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 (

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.