Back to Nonsense.

My friend’s little boy was born in July. Soon he will do his phonics check along with the children who are almost a year older than him. He likes books a lot but he has less time to read at the moment because he’s spending a lot of time doing his Phonics Check homework. For example, last night he had a sheet of 40 words. Forgive me, not words. I’m not quite sure what to call them because most of them aren’t real words. Anyway, having sounded them out, he had to then underline all those he thought were not real words. He was mostly successful. His Mum, not familiar with the processes of primary education, asks me “what is the point of this?” I open a bottle of wine…

There are thousands of words in the English language that would be unfamiliar to most six year olds. Imagine how much more fruitful it would be to tell them that all the words on the list are real. To ask them to identify instead which were familiar and unfamiliar? To then go on to choose five or more, find out their definitions and try to use them in conversation? One of the biggest barriers for children educationally is vocabulary. An unfamiliar word on an exam question can throw a student into panic. And it was well documented this year how familiarity with words like ancestor became synonymous with success on the reading test.

While I don’t support the notion of a core knowledge curriculum as such, I do very much believe that children should have access in school to a rich range of knowledge and vocabulary in order to build up their cultural capital. The nonsense words on the phonics check distract teachers, parents and pupils away from this much greater and more important goal. It’s time we moved away from single minded, silver bullet thinking, and consider instead how a pedagogical process can achieve multiple aims which ultimately benefit the child and not, as Nick Gibb admitted recently, simply hold a school to account.


16 thoughts on “Back to Nonsense.

  1. Well said, this kind of phonics has a lot of support but I feel it can be detrimental to many student’s progress and to how they view their teachers. My oldest son is dyslexic and found the concept of words that are not words baffling to say the least, he also struggled with different interpretations of correct pronunciation. My daughter coped with them but regularly expressed her disapproval, I remember her complaining that the teacher always said pacific when she meant specific and thingink for thinking so phonics had obviously done her no good. My middle son went quiet and a little tetchy for a few weeks before daring to ask us whether he was missing something, then when he understood what was happening he thought his teacher was stupid to teach them nonsense with no obvious purpose. My youngest son thought the teachers were taking the pee pee and he could not take it seriously and found it confusing and quite amusing when the same non-words were pronounced differently by the TA and the teacher who had differing regional accents. He is rather pedantic and dismissive of things that make no sense to him so would more likely tell a teacher that braft has been mistyped by whoever set the test and it should really be brat – no way can I be wrong about that Miss. My children all saw the fun in word-like words such as the vorpal sword and borogroves, word games are a thing they understand.

    I remember giggling at a new child in our Geordie school saying battar when we said butta and bettaar when we said beda or betta but we did understand each other and we were able to write butter and better – pronunciation varies hugely with regions and is part of regional identity but in my experience it rarely impacts on written work. Ye’s all nah ah diven’t write like a geordie – ah neva hev but’. Fortunately the phonics check guidelines do acknowledge the influence of regional accent, thiv fettled that champion canny lass.

    I agree with your thoughts on the understanding of meaning being important, they need to be able to decode a question correctly before they have any chance of answering correctly. Language evolves seemingly monthly as new words are made. This often involves joining meaningful parts, e.g. glamping, phishing and crowdfund. Spending time on learning to deconstruct by understanding the meaning of parts of words (geo, ing, bi, di, tri, de, etc.) seems to me to be more valuable than learning to pronounce meaningless parts. For many children dinosaurs are a great way in as far as that goes, my almost three year old grandson knows a Tyrannosaurus Rex is a terrible king and a Triceratops has three horns, he can make the link between that word and his 3 wheeled tricycle.

    In my experience primary age children understand the value of working out the nature / purpose of pretend words as in: The Brumbly Tublup was dinating gurdly by the condly pirrostin. That kind of thing has a clear purpose and works no matter what your accent is. Purpose and value have to be clear to children if they are to accept what they are expected to learn.

  2. I wonder how much of this is driven (as so much seems to be now) by the assessment agenda? So if we are going to assess (in the simplistic way that assessment is going) then we need to have “right” (or could that be write, phonetically speaking!) or “wrong” so with that in mind this then drives the learning. This to me seems to drive so much of what we want including the need for a rather monolithic approach to pronunciation – though there is a nod towards accent in the screen check guidelines as Ian point out – there is still a push with SSP towards a particular pronunciation. If we assess with the “right” / “wrong” idea in mind then we lose subtlety, creativity and nuance.

