Nonsense Words – Thanks Dr. Seuss!

I came across  an interesting article on the PBS Newshour website entitled “Not everyone’s sold on Seuss”.     Author Joshua Barajas detailed two very opposing points of view on the works of Dr. Seuss.   It made me think of my own feeling towards his work.  I must admit that I never really got into Dr Seuss  much with my own daughter or with my students at school.    We’d read the odd book occasionally – certainly Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat come to mind.  Yet, I can’t pinpoint a specific reason why I didn’t jump on the Dr. Seuss bandwagon.

In the article, opponents of Dr. Seuss (often parents)   criticize his use of nonsensical language and question the value of reading a story with a limited storyline.  As one mother put it,

“Heck, he knew so few words that he had to make most of his up.”

The supporters of Dr. Seuss claim that the nonsensical language promotes a child’s phonological awareness skills, especially rhyming – a key indicator of reading success.  I have to agree with this.  The Dr. Seuss books encourage young children to play with sounds and have fun with language.

I thought this article was a good lead-in to our topic for this blog – nonsense words.  Many reading assessment tools will include a section on reading phonetic nonsense words (lof, bem, shog, pleck, etc).  It is generally agreed that if a child can read nonsense words it is an indication that they have truly mastered the code.   When children read real words, they can often use their previous knowledge to guess at a word rather than  apply their skills to accurately decode it.  For example, when decoding ‘bat’ a child can sound out the first two letters to get ‘ba’ and recognize that as the beginning of ‘bag’ or ‘bat’ or ‘bam’, then make a guess.  While the ability to predict within contextual material is an important skill, we still need to be sure children can accurately decode for those times when context doesn’t help.   (Eg.  “Pick up the bat” could be  mis-read as “Pick up the bag”)

My students practiced reading nonsense words regularly when we played Throw-a-word.  Using two consonant blocks and a vowel block, the children would throw the blocks, arrange in a c-v-c pattern, read the word and try to identify whether it was real or nonsense.  We would then switch the two consonants and read the new word.   Sometimes we would keep the consonants the same and rotate through all the vowel sounds.   Another option is to rotate the initial consonant to create rhyming words or rotate the final consonant.   What a great way to practice manipulating the letters and sounds of our language in a fun and interactive way!        blending cards sample_Page1                                                              

My students also liked to build words with the Stott Half-Moon cards (now available through Itchy’s Alphabet).   I would select a vowel, one student would choose the initial consonant and I would choose the final consonant.  They would then read the word and identify whether it was real or nonsense.   Again, like the blocks, you can change just the vowel, initial consonant or final consonant.  There’s lots of decoding going on with this activity!

As for Dr. Seuss, I think his books will remain ‘forever favourites’ for most!  I believe they have a greater value when read aloud to children using the expressive language intended by Dr. Seuss, followed by a fun discussion of the story and re-read.  While some children may enjoy reading Dr. Seuss on their own, most will get bogged down in trying to ‘read’ the nonsensical language and they will lose that ‘magical essence’ only Dr. Seuss could create!

To read the full article by Joshua Barajas, follow this link:

Here is a link to Throw-a-word Blocks:

Here is a link to the Blending Cards:  scroll down to Blackline Master 13