Phonemic Awareness: Using Nonsense to Break Bad Habits

First, let me tell you about Miss Caitlin.

Back in California in 2011, not having yet transferred my teaching license from Massachusetts, I was working privately for a tutoring company. About a year into my work there, I had a young student come in whose parents were worried about her performance in class.

Miss Caitlin, as we shall call her herein, was altogether a rather proper seven year old girl. Exceptionally bright and independent, but also very particular, she was the type of student who minded when the process wasn’t being followed. When she noticed that I had forgotten to give certain directions for an activity or to check the homework I had given her, she would quietly but firmly remind me. I tell you, she was adorable.

Despite her obvious intelligence, Caitlin’s grades had stagnated at school in reading and math. Though she loved reading, especially together with her big sister and mom, she had fallen below grade level in literacy at school. Her teacher had noticed. Her parents were worried. Caitlin was withdrawing.

During our first session, I let her peruse our center’s library and choose a book she wanted to read to me. I wanted to assess her reading skills. She chose a 4th grade level book. She was in 2nd grade.

As she worked her way through that first page, I noticed that while she was reading at a decent speed and could read complex words, like “sight”, she was struggling with simple words, like “that” and the flow of her reading was uneven. She tended to skip or speed over relatively simple words and exhibited signs of frustration when  I prompted her to go back and try again. I stopped her at the end of the page and asked her comprehension questions about the text, and she was able to answer them.

Clearly Miss C was struggling with sounding out the words and, being a wildly clever girl, had learned to compensate with a combination of memorization and inference. Unfortunately, one can only get so far in reading without the ability to sound out words.

Learning Theory Note:

A student’s ability to add to his or her personal lexicon, the words he or she understands, begins expanding rapidly somewhere in early elementary school. A major part of that growth comes from literacy.

It is common practice in the United States to teach both phonics and sight words (high frequency words that don’t follow typical patterns of pronunciation, like “have” or “friend”) in second grade. Phonics are a system used to teach phonemic awareness, the ability to attach sounds to the letters. When reading, one typically recognizes some words on sight and has to use decoding strategies, letter-sound relationship rules, for unfamiliar words.

Adults read using mostly their sight word bank, but kids rely heavily on decoding. As a result, early elementary educators tend to devote a lot of energy to phonics in hopes that the students will adopt the decoding techniques that they will later be depending on.

To be fair, phonics are not always the most riveting part of a Kindergartener or 1st grader’s day. Many high functioning students can get away with memorizing words, sentences, and even whole books without using any decoding techniques to sound out the words. While this can work for a while, eventually the number of words a kid is exposed to will outstrip that child’s ability to memorize them, which is where decoding becomes essential.

Back to Miss Caitlin…

Students who tend to skip over small words when reading and exhibit frustration when prompted to sound an unfamiliar word out are most likely students who have been getting away with not practicing their decoding techniques. Miss C was definitely one of these kids.

As I was working with her, it became clear that she had begun associating correction as failure. When I redirected her or prompted her while she was reading, it affected her ability to concentration and generally upset her–not uncommon for students who are aware that they are not performing as well as they think they should be.

So what is a teacher to do?


One Saturday morning, I told Miss Caitlin that we were going to try something new–she wasn’t into that, but I assured her it would be fun (I may have assured her with candy).

I reviewed the more difficult phonics patterns (The Magic “e” and “er”, “ir”, & “ur” vs. “ar” &”or”) with her and then wrote this on a paper.


“Caitlin, could you read that word for me?”

“That’s not a word. Is that a word?”

“It’s not a real word. This is a nonsense word!”

Caitlin clearly did not like this new activity. She stared at the word, as if its existence threatened hers.

“Let’s try sounding it out.”

I covered the -OR and let her sound out the L, which she did, begrudgingly. Then, I covered the L and had her sound out the -OR.

“That wasn’t so bad was it?” Her tiny, noncommittal shrug was better than the brooding that I had been dealing with the past week. “Caitlin, this is what we are going to be doing from now on to help practice your sounding out skills.”

To continue the game I would cross out one letter and replace it with another:


Or add or subtract letters:


(Honestly, the potential modifications are endless with this one.)

In a short period of time, which is a credit to Miss C’s voracious appetite for knowledge and candy*, I was stringing together nonsense and having her separate the syllables and decode them:


Because Miss C was dealing with nonsense words, she didn’t feel the same pressure as she did when faced with words she felt she should already know. Eliminating that source of frustration, her decoding skills quickly improved and were noted by both her parents and her homeroom teacher.

Though not necessarily a requirement for most classrooms, I am a personal subscriber to the magic of nonsense (words) for teaching decoding. It removes the influence, positive or negative, of sight words and rote memorization and pushes students to use decoding as a tool to navigate unfamiliar reading territory.

It is a useful teaching tool to have in the back pocket in case of a literacy emergency!

Thanks for reading! Happy New Year!


*I would like to note that I wasn’t stuffing this kid full of sugar. By the end of each week, she got to choose one candy to take home with her and eat, at the discretion of her parents. If we had had flashy craft store gemstones, temporary tattoos of puppies and kitties, or Popsicle sticks with faces on them, I would have used those; it just so happened that the workplace was jam packed with candy.