  3. I can assure you that phonics experts and good practitioners don’t support this nonsense of sending home lists of nonsense words either. If phonics has been well taught it is totally unnecessary; children ought to be able to work out what *any* word ‘says’, real or ‘nonsense’ using the phonic knowledge and skills which they have been taught.
    The practice you describe is more a result of poor training of teachers than of any intrinsic defect with SSP itself.

    1. No Maggie – it amazes me how quickly the people who promote phonics have been to point the finger of blame at teachers and the trainers of teachers. As if the job isn’t hard enough. The problem here is not in phonics, as I’ve said many, many times, SSP is a useful method of getting children to read. It is in the high stakes nature of the test that puts schools and teachers into a survival mentality. And it is in the narrow minded way that all policy is introduced into schools. If I was a phonics expert and a government minister said to me “design a test to check that children can decode” then putting non words in would make perfect sense. But that minister should be taking a broader view. (S)he should be thinking “in a time limited environment, if we want a rich a broad curriculum for our children, that builds up knowledge, vocabulary AND the ability to read, what would be the best use of that time?” When you ask that question, non words become inefficient. There are literally thousands of real words that would be unfamiliar to children, serving the purpose of the current non words, but which would then offer the opportunity for children to build dictionary and vocabulary skills, enriching their language. There is absolutely no reason on earth why phonics checks couldn’t include them. That is my point. I wish you would engage with that and not leap to the blame game. It’s a really unpleasant way to treat the teaching profession.

      1. Absolutely agree – as I said above (and as Janet says below) the question here is the confusion that many (and I think most ministers have) between the nature of assessment – that is to check on the progress of the child and to determine the best way to proceed and monitoring and tracking which is necessary but should not impinge in the way that it has on curriculum design and delivery. It is a question of measuring what we value not valuing what we measure – about which (excuse the plug) I will be talking and discussing with colleagues at Northern Rocks on Saturday.

  4. The same is true of grammar – there’s often no binary right/wrong answer for questions of grammar as Nick Gibb found to his cost on Radio 4’s ‘Today’.

    Linguist David Crystal wrote it’s impossible to understand syntax without considering the broader perspective: general knowledge, vocabulary, punctuation and layout, word order and prosody. He advises teaching grammar via poetry, drama, word play etc which can focus on a particular linguistic issue (such as the ‘Triceratops’ example cited by Ian above). But Gibb thinks clear, correct writing can only be achieved by getting children to identify esoteric grammatical constructions and devices. At least, that’s what he says. In reality these tests are merely to judge schools.

  5. Hi Debra,

    Maggie is right in her comments. This is about professional knowledge and understanding about the importance of pseudo-words when it comes to assessing technical alphabetic code knowledge and the blending skill. If teachers understood this, and if their phonics ‘programme’ or ‘provision’ was well-designed and implemented, there would be no panic, and no need, for games and activities based on nonsense words.

    Do you know much about the SSP programmes available in England? Have you seen, for example, the two programmes that I’m associated with, what they include and their design and rationale? Did you know that vocabulary enrichment and immediate ‘apply and extend’ to cumulative sentences and texts to develop language comprehension is a fundamental part of their design? Did you know that there are no nonsense words in these two programmes?

    You see, your criticism of the check and of phonics gets linked to systematic synthetic phonics proponents and programmes – and that is not entirely accurate if you were fully informed about the content and nature of the programmes themselves and what people like Maggie and I really do advocate.

    1. I am painfully aware of the Phonics programmes in the UK, having taught some of them, been trained in several, and having had to endure my children endlessly practising yet more. It’s quite clear that a great deal of money has been made in this Phonic Boom and I’m not surprised that those of you profiting from it support each others efforts to keep the market going. But this is not the point. The test is the point. And there ARE non words in there. And in our high stakes testing culture, the test drives practice. You are an avid supporter of the check and in supporting it, must also support the use of non words.

