: the graphemes <oi> and <y> are never, ever in sequence. Even <iy> is tightly constrained: that sequence is either across a morpheme boundary (as in multiyear) or in a non-English word, like teriyaki or aliyah. Consider joy and soy and bok choy.

Two Syllable (so much for that ‘detached syllable’ rationale)
1. louble: double, rouble, boucle, tousle, loud

2. hausage: sausage, usage, garage, stage, courageous, also hour and honor and herb again.

3. soser: loser, poser

4. pettuce: lettuce, induce; petty has a double <t>; petting has a doubled <t>; flattop has neither.

5. kolice: police, policy (some people say POlice), malice, preslice. And why does this have a <k> before an <o>?

6. skeady: steady, beady, skean

7. dever: clever, fever — hell, lever can be both [‘lɛvɚ] and [liːvɚ]!

8. biter: This is not a nonword. It’s a word: “My new puppy is a biter.” Nonetheless, if it were, say, <piter> instead, notice writer, whiter (note the different <er> suffixes), liter, arbiter

9. islank: island, mislay, Islam, mankiller, and anyhow, vowel pronunciation is often disputed before [ŋ], but the orthographic phonology is revealed by the graphemes.

10. polonel: colonel, colony, colon, polish, police, Polish — what in the hell can *polonel tell you about anything at all? Someone please make it stop.

11. narine: This is actually a word; it means “pertaining to the nostrils” or the same as “narial.” Criminy, is your google broken? But also, marine, margarine, alkaline, urine, line, incline…

12. kiscuit: biscuit, intuit, circuit, circuitous, recruit, and how about Jesuit? The Jesuits have always valued knowledge and evidence.

Why 19 monosyllables? Why 12 disyllables? Why 31 total? Only the <shade + ow> <know + s>.

This “test” features the following rough distribution of graphemes, depending, for example, on whether the <s> in <islank> and the <g> in <hign> are supposed to be graphemes or markers, or on whether the <<ui> in <kiscuit> is one grapheme (bruise) or two (intuit). Those are just a few examples of the ascientific foolishness embedded in here that makes a real scientific analysis challenging:

b (3)
c (4, including both [k] and [s])
d (5)
f (3)
g (2-3, [g] and [ʤ] and [∅])
h (0-2, initial only, which could be French markers)
j (2, initial only)
k (4, including the unconventional *kolice)
l (9-10, including *polonel. Honestly.)
m (1)
n (9)
p (4, initial only)
r (2, initial only)
s (8-9, most of which have multiple possible pronunciations)
t (5, including <tt>)
v (4, of which 3 are in an <ove> rime)
w (3-4, initial or following <s>)
ch (1, initial only)
th (1, final only)
gue (1, or maybe it’s a <g> followed by a <ue>, as in argue, or a <g> followed by a <u> and an <e>, as in segue. Who knows?)
That’s 17 of 20 single-letter consonant graphemes (x, y, and z didn’t rank), two digraphs (out of more than two dozen), and whatever the heck <gue> is supposed to be. Why are <n> and <l> — which have a single phonemic association — as important as <s>, or more important than <c> or <ch>, which all have multiple pronunciations?
I so want to cuss right now. FFS: the middle F stands for Fonics, though.
a     (4-5)
e     (3)
i      (8)
o     (8-9, including whatever the hell is up with *polonel)
u     (0-2, depending on whether the <u> in *duede or in *fongue is a grapheme or not)
y     (2)
ar   (2)
or   (1)
er   (3)
au   (2)
ea   (3)
oi    (1)
oo   (1)
ou   (1)
ow   (1)
ue    (0-1)
ui    (0-1)
Final non-syllabic <e> (10, of which 3 are in an <ove> rime)
This includes 5 or all 6 of the single-letter vowel graphemes, but <i> and <o> are featured 2-3 times as much as <a> and <e>. It also includes three of many rhotic vowel spellings (why <or> but not <oar>, <ore>, <oor>, or <our>, which can all spell [ɔɹ]?) It also includes 6-8 vowel digraphs (out of around 30) and zero vowel trigraphs (we have two). This doesn’t even include half of the orthography’s vowel graphemes, the vast majority of which are digraphs. You know why <feat> has an <ea> and <feet> has a <ee>? I can give you at least two good reasons for each word. And they make total sense.

