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Do we really need nonsense words in the phonics check?

Discussion in 'Education news' started by TES_Rosaline, Jul 16, 2018.

  1. TES_Rosaline

    TES_Rosaline Administrator Staff Member

    The pressure to learn so-called ‘alien’ words in the phonics check are driving some children to tears:

    ‘The phonics check is making children cry and confusing good readers, a new survey into the controversial test for five and six-year-olds shows.

    The survey carried out by researchers at Newman University, Birmingham, and Leeds Beckett University found that 63 per cent of teachers said they had seen children affected by the test.

    “Children who are competent readers are becoming anxious and tearful over pseudo words,” one teacher commented on the survey form.

    “Children are stressed. Some cry. It also results in an over use of phonics when reading,” said another.’

    What are your views on this issue? What do you think of the controversial test? Is there really a need for children as young as five to learn pseudo words? What’s your experience of teaching children about real and alien words?

  2. bessiesmith

    bessiesmith Occasional commenter

    Children have been getting things wrong in school since education was invented - in fact, you could argue that it is through making mistakes that children learn. I don't ever remember crying or seeing other children cry when they got things wrong at school. This suggests it is the modern day pressure that teachers are under to 'make the children get it right' which is causing the stress.

    Whether or not it makes sense to make children read nonsense words is an argument I will leave to the primary experts.
  3. Bobbbs

    Bobbbs Occasional commenter

    Phonics is just creates readers without any fluency. There are some interesting papers showing that phonics improve test scores, but improve reading fluency by little to none. The idea of reading made up words to test your phonic reading ability is pure nonsense meant to justify expensive text books, conferences, and initiatives.
    Catgirl1964, nomad and agathamorse like this.
  4. gruoch

    gruoch Occasional commenter

    Some of those tests have had actual words which the setters of the test thought were made up. Frape and pronk come immediately to mind. I don't know whether it's happened recently, though.
    You don't have to understand a word to be able to read it, so I am at a loss to when it comes to including 'made up' words, anyway. (I don't teach primary, so perhaps someone could enlighten me.)
    agathamorse likes this.
  5. neddyfonk

    neddyfonk Established commenter

    Phonics sort of guarantees children can have a go at reading any word but does little to encourage them to remember how it is spelled when they need to regurgitate it back onto paper. The only way to ensure a word is spelled correctly is to look / copy and get hand/brain to synchronise.
    yella1983 likes this.
  6. caterpillartobutterfly

    caterpillartobutterfly Star commenter

    Then that teacher needs to change how they approach the test with their class. In the few years I had year 1, they loved the 'specialness' of going out 1:1 with me to read fun words left by aliens. No stress or tears from any of them...nor were they aware it was any kind of 'test' which they could pass or fail.
  7. JosieWhitehead

    JosieWhitehead Star commenter

    Rosaline - I know it was a long time ago when I learnt to read and write, but we learnt quite well without pseudo words. In fact, when I remember, I think we hardly had ANY books and no paper. The war had just finished and we used slates for a short time. How I can read and write is beyond belief isn't it? :)
    yella1983 and nomad like this.
  8. nomad

    nomad Star commenter

    Grape is either an obsolete word meaning a crowd or rabble, or a rabble, or a new 'urban' word being a combination of the words 'Facebook' and 'Rape' and describes the act of 'raping' someones Facebook profile when they leave it logged in.

    A pronk is an Afrikaans word describing the action of a springbok (or other antelope) when it leaps in the air with an arched back and stiff legs.

    Neither word is something I would include in a Key Stage 1 phonics test.
    JosieWhitehead likes this.
  9. nomad

    nomad Star commenter


    (Bloody autocorrect!)
  10. chelsea2

    chelsea2 Star commenter

    I can see why good readers, who read for understanding not merely decoding, will be confused by non-existent words and will try to turn them into real words which they know - thus losing marks. So teachers do prepare pupils by including such nonsense words in their phonics sessions.

