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Nonsense Words. Are They Nonsense?

nonsense word activity ideas

Today I’m talking nonsense. Nonsense words, specifically with the CVC, or consonant-vowel-consonant, short vowel pattern. I’m sure you’re wondering, “Okay, so if they’re not real words, then why should students even learn them?” Believe it or not, nonsense word fluency does in fact serve an important purpose in early elementary classrooms. So, let’s jump right into it!

What Are Nonsense Words?

Nonsense words actually have no meaning. They may even actually BE parts of real words. Teaching make-believe words with CVC patterns can help students decode new and larger words as their reading skills grow and develop over time. By breaking words into smaller parts, students are also practicing phonological awareness. Practicing nonsense words greatly strengthens this important skill. 

Nonsense words are foundational building blocks for more advanced words that students will eventually read and decode. I believe this skill is essential, so I created a fun free resource for students to practice. Find out how to get exclusive access

What is Nonsense Word Fluency?

In early grades, such as kindergarten and first grade, nonsense word fluency is so important! Measures of this skill indicate a student’s ability to decode phonemes and then blend them together, thus “sounding out” the word. A student’s ability to decode also acts as a good indicator of any reading difficulties a student may currently have or may come to face in the future. If this critical skill isn’t fully developed, they will likely be a weak reader. The sooner a struggling student is identified, the sooner he or she can receive targeted intervention to overcome this challenge!

To Practice or Not to Practice?

Should students spend time practicing nonsense words? I say YES! There are many great benefits to students gaining exposure to new words, make-believe or not. The development of this skill can be accomplished during RTI, MTSS, small group, or even whole group instruction. Students can build reading fluency with these small bits of text which in turn allows them to become strong, capable readers. There are so many building blocks to phonics instruction, but they are all equally important. Leaving a gap only creates a weak reading foundation. During practice with your students, you can identify your students’ decoding ability and address any learning gaps.

Progress Monitoring for Fluency

While this may seem like an easy concept, some students may really struggle with the foundational literacy skill! That is why progress monitoring is so important when instructing with CVC nonsense words. I’ve created nonsense fluency practice for the ENTIRE YEAR. The practice sheets align perfectly with both many commercially available nonsense word fluency progress monitoring programs. 

How We Practiced Nonsense Words in 1st Grade

Use the pages however they best suit your class! In my first grade classroom, I used these sheets during RTI interventions and progress monitoring. I also used them for student work samples and even homework with parents. Each page offers an opportunity for your students to read fifty-five nonsense words and to call 165 correct letter sounds. Each month, students will become stronger readers as they practice their list of words. Make a challenge or game for students to become motivated. This is a great way, not only for students to work on any areas of difficulty, but for you to identify your students’ overall progress. Simply click and print these nonsense word practice pages, and you’re ready to go!

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2 Responses

  1. Researchers and educators use nonsense words – also called nonwords or psuedowords – as a tool to assess phonetic decoding ability. Many schools also have implemented tools to measure early reading ability such as the DIBELS assessment, which include tests of the ability to decode nonsense words. It makes sense to include nonsense words for assessment purposes. At least in theory, that can help sort out whether a child’s reading difficulties stem from difficulty with phonetic decoding or from some other cause. Because this is a skill that children are now tested in, it has now also become a skill that is increasingly being directly taught. Part of this is a teach-to-the-test mentality — if “Nonsense Word Fluency” is part of the assessment regime, then the most direct way for a teacher to assure that her students can pass the test is to invest time in teaching the underlying skill. Unfortunately, this teaching practice undermines and invalidates the use of the assessment. The whole point of testing a child’s ability to decode nonsense words is to assess their ability to rapidly decode unfamiliar letter sequences. But if children have been previously exposed to the same letter patterns via worksheets or practice sessions,then there is no way to sort out whether the child’s performance on the test is due to phonetic ability or memorization.

    1. Hi Cathy. Thanks for your reply! I may not have stated my intent when practicing nonsense words with my kiddos very well. It is merely extra practice decoding three phonemes. There is no intent to have them memorize the nonsense words. I agree that students should not be taught to memorize these words. CVC Nonsense words aren’t something that you would orthographically map and then practice as a sight word, as we do with many high-frequency words. I really do appreciate your insight and input. Thanks!

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