How is this nonword GPC inventory in any way representative of any kind of coherent “knowledge” about graphemes, phonemes, or their alleged correspondences? It’s just not. Whoever slapped it together — as with every single nonword resource I’ve ever seen, used, or recently investigated — has no idea that <w> can mark the phonology of a subsequent <a> or <o>, or that an <ove> rime has multiple possible pronunciations. I can think of at least three good reasons why <move> is spelled with an <o>; nonwords can’t think of a single one.

As my good and wise friend and colleague says, if a child writes *<dun> instead of <done>, you have all the information you need that he already owns the CrAPP concept of GPCs, and that it’s already doing its damage.

Can anyone offer any explanation that makes this kind of nonsense anything other than a sadistic but nonlethal method of collecting meaningless data about meaningless “knowledge” about meaningless “patterns”? I welcome any and all nonsense word measures. I guarantee you I can find you massive problems with any one of them.
Ighm aul ierse. Doar’z oapon.


  1. Kim Haughee says:

    I am sooooo using this in my presentation on phonology at our next Indiana IDA workshop in March!
    Kim Haughee

    • It’s research. It’s now published. You’re a peer. Use it, review it. That’s how this works. Please LMK if anyone drums up any kind of counter-argument that you can’t summarily dismiss. I’m sure we’ll think of something. TTYL.

  2. rebeccamarsh says:

    Linguistic scat–ha!

  3. Christy says:

    I notice there are no simple CV or CVC items in this list. Is there any value at all in using non-word CV or CVC items to assess students’ knowledge of consonant and vowel sounds?

    • If you want to know what a child understands about orthographic phonology (the “consonant and vowel sounds” associated with written words), the best thing to do is to use written words, especially words that the child him/herself wrote. A child’s spelling is far more diagnostic than reading if you want to know what they do and don’t understand (a term I prefer to “know”).

      It doesn’t matter how many Vs and Cs and in what order. When you say CV or CVC — is each V or C a letter or a grapheme? If you’re not sure about the difference, then you can’t expect your students to understand that either.

      It’s not up to me to provide evidence for a practice that I just excoriated, logically speaking, just because you said “but what about CV or CVC words?” Rather, if you would like to assert the value to using nonwords in spite of all the falsifying evidence I offered here, it’s *your* job to provide the evidence for that, not mine.

      I’m pretty clear that it’s all nonsense.

      Here are some CV and some CVC nonwords, with examples of **why this practice is problematic**.

      ca ~ (pa, cable)
      po ~ (do, go, who, no)
      ki ~ (hi, ski, mi)
      re ~ (be, the, rerun, report, represent)
      cu ~ (flu, cupid, cuckoo)

      nas ~ was, has, gas (which is more common?)
      wat ~ wad, what, pat
      ral ~ pal, ball, always, viral

      I don’t think I need to continue. If you have to cherry-pick your examples, what’s the point?

      • Christy says:

        I freely admit my ignorance about many things. No one can understand everything, but I do want to continue learning. That’s why I signed up to be notified of your new posts. And I do use student spelling as a diagnostic tool.

        In the original post, no CV or CVC non-words were given as examples, so I simply wondered if there was a reason. Perhaps THOSE types of non-words WERE useful, I thought.

        Since this is called linguist-educator exchange, I thought it would be a forum where an educator trying to learn was allowed, perhaps even encouraged, to ask a question. The tone of your reply to me suggests this is not the case here. I do see, however, that you answered the question about proper names in great depth. I learned quite a bit there. Thank you for that. I’m still not sure what was so offensive about my question.

