Nonsense words

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A big hoo-ha is going on in the UK because the new national literacy test includes a test of nonsense word reading. Opponents say the words are too hard for children, and don't mean anything.

However, this sort of testing is based both on sound logic and good science.

Non-word reading and spelling tests explore a person's word attack skills separately from their vocabulary. They show how well a person can apply letter-sound patterns to new words.

When do we need word attack?

Word attack is a vital skill for readers and spellers of all ages, and we need to use it constantly.

Books, movies, TV shows and computer games have been full of made-up words since Jabberwocky, Heffalumps and Willy Wonka. JK Rowling invented whole swags of them (Snape, Malfoy, quidditch, Gryffindor…), and the Simpsons are craptacular at new words.

There's a new fillum called Kath and Kimderella, Sheldon on Big Bang Theory says "Bazinga", people play Blokus and do Sudokus, and on TV there are loads of people with names we didn't know before, like Poh, Devin and Miike.

People are sexting each other, wearing burquinis, supporting Movember, suffering nomophobia and going glamping.

In my local shopping centre, there are businesses called Mosskito, Sumos, Cellini, Frootz, Biba and Mien. The brands of things they sell are mostly not in the dictionary, and brands are everywhere in our homes- just thanks to the latest bout of hayfever I have Flixonase, Rhinocort and Brauer nasal spray in the bathroom cupboard (nope, didn't really use them, but thanks for asking).

Maps and street signs are full of new words, as are museums and galleries. On recent visit to Gippsland, we learnt about calcite and speleothems in Buchan, and went to Bairnsdale's Krowathunkooloong Keeping Place to find out about about the Gunai/Kurnai people.

Earlier this year on Sydney's trains I read loads of place names I didn't know, like Tuggerah, Narara and Koolewong. Yesterday afternoon on the internet I read about the cutest little animal called a pika, and don't even start me on the new words that have invaded every cookbook and menu – taquito, edamame, soju, and dozens of words for what my dear old dad calls "modern lettuce".

Nonsense words = words we haven't met yet

Think about how many more words adults know than children do. Words that kids don't know yet are effectively nonsense words to them.

I've never had a young learner blink at being asked to read or spell nonsense words, because from their perspective, they're doing it all the time. I tell them the test words are the names of aliens, deep-sea monsters or games played in Biddleonia.

One of the ways children learn words and build their vocabularies is by sounding them out. Once you know the main patterns, this works most of the time, though most of us have tripped on words like "epitome", "hyperbole",  "gazebo" and "pilates", if we read them before we heard them.

What are we doing when we attack words?

Try this experiment on yourself. Imagine you are visiting a new shopping centre, and read aloud these business names I just made up, listening to yourself and thinking carefully about what you're doing:

Shoup cafe Breaf books Prantine fine dining Gey locksmiths Classage beauty
Peopard Pets Dearm financial advisors Chooque hair Jauri Gifts Noe Kough, Podiatrist

Confidently literate adults can pull these words apart into spelling patterns and apply the relevant sounds, but you probably weren't sure how to say:

  • The ou in "shoup" – is it like in "shout"? Or "soup"? (perhaps it's a cafe for large noisy groups?)
  • The "ea" in "Breaf" – like "leaf" (do they sell only very short books?), "deaf" (audio books?) or "break"? (short malfunctioning audio books?)
  • The "i…e" in "Prantine" – like "praline" or "refine"? (bet you went for praline, anticipating Anne Hathaway in Les Mis)
  • "ey" in "Gey" like "key" or "they"? (do a lot of GLBTI people live in the area?)
  • "age" in "Classage" like "massage", "passage" or all jou-jou and French, like "corsage" and "entourage"?
  • "eo" in "Peopard" as in "people", "leopard" or two separate syllables, like "peony"?
  • "ear" in "Dearm" as in "dear" or "earn"? Or did you go for 2 syllables, "de-arm", thinking they'd cost you an arm and a leg?
  • "ch" in "Chooque" as in "chips" or "chef"? "oo" as in "soon" or "look"? What if this business swapped names with the pet shop?
  • "au" in "Jauri" as in "jaunty" or "kauri"? "i" as in "taxi" or "Jedi"?'
  • "oe" in "Noe" as in "Zoe" or "toe"? "Kough" as in "dough", "plough", "through", "rough" or "cough"?