    Whether there's any value to this is another question.
    Kartoshka likes this.
  11. Bobbbs

    Bobbbs Occasional commenter

    The mental gymnastics involved in phonics always astounds me. Morphological and phonological teaching is far more appropriate than the current fixation on phonics.

    Phonics is in vogue right now, and few people actually read the articles exploring the efficacy of them. It's a disgrace that such an important part of learning is ignored by so many teachers, who simply take the most common approach as Gospel.
  12. vannie

    vannie Star commenter

    It’s not really fair to blame teachers for this. Not teaching phonics in the infants is a pretty quick route to disciplinary. Whilst there is a Year 1 phonics check this will always be the case.
    BetterNow and PGCE_tutor like this.
  13. colpee

    colpee Star commenter

    Whoever “drills” the children and makes them fearful and tearful are the culprits - it is too easy to blame an anonymous ‘system’.
  14. Bobbbs

    Bobbbs Occasional commenter

    And Unions should be creating industrial action plans to combat this. In Ireland, almost every teaching union went on strike in protest of idiotic exam reforms. I don't get why it never happens here.
  15. gainly

    gainly Established commenter

    I had a look at the 2016 phonics test. One of the made up words was CHARB. According to the mark scheme the "ch" should be pronounced as in chair. But why not as in character or as in charades both of which are equally valid?

    In fact Charb was a nickname for one of the cartoonists killed in the Charlie Hebdo massacre and so the correct pronunciation would be a "sh" as in charades. Who writes these nonsense tests?
    TEA2111 likes this.
  16. nervousned

    nervousned Senior commenter

    Perhaps in Ireland more than half the teachers could be bothered to vote for strike action (or even against) never mind actually go on it.
  17. Ravena

    Ravena New commenter

    As a teacher (not primary) I do not see much value in teaching children to read made-up words given that so many English words can't be read phonetically.

    As a parent, I can honestly say it did my daughter no harm to take the Year 1 phonics test. She enjoyed reading the Alien Words and inventing her own. She was pleased to score 40/40 and even more pleased when her lovely teacher gave the whole class chocolate after their tests.

    As the poster above said, the issue here is the school/teacher reducing the children to tears.
  18. fluffy81212

    fluffy81212 New commenter

    I think there are several different issues here.

    1. Children should be encouraged and taught in a way that they are not fearful or upset by making mistakes. Is their upset over this test connected to the way they are being taught, the expectations placed on them by teachers/schools/LEA/parents etc and how can this be addressed. Also is the pressure being felt by teachers a part of the problem especially if their own anxiety is enough to reflect in their behaviour and so in the attitudes and thoughts of students and potentially support staff.

    2. Are phonics the best way to learn English, I have no idea, surely that is a question of differentiation. For some they are necessary, for most they are useful, I am not personally aware of any instances that learning through phonics is damaging although the exceptions can be frustrating. However frustration is a part of learning and also an opportunity to teach children some of the emotional self regulation skills needed to manage these feelings.

    3. Are nonsense words useful? Well when my cousins moved to France, the school they attended repeated this rhyme every day.
    Am, stram, gram,
    Pic et pic et colégram,
    Bour et bour et ratatam,
    Am, stram, gram.

    This is a nonsense rhyme used like Eeny, meeny, mieny, mo. The reason it was given such importance was it's usefulness in encouraging correct French pronunciation. Nonsense words exist throughout most languages, they are part of poetry, and linguistic play and should be a source of joy. Surely they have their place in general and children's feelings about the use of these are framed by their teachers.

    4. Should nonsense words be used in phonics testing? At the end of the day if you want to know if a child understands phonics then nonsense words are a perfect test as they will catch out the natural whole word readers. Is it a true test of reading ability? Well I think that is questionable. Which leaves us with the question .... is there a value in knowledge and understanding of phonics?
  19. RachelIdle

    RachelIdle New commenter

  20. install

    install Star commenter

    I prefer real words .

    And nonsense, made up words would not always need to follow the same rules of real words anyway... The fact that they are 'nonsense words' means they some are free of the limits of normal rules..Maybe even make us laugh too by their seemingly 'nonsense' pronounciation
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2018

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