        • Thanks for your response, Christy. I’m glad that you are interested in continuing to learn. Of course, this isn’t the first time someone has taken offense with my “tone” — that’s called tone policing, and it’s what people often do when they can’t poke any holes in my logic or my evidence, but they still don’t like what I’ve said. So they focus on how I’ve said it.

          I never actually said that your question was offensive, or that anyone is not “allowed, perhaps even encouraged, to ask a question.” In fact, I answered it as I answer any question — using the writer’s own words and understanding as they expressed it to reshape said understanding. I said nothing untoward or rude in my response; I answered you question clearly and directly.

          Studying the writing system is a question of the intellect; offense and tone are questions of emotion, and I don’t traffic in emotion. Your comment was one of many that I fielded from people in response to this post and others, both here and in other online forums.

          You said, “In the original post, no CV or CVC non-words were given as examples,” but jint and wamp and swad are actually CVC words, and they’re all problematic, as I demonstrated. I’ve also written and taught a lot about syllable-based pedagogies and why they are problematic. I understand that my work is new to you, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t addressed these questions — all of them — before. I’m glad you’ve signed up for updates — you may want to read my post called By All Means. It’s about people who call me mean, and what they really, um, mean when they do.

  4. Aum I’g odd! (Brett)

  5. Kelli says:

    OMG! Brilliant! I am posting to our FB page and I am sure there will be plenty of responses there, or not…you know how people can be when they are confronted with something uncomfortable. Thank you Gina for writing this, it might be my favorite so far.

  6. Cyndy says:

    Love this article. What do you do when a student writes everything trying to use GPC?

  7. Kim Haughee says:

    I am so going to use this in my next phonology seminar!!

  8. Meg Miller says:

    AARGH. Nonsense words drive me nuts! Cannot tell you how many times I have tried to talk fellow teachers out of drilling kids on wacky meaningless sets of letters. Don’t get me started on the DIBELS. OK, do. Interestingly some of the best at the nonsense word part of the DIBELS were the kids who just spoke Arabic. Doesn’t make sense? No problem, nothing in English does! But English-speaking kids who are very bright just cannot STAND the lack of logic and would take many seconds trying to crack the code.

    • Interesting — are the Arabic-speaking kids literate in Arabic?

      • Meg Miller says:

        Yes. Young learners k – third grade were being “assessed” with the DIBELS.

        • Interesting. Arabic is a really cool writing system — I studied Arabic for a couple years in grad school. When I taught (adult) Arabic-speakers in ESL classes, most of them wrote “I was porn in 1982…” or “I was porn in Riyadh…” Arabic has no /p/, just a /b/. To Arabic speakers, ‘I was born’ — with the coarticulation of the [z] and the [b] — sounds to them like an unaspirated [p]. It all makes sense, the more you know…

  9. This is a wonderfully pointy post! What a mess! Knowing the phonics-tainted thinking of these test designers, it is easy to infer what they WANT–but “pettuce”?? “kiscuit”??!! Good grief! I laughed out loud at that one. What could even the most phonics-addled mind imagine is the benefit of these nonsense words?

    As a former outdoor educator, I too loved the term “linguistic scat”, though we studied scat to learn how things actually work in nature. These nonsense words are more like plactic bags found in trees. (I suppose it’s like finding cigarette butts in a coyote turd–like, WTF are those doing there other than harm?)

    I have never understood learning any words out of context. Gina, have you posted an article on the topic of “sight” or “high frequency” words? Teaching Grade One, this was something I resisted most vigorously. Not that it wasn’t helpful to children to read some words by “sight”–just that rather than firing off lists to memorize, it was much more effective to a) encounter them in context and b) use them as platforms for studying phonological, morphological or etymyological concepts. Anyway, separate topic, kinda.

