Last week a teacher asked me what I thought about the wisdom of using nonsense “words” like BIX, ZUN, and YEM with beginning readers. This teacher, who was getting ready to work at a new classical school, had been told that the Riggs Institute encourages—or at least condones—activities in which children work with such "words.”
“Is this true,” he asked?
No. For a large number of reasons, the deliberate teaching of nonsense "words" is neither endorsed nor condoned by the Riggs Institute. Here are three:
Children begin their formal study of the English writing system with significant background beliefs about language. For example, all children believe that words make sense, that they have meanings—that even those words which they don’t yet know the meanings of, have meanings. Since that is an accurate belief, and since it is also an educationally useful belief, and since it is also a belief that cannot be disproven, the Riggs Institute does not think it is wise to cause children to question it.
There is no such thing as a nonsense word, period. Words have meanings, and letter strings that do not represent meaning (e.g., BIX, ZUN, and YEM) are ipso facto not words. That’s a fact—a truth about our language. And this should be seen as a precious truth by those of us who work with beginning or struggling readers.
Spoken and written words represent meaning
, always. And calling letter strings like BIX, ZUN, and YEM “words” causes children to question that fact. Suddenly, the child is expected to have two conflicting beliefs about the meaning of the word “word.” He came to school believing that he knew what the word “word,” meant, but suddenly he is unsure. What is a word? The child no longer knows. Suddenly, words both do and do not make sense. This creates confusion. It makes a child question a foundational truth about language. It makes him doubt that the whole purpose of language is to convey sense and meaning. And so on.
A second problem with practice activities that encourage learners to decode nonsense "words" is that these activities require learners to practice reading words in a nonproductive way. Since the purpose of decoding is to arrive at the meaning of a word, decoding activities should help them do that. initial decoding activities should be ones in which learners take the graphology —> phonology —> semantics neural pathway that enables them to arrive at the meaning of a word. This is the pathway real readers take. For example, when decoding the word CAT, a reader translates the three graphemes C-A-T into the three phonemes /k/, /a/,/t/ to arrive at a meaning like “small domestic feline.” Since this is the neural pathway real readers take when they are decoding words, this is the neural pathway beginning readers should take.
Unfortunately, nonsense "words" don’t allow learners to take that path. Instead, the decoding of nonsense "words" requires them to take a different pathway entirely. It requires them to take a graphology —> phonology —> nonsense pathway—a path that leads to nowhere.
Is there really enough time in our instructional day for walking down such dead-end roads? Beginning readers can and should acquire decoding skills by working with the kinds of things that build useful neural pathways (i.e., words). There is no need for—and there should be no time for—nonsensical practice activities.
A third problem with working with the nonsense "words" BIX, ZUN, and YEM is that these letter strings do not occur in English words: the English writing system does not include these letter sequences
, not even once. This means that children who work with such letter strings are programming their brains with incorrect information about the English language. Do we really want to help them do that? (I don’t.)
The Riggs Institute encourages teachers to help beginning readers study real things (e.g., words), and it encourages them to do this with meaningful activities. It does not encourage teachers to use nonsense "words,” none of which actually exist.
Since the teacher who asked me about the use of nonsense "words" worked at a classical school, we finished our conversation by talking about Plato, who wisely noted that “the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing.”
“The beginning is the most important part.” Yes. Do we really want to start children off on their educational journeys by teaching them that words may or may not make sense?
My caller knew the answer to this question. By the time we finished talking, he was also able to tell me why the study of nonsense "words" has no place in a classical curriculum: “There is no truth or beauty in them,” he said: "Since they aren't real, they can't help us cultivate a child's natural wonder and curiosity about the real things of this world. But they can help us kill it."
Quite so. Working with nonsense "words" (nonwords, pseudowords, etc.) requires children to begin their language studies by believing a lie about language; and it encourages them to build nonproductive neural networks; and it programs their brains with misinformation about the English writing system; and it cannot foster wonder and curiosity about words. Is it any wonder that some students become bored, confused, upset, or resentful?
The whole point of language is to communicate sense and meaning. Nonsense "words" do not—and cannot—communicate any such thing. They communicate nonsense.
Note: I’ve been hearing from a large number of teachers who have been told to replace the first twenty lessons in the Riggs program with lessons that enable children to "access literacy" (whatever that means) more quickly. In addition to the fact that these non-recommended lessons require students to work with nonsense words, they call for students to engage in additional problematic practice activities. You can see my post on this topic here.