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Sound It Out

Dr. Joanne Meier

Along with her background as a professor, researcher, writer, and teacher, Joanne Meier is a mom. Join Joanne every week as she shares her experiences raising her own young readers, and guides parents and teachers on the best practices in reading.

Nonsense, as in nonsense words

November 14, 2007


Just a few examples of the types of words students are asked to read on a Nonsense Word assessment. Some assessments are timed (how many nonsense words can you read in one minute?), and some assessments use a ceiling (stop when the student incorrectly reads 5 in a row).

Nonsense word measures are one part of DIBELS, a widely-used assessment for young children, they're one part of the Orton Gillingham approach to teaching reading, and are one part of most diagnostic work done with struggling readers.

Nonsense word lists and task are also finding their way into general education classrooms as part of curriculum based measures. At this point, teachers often balk. "I want kids to read for meaning. There's no meaning in this!"

Nonsense word fluency measures a student's ability to decode individual phonemes and then blend them together to read. They're an indicator of a student's progress in acquiring early alphabetic principle skills. By using nonsense words, we can find out whether a child knows the most common sound for letters (letter–sound correspondence), and whether a child can blend the sounds to read words he has never seen before.

So, nonsense word reading works really well as a quick, reliable, and valid way of assessing part of the alphabetic principle. BUT, we can teach and develop the alphabetic principle without ever explicitly teaching nonsense word reading. Hooray!


I do not like the use of nonsense words. Even though some may be part of a word which they will learn in the future, our language is full of enough words that have these sounds that it would be just as entertaining to a 5 year old to learn to sound out real words. My son has special needs and if we can get him to recognized the sounds in real words it would benefit him more than to spend time on words that are not even words. In Kindergarten let them learn to recognize what is real. Too much emphasis is put on fairy tales such as the 'Elf on the Shelf', Santa, Tooth Fairy, etc., why complicate their minds with fake words.

Dora,I've read ( that nonsense words don't really need to be used with ELL's. I teach deaf students phonics and I don't use nonsense words. They're often not necessary for ELL's because they usually don't have the sight vocabulary that L1 learners do and therefore are not reading from memory. I'd stick to real words with them as they actuallt have a greater need to learn real words and their meanings. However, I find nonsense words, especially multi-syllable ones, very useful when working with struggling adult readers who have a large "survival" sight vocabulary. It can be hard to find words that such learners haven't already memorized and using nonsense words helps them to see where they are failing to apply phonics rules.

As an educator, I find that nonsense words can be quite confusing for ELL students because they are learning content and language at the same time and this assessment is quite confusing for beginner level students in English.

Personally, I think nonsense identifies this as exactly what it is. My child reads well and when introduced to this in 1st grade became frustrated and confused about reading. I think this could be great if used for the "right" child at the "right" age but identifing the "right" child and age becomes an issue. Putting this in schools is pushing the "cookie cutter" kid idea way too far. No child left behind in my humble opinion has created activities like this and encourages "No child pulled ahead."

I work at a private school for students with dyslexia and we regularly use the DIBELS nonsense word fluency assessment to monitor students' decoding progress. Often, their progress does not show up on grade-level reading passages because they are reading so far below grade level, but we DO see steady progress in nonsense word fluency which shows the the child is learning the code. I do not spend instructional time on nonsense words, but it is an excellent assessment tool. I have found that it is also a great way to show parents how their child is progressing in their decoding of explicitly, systematically taught sound-symbol relationships.

My son has been making up nonsense words for a while now. He says them in conversations or will just blurt one out. He is in Kindergarten and is reading and writing well. His teacher says he is bright and a great student. Is he smart and creative or just weird and being a kid? This has been going on for a year. It is awkward in public when he blurts out stodo!

One other value of "limited" practice of decoding nonsense words, specifically cvc and vc, is that some of these nonsense words are syllables of multi-syllabic REAL words. For example, pov by itself is a nonsense word but it is also the first syllable in the word poverty. This purpose should also be conveyed to younger readers.

I completely agree. In fact, all of us learn reading through nonsense words because, at one time or another, all words were "nonsense" at some point. We learn to attack words this way. Good stuff. Swen NaterSeattle

Nonsense word reading is not only important to determine a child's knowledge of the code. I use nonsense word lists when I work with children who make wild guesses when they read. Reading nonsense words force students to use their phonic knowledge to decode accurately. These nonsense words are paired with similarly constructed real words so students understand better how to apply these skills when they read. Single and multisyllable words are used.

I'm so glad you mentioned two things, Ashley. First, conveying the purpose of nonsense words to students, and second that you provide decoding practice with real words. To me, both are critical.

When I was first introduced to nonsense words I found them to be silly and really did not see the purpose! After playing with the words I find them to be very useful and fun. I feel it is important to convey the purpose of the nonsense words to the students. If the students are aware of the importannce of utilizing decoding skills when reading, nonsense words serve as a great learning tool. My students love to time themselves when they read nonsense words. We also practice the same decoding skills with real words.

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Malala Yousafzei