    • You extension of the scat metaphor is so good, Skot. It’s really my way of just not calling something bullshit publicly… Regarding “sight words” — yes, I have written about them. If you search “sight words” — with quotes — in the search bar of this site you will find what I’ve had to say here. That’s what inspired my InSight Words.

    • Amanda Brown says:

      I love your comment, Skot!

  10. pbltyrrell says:

    Finding the exceptions in the English language to dissuade people from using valid made up word tools to help kids explore and learn graphemes and phonemes seems extreme. I let my son create and play with made up words, not with religious zeal but as stepping stones to a fuller understanding of our challenging language.

    • What an interesting perspective, pbltyrell. But I don’t traffic in “exceptions” — that’s an ascientific way of saying “I don’t understand this thing (yet).” Can you give me an example of something you think is “exceptional” and what rule it’s an “exception” to? Because I bet I can help you actually understand it. And can you say more about what you mean by “valid tools”? Please read my next post (Common Knowledge) before you respond.

      Another colleague asked about Jabberwocky — and of course, “creat[ing] and play with made up words” is not what I’m critiquing here. If one is — like Lewis Carroll or your own son — making up their own words deliberately, for pleasure or curiosity, or engaging with another person or a class in that kind of thing, then those words are meaningful to that person or those people. But the only meaning associated with the nonwords that psychologists come up with is “Guess What I’m Thinking.”

      As I said, if you’d like to send along what you consider to be a “valid tool” and tell me what you think it’s valid for, I’ll be happy to consider it.

      • Also, if you got the impression that I’m arguing against “creat[ive] play” with nonwords when I titled this post “Soodoe Whird Kamidy” and ended it “Ighm aul ierse. Doar’z oapon,” I don’t think we have much to discuss.

  11. Cheryl Urbanczyk says:

    Thank you Gina. This is so interesting and I am re-thinking and re-evaluating all of my traditional OG training. So many things in that training I just accepted without really questioning the research base and the rationale. Any strategy that I didn’t understand its application and usefulness (ex: syllable division), I just assumed was a failing on my part, rather than a problem with the method itself. I never thought of the nonsense word reading in this way before. I”m assuming that your arguement would also transfer to the nonsense morpheme blending drill at the Certified OG level (ex: dis-ject-ish – where you place the prefixes, bases, suffixes from the drill pack in front of the student and flip the cards). I’m wondering what a SWI lesson look like. Does it have a format… or is it a more organic progression of thought? Thanks again.

    • Hi Cheryl. I really appreciate that you are willing to revisit your thinking and you training, because revisiting is the very essence of scholarship. You’re very astute in your observation that when something doesn’t make sense, a first inclination is to blame oneself, because surely all these experts couldn’t be wrong! It can be destabilizing to revisit things we thought we knew and find them lacking — but it can be life-changing to learn how to find evidence of what’s actually there.

      Anyone suggesting a study of “dis-ject-ish” etc. I would refer to the four questions. The first is “What does it mean?” If that’s not answerable, if you and/or the student can’t use it in a phrase or sentence and have it make sense, then you’re only dealing with disembodied parts. I’m not saying that people can’t make up words — that happens in meaningful contexts all the time. Today my son missed his phone while it was charging in another room, and he said he was “phonely.” That’s not a “real” word according to any number of metrics, but it’s not nonsense either. Even before I encountered this kind of study, back in early OG days for me, a trainer in Michigan –a Fellow in the OGA and an Advanced trainer, Amy White, told me that since the whole point of morphology is meaning, there’s no point to putting morphemes into meaningless combinations or contexts. That made perfect sense to me.

