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Children in Year 1 of UK primary schools are currently required by the government to take a phonics test in the summer term of that academic year.

The test, it is said, helps to measure whether a child is following, and applying the rules of whichever synthetic phonics scheme they are being taught to read and spell with. It helps the teacher see where the child needs support and guidance with further reading in the top end of Key Stage One.

The child is given a list of words to phonetically decipher and read out.  Some of the words are real words. Some of the words are nonsense words.

The inclusion of the nonsense words, it is said, are a control, to make sure that even the most gifted of readers, who might be learning to read words by other, non phonetic systems, can understand and apply the basics of phonic based learning accurately.  It is said that this ability to phonetically split and then reassemble a word will help children further on in their reading when they come to exceedingly complex words which they may have no other frame of reference for, and this is why such emphasis is placed on supporting and strengthening the synthetic phonic system even after the basics of reading have been taught successfully.

Some teachers argue that the inclusion of nonsense words does not help a child to learn to read at all, and in fact, with children who are more able, and who have perhaps moved on to learning to read more fluently, and hence, more speedily, they will prove problematic for the wrong reasons.

When a child has moved on from the basic building blocks of deciphering words partially and then sticking them together, they tend to scan words and sort in their brains for words which the word they are looking at is like.  This is why, even when a child is a strong reader, it is still important for adults to read with them, and listen to them read, so that they can pick up on any errors which occur when a child misreads a word which is too ‘like’ something else they know.  Picking this up, showing the child the difference and talking about, or getting them to explain the sentence with the word in context can correct this easily.

The difficulty with many of the nonsense words in the phonics test, argue some teachers, is that the nonsense words are so like real words that it is very easy for a more fluent reader to slide their eye over a word and misread it.  This does not mean that they cannot read. In fact, it means that they are reading in a more adult way than their peers. They are sorting for words that make sense to them, that make sense of what they are reading, rather than accepting that any word they see on a page needs to be forensically split down before it can be read.

This article from The Guardian argues that nonsense words should, perhaps, stay in the phonics test, because we have a long and glorious history of coining nonsense words in our literature, and that it allows for creativity, lateral thinking and imagination to flourish.

My own opinion is that a test like this is not asking for creativity, lateral thinking and flourishing imaginations. It is looking for phonetic competency.  I think that the nonsense words are, and I use an emotive word, because I feel quite emotional about it, a nonsense, and a kind of a trick which penalise children who may well be perfectly fantastic readers.

I have no particular interest in finding out whether phonics works at the level the inclusion of nonsense words is asking for. It is, in my opinion, a good, basic tool for getting children started on the path to reading, which should be integrated with other reading methods as demands on reading and literacy become more sophisticated and demand more from children than I think phonics can give them.

What do you think?