Monday, September 19, 2016

Stop the Nonsense (Words)

Let's get the main idea of this blog post out of the way early. Nonsense words should not be used for decoding instruction. Period. No how. Not ever.

A while back, I wrote a post that argued that the commonly used early literacy assessment called DIBELs, led to poor literacy instruction because it focused on the bits and pieces of literacy learning rather than looking at the big picture. Paraphrasing literacy luminary, P. David Pearson, I wrote, "the widespread employment of DIBELS has had dire consequences on the actual teaching of reading."

Like many early literacy assessments, DIBELs uses nonsense words to assess student ability to decode. This is a well-validated practice and can provide useful information for diagnostic purposes. But diagnosis is not treatment and nonsense words should never be used for instruction. When a doctor suspects a broken bone, that doctor will often order an X-Ray. If the X-Ray shows a broken bone, the doctor treats the bone with a cast, a wrap or surgery, not with another X-Ray. So it is with nonsense words - they point to a problem, but are not to be used to treat the problem.

Why not?

Because learning to read is an act of communication and communication only happens with real words. In order to develop skilled decoding abilities, children need to be exposed to lots of real words. Real words have a certain set of finite spelling patterns. Yes, in English this is more complex than in most languages and this is a source of much difficulty, but still the patterns are there. The human brain is a pattern identifying machine. And young minds are particularly adept at intuiting patterns. The detecting of patterns in writing is mediated by the child's oral language. A young developing reader learns that the word "man" begins with the sound "mmm" and then learns that that sound can be represented by the letter "m." This can only happen through exposure to real words that are in the child's oral vocabulary.

As we expose children to real words, they get more information to store in the pattern detecting parts of their brain. We can expose the children to words in isolation, in real reading contexts, in word families, or as onsets and rimes (sp+ot), but no matter how we are presenting words to children, we must be presenting real words, so that children can discern the patterns. Of, course we can also teach those patterns explicitly through word families and spelling instruction.

Literacy researcher, Marilyn Jager Adams says that, no matter how we are exposing children to real words,  we can optimize student understanding by making sure that the children see the word, say the word, understand the word and know its meaning. All of these contribute to a child learning a word and building the ability to decode the word and other words with similar patterns.

Of course, not all English words follow regular patterns, so sight word instruction is also key, especially for function words necessary for early reading like the, of, was, do. These words should be the focus of early instruction and learned by sight.

Nonsense words do not give children the opportunity to intuit patterns. They violate patterns and make learning to decode more difficult. This characteristic makes them useful for diagnostic tests, but disqualifies them for instruction.

Literacy researcher, Tim Shanahan, believes that the spread of the use of nonsense words can be attributed to administrators mistakenly using diagnostic tests to evaluate teacher performance. If teachers are going to be assessed on these tests, then teachers can hardly be faulted for teaching kids how to read nonsense words. Simply put, using diagnostic tests in any way to evaluate teachers is, well, nonsense. On using nonsense words in instruction, Shanahan says simply, "Don't do it."

As Adams puts it, "The brain does not grow block by block from bottom up. It grows through its own efforts to communicate and find coherence within itself." Nonsense words interfere with our natural desire to communicate and lack any coherence with a child's spoken language.

Stop the nonsense!