      As far as what this study looks like? Well, a few weeks ago I posted a video of some study with a 2nd grader I call River. What an “SWI lesson” (or I just call it a study session, usually) looks like can be very different from one child to the next, but they all have a few things in common: every time I meet with a child, we do word sums — that can look different, too, but I generally include both synthetic and analytic word sums. Sometimes the child writes the whole word sum; sometimes I write the left side and they rewrite it. We always have the four questions visible and we always refer to them and talk though them. The student reads something — a page or two from the Tiger book, or something I wrote, or, for example, with another 2nd grader, we recently read a book I found on a dancer in a town in Ireland, because she is taking Irish dance and loves it. There’s no nonsense, no syllable division (although we certainly talk about and count syllables and notice things about the syllables in words and what’s written and what’s not). We may work with (or toward) a matrix; we often work with a square inside of a circle to sort words into morphological and etymological relatives. Sometimes I try something and it’s a bit of a flop. Sometimes a word or two that we end up looking at is a bit of a dud. We may focus on one or more suffix addition patterns, but generally I don’t focus on them because they are just so easy to run into once you stat looking for morphological relatives of actual words.

      I may or may not read from Etymonline (or Ayto) with a child there. But I am always honest about whether I have looked at / studied a word before or not. I never just say, “Oh that’s Anglo-Saxon because it’s short” or “The base is *cred because Somebody Famous said so.” I am not running any kind of horserace, so if we don’t get to everything we planned, we do it the next time. I always give the child choices throughout, but each choice has predictable, structured things: “Which two things shall we try to study today: script and the joy matrix? Or the joy matrix and your spelling list?” Script always involves reviewing what we did the previous time and adding something new. It always involves tracing or writing on the child’s palm(s), and writing on paper without lines. A parent or teacher is part of the session in order to learn and support the child’s understanding.

      As for content — I like to start with certain basic concepts (every word has a base element, a word sum, a matrix, how phonology works — cats & dogs is good). If a child brings m a word (which I encourage), we study that word and I look for salient concepts based not on some scope and sequence, but on my understanding of the writing system: for example, rather than deciding arbitrarily that a child is only ready to learn about compounds once they have divided enough nonsense words into syllables, I decide that a child is ready to learn about compounds when they bring me compound that they want to know more about, whether they know it’s a compound or not. Some compounds that children have brought me in first lessons have included dachshund, cockapoo, cupcakes, and splendiferous. I once had a student who I knew was ready to learn about loanwords when he asked me why the word ‘brat’ (as in sausage) was not pronounced like ‘brat’ (as in pest). I knew that my student was ready to learn about the phonology of K and C and S when he asked me, “Why do we need a C if K and S can already do the same jobs?” In traditional OG, I have to say, “Oh, we’ll study that later on, in Level 3.” In orthographic study, or SWI, the child’s own questions about language are very diagnostic. That doesn’t mean that I have to wait for the child to bring up every single thing before we study it, however. If you are comforted by a scope and sequence, then pick one! Any one will do! But instead of teaching cat, fat, sat, hat, bat, study cat, cats, catty, catted, fatter, fattest, hatter, tomcat, fatcats, sit/sat, bat, batter, battery, batting, batted, etc. Do some word sums. Notice that doubling but you don’t have to test the kid and make them 100% accountable for everything you mention. Nor do you have to be gagged or restricted. Interrogate the scope and sequence you choose; don’t just follow it or consult it.

      Sometimes my sessions are an hour or even 90 minutes; sometimes they’re only half an hour. It depends on whether it’s in my home, at school, after school, live, online, etc. Generally twice a week, but life happens a lot for me or for a parent. So we’re flexible. I offer the child two activities, and if we have extra time, we fill it. But I almost never have extra time. I stay tuned into when the child loses interest or fatigues, and I make it a point to end our time on a note of discovery, satisfaction, or success. We set a tone of celebrating mistakes from the very beginning, mine, the child’s, and the parents. It makes for really indelible learning.

  12. Benita B Belsley says:

    Using “nonsense words” with students in dyslexia therapy has always bothered me, so I appreciate your exposition about them. Thank you, Gina!

