What people need to know about the use of pseudo, or 'nonsense' words in reading instruction

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What people need to know about the use of pseudo, or 'nonsense' words in reading instruction

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Sat May 14, 2016 11:38 am

The International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction promotes the global use of England's Year One Phonics Screening Check (which is statutory in England).

If the same phonics check were to be used internationally, we could get at least 'an idea' about teaching effectiveness with regard to teaching the letter/s-sound correspondences of the very complex English alphabetic code (the most complex alphabetic code in the world) - and with regard to the learners' capacity to read new, unknown words (the synthesising, or 'blending/decoding' skill). In other words, this is a measure of the 'technical' knowledge and skills of learners - but most importantly it is also a measure of 'teaching effectiveness'.

The Department for Education in England uploads the phonics check after its official annual use in England which means that it is 'free' for any teachers to utilise. This means that teachers in any contexts where English is taught could take advantage of the phonics check and then compare their results with the existing, and growing findings year-on-year in England. Thus, results in England provide an existing 'baseline' for others internationally.

IFERI knows of a handful of schools taking advantage of the phonics check because the teachers WANT to know about their teaching effectiveness. (And surely all teachers should want to know about their teaching effectiveness in such an essential field.) You can read about two such schools - one in Costa Rica and one in Australia via the two links immediately below. Note that in Costa Rica where English is a second language, the children's results were higher than the average in England in one particular year:


http://www.iferi.org/why-we-use-the-pho ... australia/

There is a worrying downside, however, to the advent of the Year One Phonics Screening Check and its inclusion of pseudo words or nonsense words. The downside is the proliferation of phonics resources provided by manufacturers and publishers - and by others making 'free' resources - of nonsense words content. Much of this material consists of nonsense words with 'illegal' or 'inappropriate' spelling patterns. That is, the structure/content of the nonsense words includes spelling patterns not seen in real English words (or very rarely seen). This means our youngest learners are frequently playing with printed words with spelling patterns that are not advisable for them to keep seeing.

So, on the one hand the children's learning diet consists of lots of words with illegal spelling patterns for them to blend in anticipation of the Year One Phonics Screening Check, and on the other hand we are trying to teach them how to spell correctly with the actual spelling patterns we see in English spelling. Sheer logic suggests that this is not really a good idea - a contradiction in terms.

The practice with nonsense words may well support learners to hone their blending skill (which is not in itself a bad thing), but there is no need to give the learners a diet of nonsense words when we can actually provide plenty of real words to practise blending that are 'new' in two senses: - firstly, 'new' because the children have not seen the words in print before so they are reading them for the very first time and, secondly, 'new' because the words are not in their existing SPOKEN language.

Having included new real words for them to apply their alphabetic code knowledge and to practise their blending skill, teachers can then expand the learners' knowledge of these new words by including some meaning-making (vocabulary development). Thus, there are advantages technically to using new real words (a 'cumulative' bank of real words that match their alphabetic code knowledge taught to date) - whilst also teaching them the meaning of any words which are new to the learners themselves. [The 'five pillars of literacy' based on the findings of an extensive scrutiny of research on reading instruction include the need to teach new vocabulary explicitly.]

Perhaps a week or two prior to children undertaking the actual phonics check, the teacher could introduce a few games involving some nonsense words provided as 'alien' names or language. This will familiarise the children with the format of the forthcoming check. That is all that is needed at most. But, again, the words should arguably be based on legal/appropriate spelling patterns and not illegal spelling patterns.

The Department for Education has gone to a lot of trouble to select the 20 real words and the 20 nonsense words in the check very carefully. This is described in the following report - and see in particular section 3.1 here:

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/s ... report.pdf

If more people were aware of the huge amount of thought and hard work that has gone into providing the 40 words for the annual phonics check, perhaps this might encourage global uptake.

Also, in England the results have risen year-on-year since the piloting of the check in 2011. This more than suggests that it is informing the teaching profession of the importance of teaching effectiveness.

There are still those who are vociferously against the Year One Phonics Screening Check. Be it on their own conscience.

