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Rhyming and nonsense words

By Susan Hayes

HCS Federal Programs Coordinator

Perhaps you are among the few who cannot really understand the appeal of a Dr. Seuss book, and perhaps you have wondered why you should be at all concerned when your child’s teacher tells you your little one is struggling with “nonsense words.”

Zug rhymes with vug? What’s a zug? What’s a vug? Nonsense words? What are we teaching?

Do not be worried. Do not be tense.

For I predict, from this moment hence,

You’ll be convinced… not on the fence…

That nonsense words make perfect sense.

Reading begins with hearing. It’s how children learn to speak. A child first detects a sound, and then he mimics the sound. Sometimes you can almost see babies’ brains working as they are taking in words and music and stories. They are exhibiting phonological awareness skills – awareness of the sound separation between words, the ability to separate syllables within words, the ability to segment first sounds from the remainder of a word, the ability to rhyme, the ability to segment or blend phonemes. All are connected.

In the end, it is the segmenting and blending of phonemes that has real functional value in reading. Again, it all begins with hearing sounds.

Rhyming, then, is really about hearing, sorting and mimicking sounds – presumably to form real words.

So why do teachers assess a young reader’s ability to “sound out” a word that isn’t a real word?

Much of what young readers read comes with illustrations, and noticing those illustrations and then thinking about the words on the page as one thing is part of making meaning from text.

Many young readers, especially those who read often, grow accustomed to reading certain words and begin to know them on sight.

A student who loves animals might quickly learn to recognize “dog” or “pup.” This kind of word recognition that simply grows from frequent exposure to text is also a part of making meaning from text.

What if a teacher really wants to be certain a student can call a sound and then blend it into a word with no help from pictures and with no chance of simply recognizing the word? After all, that would be the truest measure of sound recognition and the blending of phonemes.

Well, that’s what the reading of nonsense words assesses. If a child can read vug, the child will certainly be able to read bug, rug and dug – real words.

And so, you see, it’s not absurd,

To be asked to read a nonsense word.