Literate adults know how to break these words up into syllables and spellings, and which sounds each spelling is most likely to represent, as though they had internalised this list. They think about other, similarly-spelt words, and once they have a possible pronunciation, consider meaning. Wouldn't Deed Poll have zapped Kough pronounced "cow" by now? But maybe her parents called her "Noe" pronounced "no" to counter the surname.

Did you think about the extent of homophobia and its impact on business viability, the reciprocity of the pet-owner relationship, or the main motivations of financial advisors when considering plausible pronunciations? Reading is about letter-sound relationships and meaning. To read well, you have to be able to do both.

Nonsense word testing

In test situations, it's useful to separate out the letter-sound skills so that you can see perzackly (my sister's word, which I am determined to bring into common parlance) where learners are having problems.

Non-word reading and spelling tests can't be beat for pinpointing how well learners can break up words into syllables and sounds, which spelling patterns they already know, and what they still need to learn.

Macquarie University now offers great little nonsense word tests free on the MOTIF website. You have to sign in and promise not to misuse them first. Some of these tests have been standardised on large groups, so can be used to work out whether a young learner's word attack is on track for their age.

It can be tricky for non-experts to tease out from the results of such tests which spelling patterns a learner needs to practise, so I also use my own tests which incorporate all the main spelling patterns covered in this blog, match my workbooks, and which I'm putting on this blog as fast as I can. There are also quite nice little nonword tests here and here.

Everything is a real word on the internet

By the way, I searched the internet for the business names I made up for this blog post, and they are all in use as real, meaningful words by someone, somewhere.

Shoup, Prantine, Dearm, Jauri and Kough are family names; Noe is a place name; breaf and gey are slang; peopard is a pattern; classage is a French word, and Chooque seems to be a prolific gamer's nickname.

The gap between real and nonsense words is not wide (even "blog" was a nonsense word 15 years ago), and we all need to be able to read both.

Don't be scared: nonsense words are just words we haven't met yet.


13 responses to “Nonsense words”

  1. John Walker says:

    As with most of the topics on which you write, I love your piece on nonsense words, Alison 🙂 Next time I see someone whingeing about them, I shall point them in your direction.

  2. logo design says:

    A family member linked me to your resource. Thanks for the details.

  3. Mary Keating says:

    “spellings” – that’s a recent one! I thought it was only non-English speakers who applied this plural rule when it should not be applied. I wasn’t expecting a native speaker of the language to write this.
    I’ve even come across a real word listed as a nonsense string. The English language is vast in its vocabulary. Children register letter-strings in the memory. To decode and recall a child must see a word about forty times, or so the research says. It is more constructive to register real words than nonsense strings in the memory. While language is dynamic and evolves over time from the bottom up, I think people, including children, are very aware that what they see or hear is not a real word. Teaching literacy can be a tough task. Wouldn’t it better to test with real words? There are oodles of them. Nonsense strings seems a quaint idea, theoretically sound as you point out the logic of them, but in the end redundant.

    • alison says:

      Hi Mary, I looked up the definition of the word ‘spelling’ in the Macquarie Dictionary and it says:
      “noun 1. the manner in which words are spelt; orthography.
      2. a group of letters representing a word.
      3. the act of a speller.
      4. the ability to spell or degree of proficiency in spelling.”
      So I think you’re right that meanings 3. and 4. aren’t words that can be made plural. However, the first two are nouns, and I don’t consider them non-count in the way ‘traffic’ and ‘sand’ are noncount, so I think it is OK to make them plural. There are many words with two spellings e.g. cosy/cozy, traveling/travelling, grey/gray, colour/color, apologize/apologise. Maybe you use solely UK or US English but here in the Antipodes we read books with both kinds (as the Blues Brothers would say), and don’t have firm rules about which is correct, though usually people who care about this kind of thing prefer the UK version and thing Noah Webster should never have meddled with spelling. I don’t think the latest research says a child needs to see a word about 40 times to learn it, the research I’ve been reading says it’s usually up to 4 times for good decoders and spellers, and the first two exposures matter most. David Kilpatrick summarises this research in his last couple of books. Once you’re orthographically mapping words, you store them very fast. Yes, it is better to use real words in teaching, I’ve just been listening to Dr Devin Kearns talk about this. Nonsense words should be reserved for assessment. There are a lot of real words listed as nonsense words in tests, the words ‘din’ and ‘pate’ are on the Test of Word Reading Efficiency 2 pseudowords list! It drives me mad too. They should look all their proposed nonsense words up in the dictionary before they include them. All the best, Alison

      • Mary Keating says:

        Thanks Alison for your detailed reply. I live in Melbourne and was brought up in the middle Eastern suburbs. Never heard ‘spellings’ until I dealt with non-English speakers in Australia of recent years. Of course there are regional differences. It just grates on me so much! The research may well have updated the 40 views of a word – it’s not something I’ve read about since I was at Monash in the 1980s. In fact in my old lecture notes I have written 40-60 sightings of a word. Yes, they should check the dictionary before they list nonsense words. ‘Din’ is a well recognised word for noise and is certainly not a nonsense word. ‘Pate’ without the acute accent I suppose. Not learning French is detrimental to English language mastery. It’s like debut. It’s pronounced day-boo. If we want to anglicize it, then why not say deebutt? I agree nonsense words should be kept strictly for assessments. I see nothing wrong in that and time will test its effectiveness. But how about the five-letter nonsense words set up to test Year 1 kids? A bit rich isn’t it!

        • alison says:

          Hi Mary, Sorry to have annoyed you with ‘spellings’, there are plenty of things people say and write that I think are wrong because I’m old, but my staff tell me language is dynamic and not to be such a fuddy-duddy. It’s so annoying that so much of the reading research is paywalled in journals, so practitioners who aren’t enrolled in universities or working for education departments which subscribe to them find it hard to access. Somewhere in the three Reading In The Rockies videos by David Kilpatrick I am pretty sure he talks about the orthographic mapping research that shows skilled readers only need one to four exposures to a word to orthographically map it into long-term memory. You can find my summaries of these talks, and links to the videos, in my blog posts about them:

          The Macquarie dictionary entry for “pate” (no accent on the e) says:
          “noun 1. the head.
          2. the crown or top of the head.

          I’m not sure what you mean by the five-letter nonsense words set up to test Year 1 kids, but maybe you mean the Phonics Screening Check? I think it’s a useful tool and will help teachers identify kids with weak PA and decoding, the kind of kids that Running Records miss. Have you tried it? The Aussie version now seems to require a password, which I guess means that soon they will start charging for it (grrr) but you can get previous years’ copies from the UK online for free e.g. All the best, Alison

          • Mary Keating says:

            Yes, I have come across the word ‘pate’ meaning crown on the head. And yes, I do mean the 5-letter words to test Grade 1 that you identify.

  4. Mary Keating says:

    I sent a nice friendly reply and your site doesn’t want to accept it! Alison.

  5. Mary Keating says:

    oh, yes it has now.

  6. Miranda O’Donnell says:

    I have a student who did ok on ‘words their way’ but horrible on a nonsense word spelling assessment. What would you suggest for intervention?

    • alison says:

      Hi Miranda, I don’t know the Words Their Way assessment, or anything about your student, or which pseudowords they made mistakes on, so I’m not sure how to answer that, sorry. It would also be unprofessional of me to try to give you advice about a specific student via a blog comment response, you really need to see a local spelling expert who can put a bit of time into examining what is going on for your student. Is there a phonemic awareness problem? Are orthographic errors mainly related to phoneme-grapheme correspondences, and if so which ones, or are errors mainly morphological? What kind of strategy are they using to tackle pseudowords? Hope you can find someone great who can give you excellent professional advice.

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