But, the prolific production and use of nonsense words based on illegal/inappropriate spelling patterns lays bare the lack of professional knowledge and understanding of phonics teaching and practice.
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Re: What people need to know about the use of pseudo, or 'nonsense' words in reading instruction

Postby Dick Schutz » Sat May 14, 2016 8:13 pm

The controversy about pseudo-words in connection with England's Yr 1 Check certainly does reflect the widespread ignorance of the substance and structure of the Alphabetic Code as the crux of communication in written language. The merit of the Check is that it's a quick-and-easy means to identify individuals who need further instruction to handle the English Alphabetic Code, that is to separate those who "can read" from those who "can't." Absent such a measure, children slip through the schooling cracks to the detriment of the children and to the citizenry.

Brit data indicates that the controversy about nonsense words turns out to be nonsense. Current performance on the "real words" is no higher than on the pseudo-words. One could ignore the 20 pseudo-words altogether and still have a reliable Check. As in reading generally, it's not about "meaning;" that's a whole nother thing. The history of the English language is such that we arrived at written language by inventing the Alphabetic Code--and "good enough capability" in handling that invention is what the Check is good for.

It's ironic that in England to date, little attention has yet been given to determine the instruction that reliably leads to children passing the Check in Yr 1 or to the "further instruction" required by the children who don't pass it Yr 2. Those who still don't pass in Yr 2 have to date been ignored altogether. Teachers who devote instructional time to "teaching pseudo-words" are wasting time and misleading children, as Debbie notes. We don't know how widespread this usage is in classrooms, but we do know from available Brit data that it's unnecessary and "not a good thing to do."

It's understandable, but at the same time deplorable, that teachers find the "Check doesn't tell us anything that we didn't already know." Of course the teacher knows the kids who "can't read." The kid knows, parents know, and other kids know. The thing is, the failure is attributed to the kids, their parents, their socioeconomic status--to anything but the instruction the kids have received. The "news" of the Alphabetic Code Check is, "It's in the instruction, Stupid."

The "good news" is that Australia has legislated a "Phonics Check." All I know about this advance is from two sketchy AU newspapers articles, but there will be "more news to come" from those on the ground in AU.
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Re: What people need to know about the use of pseudo, or 'nonsense' words in reading instruction

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Mon May 16, 2016 8:44 pm

Thanks, Dick, for your comments.

I, too, am very concerned about the children who do not reach the 'benchmark' of 32 out of 40 words read correctly or plausibly (for the pseudo words).

This is not just about what reading instruction diet they get post the check, but teachers need to consider why they didn't reach the benchmark in the first place.

In 2015, 95% to !00% of the children reached or exceeded the benchmark in 753 schools.

The mindset of teachers in such schools is the aim for all their children to reach or exceed the benchmark. The teachers have a 'no excuses' culture and a child in such a school that did not reach the benchmark is more likely to have genuine learning difficulties than children in schools achieving a much lower result.

See the common attitude and (mis)understanding of leading people and organisations, such as David Reedy of the United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA), via the link below. I addressed his arguments in his article for 'Teach Primary' via a personal response here:

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Re: What people need to know about the use of pseudo, or 'nonsense' words in reading instruction

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Mon May 16, 2016 8:46 pm

You can also see my comments about my concern for the actions of the Education Endowment Foundation re lower levels of achievement in the north east of England via the link below.

My point is that there should be an investigation and analysis of why some schools achieve so much higher than others before organisations such as EEF focus on 'intervention' - they need to look into the first-time teaching to understand why so many children are failing to reach the benchmark in the phonics check.


The longer we use the Year One Phonics Screening Check in England, the more it will become clear that some schools teach all the children to be efficient decoders - and other schools simply do not.

This alerts teachers to the dangers of the 'within child issues' excuse for potentially ineffective, or less effective, phonics teaching.
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Re: What people need to know about the use of pseudo, or 'nonsense' words in reading instruction

Postby Debbie_Hepplewhite » Sat Jul 23, 2016 10:56 am

Tim Shanahan writes a piece on the teaching of nonsense words:

What doesn’t belong here? On Teaching Nonsense Words

http://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/2016/ ... um=twitter

Tim concludes (although do read the whole piece which isn't long):

...We can do better. Please do not use these kinds of tests to make judgments about teachers, it just encourages foolish responses on their parts. And, please do not teach these nonsense words to the kids. It is harmful to kids. It definitely doesn’t belong here.

I don't think we should use nonsense word tests, for example, the Phonics Screening Check, to make judgements on teachers - but I do think we can use the 'same test' amongst the teaching profession to inform the teaching profession.

