I like phonics. I think it’s an important aspect of learning to read. Hopefully I’ve got that out of the way so that we can avoid another “phonics denialist” accusation. I was teaching phonics before we were told we had to because it worked. So let’s move on.
What I really, really object to, is spending time in the classroom teaching children nonsense words in preparation for the phonics screening test. I know the arguments in favour. They are very well rehearsed. The nonsense words test decoding over meaning so that children can’t be guessing words. They don’t harm children – they can be fun and lots of authors (Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Roald Dahl, Shakespeare) made up words. Those arguments would be fine if the curriculum was empty of other content and we had all the time in the world. We don’t.
One of the biggest barriers to achievement in school is vocabulary. Reception class teachers report that some children are arriving at school with hardly any language at all – in one case, a child was reported as having the speech development of an 8 month old baby. That’s an extreme case, but it is well documented that children arriving at school can have differences in their vocabulary of several thousand words. David Didau recounts his frustration at his Year 11 pupils failing to answer a question on a GCSE paper that he knew they were well prepared for because the question contained the word ‘futile’ and they didn’t know what it meant. Many other teachers can recall similar situations.
Teaching children vocabulary is one of the most important elements of learning not only to read, but to be able to succeed in all areas of school life. So why on earth would we spend time with young children, deliberately teaching them to read nonsense?
Our language is incredibly rich. Look at the following list of words that really exist and think how much more enriched a child’s experience would be if they decoded these then learned what they meant. Children love new words – they love to test drive them, to sound them out, to share them, to write them into their stories. Why not give them the power of real words?
abask – in genial warmth
abear – to behave or to bear
adit – an opening into a mine
alfet – a boiling cauldron of water used at a trial by ordeal
armet – a rounded, iron helmet
I could go on, there are literally hundreds of these words on the web site The Phrontistery – an incredible source of vocabulary that I’ve dipped into for all kinds of reasons before. How much more exciting for children to learn real, new words that they can implement into their writing, than to encounter something that no-one will ever understand and which will have no use ever, except to help them to pass a test.
As for the richness of the made-up words in Jabberwocky and the like, what makes those poems and stories so exciting for children is the way they fire the imagination to fill the gaps. They use cues in the text and existing knowledge to create meaning. These texts are aimed at readers who can already decode, who are ready to play the game of meaning making. I have taught Jabberwocky more times that I can remember. We start by creating the meanings of those nonsense words “brillig”, “slithy”, “borogoves”, “vorpal”….and we discuss, at length, how the children are using their existing knowledge of spelling patterns to encode the words we just heard (I read it out first). How they use their grammatical knowledge to figure out whether the word is a noun, an adjective, an adverb or verb and how this existing knowledge allows them to create definitions that set the scene for our story.
We spend weeks on Jabberwocky, filling in the gaps in the poem with the reasons why the boy leaves his village in search of the monster. We map the environment, we write adventure stories about his encounters with Jub Jub birds and Bandersnatches. We explore Campbell’s theory of the Hero’s Journey narrative. We create an epic. Then we welcome him home. We throw a party. We create a hero’s ritual. It all takes a while. Then in the middle of the party, they receive a visitor. A message from another tribe declaring war and demanding that our hero is handed over to face the death penalty. For in their society, the Jabberwock is a sacred creature and slaying it, a heinous crime. And the children have to decide what to do. We enter the worlds of war and diplomacy.
Yes, the children encounter nonsense words. But they encounter them in a meaningful way having already acquired the spelling and grammar skills to be able to make something of them. They don’t encounter the words in isolation – the poem is not read in isolation. It is steeped in the curriculum, from mapping to narrative structure, they learn other things along the way. This is how we can extend and expand curriculum to make it richer and deeper.
The nonsense words are not nonsense when meaning is made of them. When they fire the imagination and link to real words. When they enrich and enhance our lives. Those crafted contributions of poets cannot possibly be compared with the banality of sitting children on the carpet and asking them to decode nonsense words with no further purpose than to spit out the sounds. It doesn’t matter if you have a puppet on your knee to make it more fun.
Children will be every bit as well prepared for the phonics check if they are taught unusual words that they have never encountered before. They will be better writers afterwards too. And most importantly, they will be primed to build vocabulary for the rest of their lives – a skill that every teacher of every subject should welcome.