  13. Pat Stone says:

    Not so brilliant, maybe, but I wrote this blog about the English (not UK as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have more sense) Phonics Screening Check. I counted up which graphemes were used as opposed to which were taught:

    • Pat I am not intimate with whatever the UK is doing or has done but I appreciated your analysis! Shaking my head…

      • Pat Stone says:

        Head shaking is an appropriate early response. Other English speaking nations are looking to follow England with this screening check nonsense. Some of you may need to do more than head shake.
        I deliberately write England, because the other countries of the UK, having retained a modicum of civic duty and having not sold out their children’s education completely to commerce as England has, have not been crazy or nasty enough to impose the Phonics Screening Check on their 6 year olds. Its proponents and sales personnel (who I suspect would try en masse to stop you in your tracks – you probably heard from them already!? we must compare notes of their names) are opening up markets in Australia as we speak. NZ and USA next.
        Be afraid. Be very afraid.

  14. 1idltcmpoWP2 says:

    I love “phonely”

  15. Debbie Boulton says:

    What about being able to read names? Many of those are not made up of morphemes, particularly if the name is from a language other than English. The school I volunteer at is of the opinion that if the kids can’t read a name, it doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t affect the meaning of the text, but that doesn’t sit well with me! Shouldn’t they be able to read a name like ‘Mr. Sanchez’, even though it is made up of ‘nonsense syllables’?

    • This is going to sound harsh to a lot of people. I use some ALL CAPS for emphasis because there are so many points I’ve already made. But you asked, so here’s my understanding:

      Certainly you’re not making the argument that nonsense words teach people how to pronounce proper names, are you? Have you ever actually been to a graduation or any other event in which names are read? Are they ever mispronounced by fully literate people? My last name is Cooke. Do you think that people never mispronounce it? Including people who can pronounce nonsense words?

      Do people always pronounce and/or spell “Debbie” and “Boulton” correctly? And if so, is it because they are proficient readers of lists of nonwords? See what happens when you actually follow that line of reasoning? It’s a house of cards.

      The fact is that proper names do not necessarily follow the conventions of an orthography, and they are **marked** in the orthography as different from conventional words by a capital letter. How do you pronounce the proper name Colbert? Or Pfeiffer? Or Joosten? Or Stephen? I have two friends named Stephen. One is “steve-en” and the other is “steff-en.” I only know which way to pronounce it when I know who I’m talking about — when I know what I MEAN.

      Should Sanchez be pronounced as it is in Spanish or as it is in English (they are not the same)? How about Jaime — how do you pronounce that? In Spanish? In English? How do you explain names like Katherine or Kay or Caesar or Annii or Siobhan that do not follow orthographic conventions, and of what use are nonsense words in those instances? How do you explain Carroll, Carol, and Carole? Have you ever read a Russian novel, like War and Peace, or The Brothers Karamazov? If so, how do you know that you correctly pronounced every name every time you encountered it? And if you did, is it because you read lists of nonsense words as a child? And if so, what’s the evidence that that process happens across the population, in the aggregate?

      Also, how are proper names NOT morphemes? What? How do you defend that assertion at all? Of course proper names have morphemes, or they are morphemes. Iceland? Greenland? Frankfort? St. Petersburg? Faith? MaryAnn? Do you really not see any morphemes in any proper names? Or did you just not really look?

      Now you know how kids feel when they don’t see what you see in a word.

      Sometimes the morphemes in a proper name are obvious: Johnson, White, Cooke, Smith, Baker, or all the examples I already gave you. Sometimes they’re less obvious: Schueller, for example, is the German word for ‘scholar,’ and one of my family names. Dinovo means “Anew’ in Italian. Patrick denotes ‘father’ — just like in patriot, patrician, and paternal.

      Just because you don’t know the meaning of a name doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It is a true, empirical fact that proper names ALWAYS HAVE MEANING. They are not nonsense words. So your example does not nullify anything I’ve said about a meaningful context. What I said is that phonemes and graphemes only surface in a meaningful context.

