Nonsense Words – Are They Nonsense?

Wonderful article about the problem with assessing kids with nonsense words – a practice I used to do regularly.  It is so hard to admit when you are wrong.  But also so important.

Here’s my favorite quote: “Once you remove phonemes and graphemes from a meaningful context, they’re no longer phonemes or graphemes.”

I couldn’t say it any better than this.

Uh Soodoe Whird Kamidey (

Student Word Study

Here is a wonderful example of a student word study.  This older student was interested in the word <carnivore>.  We hypothesized the word sum:

  • carn + i + vore –> carnivore

This word sum was supported by evidence of its relationship in meaning to the base <carn> denoting “flesh” and the base <vore> denoting “swallow.”  Although <vore> is often listed in dictionaries as a suffix, we know it cannot be a suffix because of its denotation and use as a solitary base in words such as:

  • vore + ace + i + ous –> voracious

As we were studying <carnivore> and related words, my student asked whether it could be related to <carnival>.  An interesting question indeed!

After hypothesizing the word sums:

  • *carn + i + val –> carnival
  • *carn + ive + al –> carnival

We looked at the etymology of the word.  Now, the etymology only gives us support for our word sums, but it is not a morphological reference.  That is, it cannot give us a valid current English word sum.  That part is left to our scientific reasoning.

We discovered that while <carnival> is indeed related to <carnivore>, we cannot say that it has a base of <carn> because we cannot analyze the rest of the word in a valid way.  Here’s what happened.  The word stems from the Latin bases for “flesh” and “raise” as in “raising flesh.”  This meaning comes from the idea of a great meat eating party on Fat Tuesday.  This word in Latin was “carnelevare”.  Over time, the word changed such that we no longer have a second meaningful base element in English.  So, we cannot analyze this into meaningful English morphemes.  Consequently, the base must be the word itself, and the word sum is:

  • carnival –> carnival

As we worked, we created this wonderful mind map:

Carnivore-Carnival Image

Using Structured Word Inquiry

Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) is the best way to understand English spelling.  SWI is based on time-honored linguistic practices.  Applying SWI to reading and spelling, students us the scientific method to hypothesize the underlying structure of words. This not only solidifies spelling, it deepens the understanding of meaning and strengthens vocabulary. As in any science, research is used to disprove or accept hypotheses. SWI uses word sums as the tool to express spelling components and the underlying structure of a word.  For example, we might study the word <read> and hypothesize the word sum:

  • re + ad –> read

On the surface, this seems plausible because we have encountered a prefix of <re> before,  as in <rerun>, and we know that there is a word <ad>.  However, we quickly reject this hypothesis because there is no meaning relationship.  We know that spelling is based on both structure and meaning.

Moving on, the student will look at words that may be related.  These are words in the same morphological family Here a student may write the following word sums.

  •  read –> read      (it is a base)
  • read + s  –>  reads
  • read + ing –> reading
  • read + er –> reader
  • read + er + s –> readers
  • read +  y –> ready          ***rejected hypothesis

Investigating <ready>, we would discover that the spelling of <read> here has no meaning connection to the <read> in <reads>.  In fact, it is related to an Old English word for “ride” as in ready to ride a horse.  In current English, the word <ready> is a separate base from <read>.  This word sum would be rejected as a valid word sum, and also moved away from our study of the word <read> because it is not related in meaning.

As we study words in this way, we also look at the phonology of a word and study its graphemes. One tool we use for this is called “spelling out” or “announcing” a word sum.   This involves the grouping of structures while we “announce” the word sum.  In this example, we would say:

” R(pause) EA (pause) D (pause) plus ING is rewritten as R(pause) EA (pause) D (pause) ING.”

This shows our understanding or <ea> as a grapheme representing a phoneme, as well as <ing> being a suffix.  The pronunciation of each phoneme in the final word we be discussed.  We know that we only pronounce final words, not the elements they are composed of, because the pronunciation of an element may change.  Think of <please> and <please + ant –> pleasant>.  This might involve a rich discussion about why the grapheme <ea> is used in the word <please> instead of spelling it *<pleese>.  (Hint: because only <ea> can represent both the long-e and short-e phonemes we need in this family of words!)  

With word sums, we also represent and study the rules for doubling consonants, dropping final non-syllabic <e>s (silent e) and changing <y> to <i>.  We always add the phrase “check the joins” to remind us to go in and add anything that is dropped, doubled or changed.  We would start out with :

  • hap + y –> 

As we write the initial word sum, we would say “check the joins” as we write the arrow.  This would remind us to go back and look for where we need to drop, double or change.  Our final result would be:

  • hap(p) + y –> happy

“H (pause) A (pause) P plus Y is rewritten as H(pause) A (pause) double-P (pause) Y.”

Similarly with dropping a final-e and changing a <y> to <i>, we always announce the underlying structure to reinforce it, even when not dealing with word sum!  When we spell, we spell-out the structure (the second half of the word sum), thereby always being aware of the underlying structure of a word.




See to Spell flashcards

See to Say flashcards

I have recently added the option of using the See to Spell ( flashcards in sight word study.  They seem to really work for my right-brained students.  They were designed to work in tandem with the Barton Reading and Spelling program.  Each sight word is illustrated and has a sentence to accompany it that goes with the illustration.  There is also a great deal of uniformity throughout the series.  For example, the letter <h> usually has some type of building, the letter <o> is usually a male face, while an <a> is usually a female.  Kids find them to be more fun and engaging, and they seem to work better than some of the other methods.  Right not they are only available for Books 3, 4 and 5, but hopefully they will produce some for the whole series soon!

Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention | Spelfabet

Nice article explaining why some leveled texts might not be as useful as they seem.

Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention | Spelfabet.

Leveled book

Dyslexics and Letter Reversals

Many people think that the hallmark of dyslexia is letter reversals, writing letters or words upside or backwards.  Although many people with dyslexia have this problem, not all of them do.  It is by no means the hallmark of dyslexia that many people believe it is.  ALL children have trouble with letter reversals at a young age.  Dyslexic children may do it more frequently and until older ages.  Some will always struggle.  However, the problem has more to do with directionality issues and the special way that the brains of dyslexics work. It has nothing to do with eyesight!

Research has shown that a person with dyslexia will generally have a larger right brain hemisphere than a person without dyslexia.  Dyslexics tend to be strong right-brain thinkers.  This is part of why they have reading problems – reading occurs in the left hemisphere.  The right-brain is where we process a lot of creative and visual-spatial thinking.

When a child with dyslexia sees a letter, he often interprets it in three dimensions.  Thus, a stick and a ball are always a stick and a ball, no matter how you look at them.

bat and ball
To a dyslexic, b, d, p and q are all just different arrangements of the same thing.

And a letter S is just a snake.

A snake is a snake is a snake...
A snake is a snake is a snake…

It is easy to see how any young child can reverse letters, but easier to see how a child with particularly strong visual-spatial skills might not be able to understand why it matters which way you put the “objects” that make up a letter.

But have no fear, it is usually fairly easy to teach them some tricks to keep those letters straight!

To read a great article about this, check out The Gift of Three-Dimensionality We Call Dyslexia (