Educational leadership & learning

Gair! Quesp! Starp!

I wonder how many Y1 pupils up and down the land are now in the final weeks of practice for the phonics screening test? Probably all of them.

I wonder how many are spending hours diligently sounding out/blending alien words (that are not real)? Probably all of them.

I wonder how many teachers and parents often wish that they just had a little more time with their children to support their learning with certain aspects? Probably all of them.

Both at my school and at home (I have a daughter in Y1) my staff, my wife and I are spending time supporting children sounding out words that don’t exist and have absolutely no meaning. Are we extending their vocabulary? Are we confusing them? Are we helping them jump through a hoop?

Don’t get me wrong, I think phonics are an important strategy in learning to be a reader and for most children it is an invaluable tool. But it is not the only strategy, and the screening test does not take this into account

How many times in Y2, or in future might I say to my pupils or daughters when they read a sentence with one word spoken incorrectly, “Hmm does that word sound right? Do you think you’ve sounded it out correctly? Does it make sense within that sentence?” And quite frankly if they turned round and said “Well you were the one who insisted I sounded out lots of words that aren’t real, why does it have to sound right or make sense?”

Why couldn’t the phonics screening test not only have real words?

For some of my pupils, who have advanced onto Phase 5 in their phonics learning and are becoming fluent and comprehending readers, they often over think and try to rationalise the alien words in practice examples. They are actually too advanced as readers to do really well on the test because they are already using a wide range of strategies in their reading.

Until then we will continue to spend time ensuring that children can make sense of words that have no sense which does seem like nonsense.

Then we can continue with the wider job of developing their passion and enthusiasm for reading and effectively utilising a range of strategies as readers to make sense of what they read.

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Comments on: "Alien words or an alien concept?" (1)

  1. Hi Tim

    I am enthusiastic about the Phonics Check, because I am convinced it is doing good and improving the teaching of reading. However, I agree that teaching children to read nonsense words is not a good use of time. They should be taught to read real words.

    I do think asking children to read nonsense words is good for assessment. If children can read nonsense words, they are not daunted by real words that are unfamiliar to them. As they read more advanced texts, they will often be faced with unfamiliar words. If they can make a good attempt at pronouncing these words, without being daunted, they are able to concentrate on meaning. They can usually get close to the meaning from the context and so their vocabulary increases.

    There is no need to teach nonsense words in order to be able to read them. I suggest that every day teachers plan to teach children a word that is likely to be unfamiliar to them, using letter-sound correspondences they have taught. When a real word is unfamiliar to children, it looks like a nonsense word to them. Then, after they have read the word, the teacher can spend a minute explaining what it means.

    Of course, it is a good idea to make sure children understand the idea of nonsense words, before they take part in the Phonics Check. I know of one school where they did not teach any nonsense words until the week before the Check. Then the headteacher walked into the Year 1 classroom dressed up as an alien. He told the children he had come from another planet and these were the animals on his planet. He drew pictures of weird animals and wrote nonsense words beside them for the children to read. That school got good results.

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