Let’s talk nonsense!
We are frequently asked why we use nonsense words with students. Parents and teachers worry that nonsense words will confuse their children and will interfere with learning new words. While we wholeheartedly agree that students need to work with real words, we also know that nonsense words play an important role in effectively teaching students how to read and spell.
Many young children have excellent memories and are able to memorize one syllable words without understanding how the words’ sounds connect with their letters. When these students eventually are introduced to multisyllabic words that do not contain memorized words, the child is lost.
If a student has been given a strong foundation in the alphabetic principle (connecting sounds with letters) through real and nonsense words, more advanced words won’t deter them in the future. For example, if we ask a student to sound out the nonsense word “lat,” we are reinforcing the sounds /l/, /a/, and /t/. Students who have learned to decode (read) and encode (spell) using letter sounds will not be deterred if the words they encounter are unfamiliar or as they increase in difficulty. They will not have to resort to memorization of large words because they will possess the tools they need to decode. Later, as the child is exposed to more advanced words, they will see words like “latitude” and “bilateral.” They will learn that roots like “lat” are not necessarily nonsense after all — “lat” is a Latin root that means “side.”
Working with nonsense words will not confuse a child in terms of vocabulary because if a word is not assigned a meaning, the child will not use it. For instance, the student who decoded the word “lat,” in school will not come home and say, “Mom, can we have lat for dinner?” or “I really would like a new pet lat.” Since the word has no meaning, it will not interfere with the child’s growing vocabulary. On the other hand, it will help with their reading and spelling for years to come.