      The name Sanchez, for example, in present-day English use, still must be referring to someone or something if it’s being read or written — a character in a book, a teacher, the name of a store or a city… See? Meaning. It also has a historical meaning. In names of Spanish origin, the frequent ending IS A FREAKING MORPHEME. It means ‘son of,’ just like, you know, SON in Johnson, Jackson, Jefferson, etc. Just because you think names are made up of “nonsense syllables” doesn’t make it so. Look:

      Sanchez, Sancho
      Hernandez/Fernandez, Hernando, Fernando
      Jiminez, Jimino (I’d love for you to show me the nonsense words that will help with this name)

      The ‘ton’ in ‘Boulton’ historically named a town — just like in WashingTON or ArlingTON or BloomingTON. Doesn’t that make you want to know what the ‘Boul’ means and where it came from? The name(s) Deborah, Debra, Debbie, Debi, whatever — they mean ‘bee’ and thus mean the same thing as ‘Melisa’ — which means ‘honeybee.’ Deborah is Hebrew; Melissa is Greek.

      Meaning is everywhere, and it is always paramount to words of any kind. That said, if you want to force children to pronounce things that they don’t automatically recognize, why not help them read, you know, an actual text that has some names in it? But please, no lists of disembodied names, OK?

      I get that you have feelings about other people’s opinions or the practices they base on those opinions. I can’t help you with any of that. If you want to make the argument to your colleagues that the orthographic phonology of proper names need to be studied, making that argument in a meaningless context, and offering feelings and opinions, probably won’t have much of an effect.

      Maybe you could volunteer to lead a unit on helping kids and teachers investigate the meaning and history of their own names? If they’re not too busy reading lists of nonsense words? How’s that for a pedagogical suggestion?

  16. Liza says:

    I think non-words can be useful in test situations eg PSC; no-one should be drilling them

    • Well whatever. This academic website isn’t about what people “think can be useful,” though. It is also not about who “should be drilling” what. There are plenty of websites about all of that nonsense.

      This website is about evidence about the language, from the language, and language study. What you think isn’t evidence of anything. Don’t be offended — what I think is also not evidence of anything, which is why I provide evidence for what I write about.

      I don’t know what a PSC is and I really don’t care.

  17. Debbie Boulton says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply! Sadly, I’m not in a position to follow your last suggestion, but I will definitely start to emphasize the importance of the names to the story (of course they’re not just reading ‘lists of names’), and maybe adding some of the background of the name to help it stick! This is quite the learning journey for me – I appreciate your support and ideas, and look forward to incorporating them into my sessions.

    • Cool! I deeply appreciate your question — since you asked it I have noticed with new depth how much meaning there is in names. A colleague mentioned that he students did a unit on researching their own names and writing about what they learn — a powerful exercise in meaning, identity, and celebration. Good luck!

  18. Pat Stone says:

    Hi Gina. I wrote this about meaning and decoding when we read.


  19. H Lekkas says:

    Do you run workshops or webinars so people can learn to apply your approach to teach reading and spelling? I live in Australia.

  20. […] pass off as “science-based.” I’ve written and spoken about this before, here, here, here, here, here, and here. What these are are words that the author(s) don’t know how to […]

  21. amy says:

    Hi, I’m a parent of a dyslexic child and her dyslexic teacher teaches using nonsense words. What can I do at home to help her learn, because her teacher was not very receptive of my input into using nonsense word. 🙂

    • Hi Amy. If your daughter’s teacher is in a school, you may want to have a conversation with someone other than that teacher about her teaching practices. If it’s someone you hire privately, you should discontinue that service right away. Why pay someone to lie to your kid? As far as what you can do to help her at home, the best thing you can do is sign up to study in classes with me.

    • Yes, Valdine. I can send you an invoice. Thanks!

  22. […] been hungry while she was imagining her list: cuisine, baguette, crouton… Reminds me of that stupid non-word test that includes pettuce, hausage, kiscuit, and polonel — because apparently it was written […]

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