And that is a very big difference.

The Year One Phonics Screening Check in England allows us to look at the bigger picture of teaching effectiveness and can be used in a really positive way.

1) The government needs to be accountable for measuring the effectiveness of methods and programmes funded and promoted (in the case of England).
2) The teaching profession is helped to examine what teachers might do differently who consistently get higher results in the PSC than other teachers - not in a judgemental way, but in an informative way.
3) The variations in results within the same schools (with large intakes, with different teachers, from year to year, with changes of provision), across schools, across regions and with different programmes and approaches should enable a deeper analysis for continuing professional development - and this should also engage teacher-trainers and universities.

Further, Tim Shanahan refers to the 'teaching' of nonsense words but this is, arguably, different from using nonsense words to increase the blending practice of children. I think this is what he probably means. It seems from messages via Twitter, however, that people commonly fail to distinguish between the use of nonsense words to be 'learnt' as specific words and the use of fresh banks of nonsense words to enable practice.

In England, a game called 'Treasure Chest' was described in the official publication 'Letters and Sounds' (Department for Education and Skills, 2007). This includes the use of real and nonsense words. Children read the words and decide which are 'real' and which are 'nonsense'.

In other words, teachers have been led to believe such a game is good practice. Then in 2012, the statutory Year One Phonics Screening Check was rolled out which further encouraged teachers to use nonsense words in their provision.

This inevitably led to a plethora of games and activities, and online games and activities, and the inclusion of nonsense words in reading books, entering into the picture of phonics provision.

Currently there is a significant presence of blog postings and tweets via Twitter about the Phonics Screening Check in England particularly about the use of nonsense words - and much negativity and misunderstanding.

I am in the fortunate position, however, of hearing from many schools who welcome the PSC and where staff appreciate that it gives them a baseline to understand whether they are teaching phonics effectively or not.

It is also beginning to raise awareness that good teaching really matters, and that even when individual children may well have specific learning traits or difficulties, or whether they have English as an additional language or not, effective teaching can reach virtually all of them in terms of their phonics knowledge and skills. Some schools achieve 90 to 100% of their children reaching or exceeding the benchmark of 32 out of 40 words read correctly/plausibly in the PSC.

Keep the check - improve teacher training and understanding.

So what is my personal advice for teachers?

With a content-rich body of cumulative code, and cumulative, decodable words and texts for children to learn and apply the alphabetic code, there is no need to include lots of nonsense words. In such a body of work, many of the words will be 'new to the children' and therefore the equivalent of reading unknown words or nonsense words.

At most, all teachers might need to do to make them feel more reassured, a week or two prior to the official Phonics Screening Check, is to introduce a few games which do include some nonsense words just to familiarise the children with the idea of reading nonsense words for its own sake.
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Re: What people need to know about the use of pseudo, or 'nonsense' words in reading instruction

Postby Dick Schutz » Sat Jul 23, 2016 3:47 pm

The whole hullabaloo about nonsense words is nonsense, but the controversy serendipitously yields a useful Meta-Check of an individual's knowledge of the history of written language in general and of the substance and structure of the English Alphabetic Code in particular. A person who opposes any word because it "lacks meaning," needs "further instruction".

The lack of understanding stems from the very widespread view of reading as "extracting meaning from text." The "meaning of text" lies in the person doing the reading, not in the text; in the same way that communication in spoken language does. A text codes spoken language. The invention of such codes was a great human invention, but the invention, per se, didn't add any meaning. Today, even our telephones can read; that is they can pass the Turing Test of being indistinguishable from a human performing the same act. Do they comprehend what they read? Of course not, silly.

Meaning and "comprehension" are a whole nother matter that extends all the way to human existence--which we needn't go into any further here. But the ramifications of the misunderstanding go far in reading instruction. To teach children that all words and text must have meaning does them an injustice by placing the onus on them to "make meaning." Any word a child can't decipher in whole or in part is a nonsense word as far as the child is concerned. It's important kiddo learns to distinguish between words s/he has learned to read with automaticity and those that are necessary to slow down and decipher, rather than to convert the unfamiliar word to known familiar word. (The misguided response is what "fluent readers who can't pass the Yr 1 Check) are doing.)

There is a whole lot more to be said about this matter, but you get the point.

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