  6. I think we need to understand here Ms Hepplewhite’s, and her supporters’, one of whom is Nick Gibb, rational for what she calls pseudo words. I call them GPC clumps – grapho phonic correspondence clumps – because they are not words at all. Words mean or represent something. And, yes, the made up words in The Jabberwocky do have meaning.
    DH and co want the screener to test whether children can recognise and blend GPCs with nothing at all to go on except the GPCs themselves. They must not have any help from context – context includes their knowledge and understanding of the language they speak and use in the rest of their lives in and out of school – but must access only the GPCs they have been taught. DH has stated publicly that she would really like the screener to consist of 40 ‘pseudo words’. The test as it is, with 20 real and 20 pseudo words, 4 words to a page, pages of pseuds and pages of real, getting more and more difficult, requires magnificent ingenuity on the part of the children. On the pseuds pages they must switch off their innate desire to make meaning and sense of the world and trot out the GPCs mindlessly. On the real words pages they must switch their meaning brains back on, recognise real words and pronounce them correctly. (For example ‘diving’ was in last year’s check and had to be pronounced as the word for what Tom Daley gets gold medals for. If the word had been the pseudo ‘kiving’, they could have made it rhyme with living, leaving or diving, and got the point.) The need for children to prove they can do this bizarre task is what prompts schools to get them practising it. Otherwise they would have to suss it out by what? osmosis? ‘Now I look for meaning, now I switch of my search for meaning.’ The overall effect of the screener is that children have to learn to read twice!
    Being able to say GPCs in the clumps, in order, quickly enough, to run them together and make them sound like ‘words’ is what DH, her supporters and Nick Gibb call ‘decoding’. Being proficient at this decoding leads to good reading, according to DH, her supporters and Nick Gibb. (If you look at the KS1 National Curriculum, you will not see how this is meant to happen, however.) The screener is meant to be a diagnostic tool, to help teachers find out which children are not so proficient as I have described and so offer them ‘intervention’.
    Last year’s pass was 80%. Teachers are not told what interventions might be helpful to a child who scored 78%, for example, or another who scored 60%, although the system from top to bottom insinuates that they all need more SSP and their teachers need training. DH and her supporters, including Nick Gibb, would like this to be more than an insinuation. They would like all schools to be bought in to SSP schemes and methods. To be continually insinuating and stating openly that teachers are not able to know that a child who would go on to score 60% in the screener needs ‘intervention’ is grossly insulting to teachers – who know very well who needs ‘intervention’ from week 1 in September. Nick Gibb is a fool to believe her.

    1. The purpose of the so-called screening check isn’t screening at all. As you say, teachers will already know which children are struggling at reading without recourse to a mandatory test in which children whose ages can differ by as much as a year are subjected to the same process. The real purpose of the test is to judge schools. Just a few days ago, Chief HMI, who should know better than to judge schools on results alone, panned Nottingham for being at the bottom of the national league table for phonics screening (69% v national proportion of 77%). But 82% of Nottingham’s primary schools are Good or better – that’s just one percentage point lower than the national average of 83%.

      A secondary purpose is to give Nick Gibb something to trumpet about. Thousands of children are on course to become fluent readers because of a relentless focus on phonics, he says (again, failing to differentiate between systematic, synthetic or systematic synthetic). But DfE-commissioned research, as I said above, found teachers were combining phonics with other methods.

  7. The irony is that DfE-commissioned research after the 2014 phonics test found the majority of teachers were supplementing the teaching of phonics (which was widespread in any case) with other methods. Furthermore, Nick Gibb seems unable to differentiate between systematic and synthetic. In one breath he’s advocating systematic synthetic phonics; in another, its just systematic phonics. The research he cites advocates the systematic teaching of phonics (any method) but he, together with synthetic phonics advocates many of whom profit from the sale of synthetic phonics materials, ignore this. They claim it advocates systematic synthetic phonics only.

  8. I suggest it’s worth studying how the brain (visual, aural and memory systems) in most cases responds to words – written or spoken – according to the latest understanding, including allowances for individual differences in brain connectivity (such as those due to developmental differences) . At the same time we need to be taking account of the huge political and commercial investments in certain imposed agendas (which are often hidden or denied and not necessarily in the best interests of the child or authentic education).

    We might have been dutifully ticking government boxes in recent decades – and being rewarded professionally for doing so – but have we been fulfilling our duty of care towards the children?

  9. This is just one of a mass of diversions from encouraging children into a love of learning. My young grandson (August born) wrote a great start to a novel in his first term at secondary school. He was pulled out of class the following day to see the special teacher for not writing quickly enough. Parents and grandparents are frequently called into action to rescue a love of learning in their children from the negativity they meet from some teachers. Other examples are beginning to show up in

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