Making Sense of ‘Nonsense Words’ in the Phonics Screening Check
The report on the effect of the Phonics Screening Check published last week revealed an example of ‘the law of unintended consequences’. The Phonics Check was supposed to ensure that children received good quality phonic instruction. It has undoubtedly increased the amount of phonics teaching in schools, although how much of that is’ good quality’ is open to debate. According to the latest report the main consequence of the Phonics Check has been an increased teaching of ‘nonsense words’.
The inclusion of ‘nonsense words’ in the phonics check was supposed to be a way of ensuring that blending had been taught properly and that children were not relying on a sight vocabulary. It was supposed to be a very small part of the whole thing; instead like Topsy it just grew and grew. ‘Nonsense words’ have somehow assumed a far greater importance than was ever envisaged and taken up a disproportionate amount of teaching time.
Any word you do not have in your vocabulary is in essence a ‘nonsense word’. Any word you read and do not know the meaning of is a ‘nonsense word’. We all need a strategy for dealing with these words. Before the publication of the Harry Potter series the word ‘quidditch’ was a nonsense word, as were many others such as Hufflepuff, Ravensclaw, butterbeer and muggle. They have been given a meaning and legitimacy by their inclusion within the story.
Many place names do not have any obvious meaning today but we need to be able to read them. Names such as Affpuddle, Fazakerley and Goosnargh could well be nonsense words, if not for the fact they are the names of places in the UK.
The simple fact is we do not only read words that we already know. Therefore, we need to be able to decode and blend words which do not make any sense to us. Saying three or four sounds and blending them together should not be a big issue for children or for teachers. And the fact that it has become so is in itself a nonsense!
Sara Wernham is a co-author of Jolly Phonics Grammar series. Phonics screening check and evaluation report by DfE can be accessed here.