Decoding Nonsense: What Is Reading?

Please pronounce “sove.”

Does it rhyme with “dove” (bird)?

Or “dove” (past tense of “dive”)?

Or “move”?

Increasingly, this is how students are being assessed in classrooms, but also in standardized tests of “reading,” often as evidence that the “science of reading” works (see Coles for a thorough examination of how the media and schools make this misleading claim [1]).

This approach is grounded in DIBELS [2], an assessment of nonsense words, but many reading programs that are phonics-first and phonics-intensive now incorporate having students pronounce nonsense words and promote the programs as the “science of reading” and/or “structured literacy.”

Structured Literacy

Structured literacy describes a scripted approach to teaching reading that requires uniform instruction. It may include the following: scripted lessons, systematic phonics (including programs such as Orton-Gillingham [59] ), decodable texts, [60] prescribed reading instruction for all students based on the needs of struggling students, structured literacy reading programs, and strict requirements for program compliance. [61] Structured literacy draws from cognitive psychology, brain research, and neuroscience, although literacy researchers caution there is still much to learn about the brain and learning to read. [62]

While proponents of competing theories all claim research support, there is general agreement that the evidence-based literature presents at least three consistent and compelling conclusions: Reading is a complex process consisting of a wide range of skills and strategies; culture and experience impact learning to read; and student needs change as they develop reading proficiency. [63]

Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading

Several problems exists with this new emphasis on systematic phonics and phonics-first instruction (devoid of comprehension). First, focusing on strict rules of phonics and using nonsense words teaches young readers that mere pronunciation is reading (which it isn’t) and allows overly simplistic definitions to feed overly simplistic (and misleading) assessments.

And that leads to a second problem—raising scores on basic pronunciation of words, especially nonsense words that are designed to meet the simplistic rules being taught, is much easier to do than to teach and assess comprehension. Notably, raising these scores is even easier once other policies are in place, such as the harmful but effective use of grade retention.

Current examples of reading “miracles” (such as Mississippi from 2019; see here) are mirages; the score gains are distortions of data and the assessments are simply not measuring reading (again, they are measuring a very reduced type of pronunciation devoid meaning).

The greatest problem, however, is that the current nonsense word focus significantly misrepresents what the reading science shows about systematic phonics:

Systematic Phonics and Comprehension

Although phonics is only one essential aspect of reading, many researchers emphasize the importance of systematic phonics instruction for beginning and struggling readers. Research on the direct impact of phonics on reading comprehension is complicated because many approaches to phonics exist—from synthetic or analytic phonics [68] and systematic phonics programs (such as Orton-Gillingham) to phonics instruction embedded in holistic instruction [69] (such as whole language and balanced literacy [70]).

In short, research on the importance of phonics instruction is clear, but there is much less clarity about what type of phonics to teach and how much direct instruction students need or when. [71] There is consensus that proficient readers have strong phonics knowledge, but how that occurs (through direct instruction, reading, or both) remains a point of debate.

One recent overview of 12 meta-analyses [72] of the effectiveness of systematic phonics concluded that systematic phonics instruction for all students was no more effective than whole language or balanced literacy approaches. This analysis raises concerns about conducting research comparing competing instructional reading practices and recommends that policy-makers seek additional approaches to reading instruction. [73] As noted earlier, a 2022 analysis of England’s shift to systematic phonics concluded that the new phonics-first approach was not as effective as a “balanced” approach to reading instruction. [74]

Recent research on systematic or direct phonics instruction continues to show effectiveness in children pronouncing real and nonsense words (notably in Grade 1), but less effectiveness in promoting comprehension, especially in kindergarten or for readers in later grades. [75] Instead of systematic phonics, reading amount and comprehension instruction are more effective or at least as important as phonics for fostering comprehension and learning to read. [76]

Thomas, P.L. (2022). The Science of Reading movement: The never-ending debate and the need for a different approach to reading instruction. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/science-of-reading

Ultimately, the “science of reading” movement is oversimplifying the messages the public, parents, and political leaders receive concerning how to teach reading, what counts as reading, and how to assess reading.

Learning to read is complex, and unique to each student; thus, teaching reading is also complex and somewhat haphazard. Ideally, formal schooling in reading should foster reading over many years, recognizing that individual students will progress at different rates.

Yes, we want eager and skilled readers, and we should work purposefully to provide all students the experiences they need to learn both the enjoyment of reading and the power of critical literacy. And yes, skilled critical readers have decoding skills, content knowledge, and a number of inter-related strategies for making meaning from text and other communication signals (we “read” icons all across our technology devices, for example).

But for many of us who are skilled readers, we have gained all those skills from reading, not from doing isolated, decontextualized, and nonsense practice instead of reading.

Pronouncing nonsense words is complete nonsense, and even worse, it is not reading—but it is wasting valuable teaching and learning time that every student deserves, time better spent with meaningful experiences with real words and real texts.


Notes

[1] Coles, G. (2019, Summer). Cryonics phonics: Inequality’s little helper. New Politics, 18(3).

[2] The Truth About DIBELS: What It Is – What It Does, Ken Goodman


59  “Structured Literacy is an umbrella term that was adopted by the International Dyslexia Association to refer to the many programs (like Orton-Gillingham) that teach reading by following the evidence and research behind the Science of Reading. Programs that exemplify the components and methods that are outlined in the term, Structured Literacy, have been found to be beneficial for all students and essential for students who struggle with reading.” Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://www.orton-gillingham.com/

60  See, for example, The Reading League. (2022). Decodable text sources. Reading Rockets. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://www.readingrockets.org/article/decodable-text-sources

61  Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185-S195. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348

62  Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185-S195. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348

Seidenberg, M. (2018). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. Basic Books.

Seidenberg, M.S., Cooper Borkenhagen, M., & Kearns, D.M. (2020). Lost in translation? Challenges in connecting reading science and educational practice. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S119-S130. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.341

Willingham, D.T. (2017). The reading mind: A cognitive approach to understanding how the mind reads. Jossey-Bass.

63  Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185-S195. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348


70  Bowers, J.S. (2020). Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32(2020), 681-705. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10648-019-09515-y

71  Brooks, G. (2022, July 18). Current debates over the teaching of phonics. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education. Retrieved July 23, 2022, from https://oxfordre.com/education/view/10.1093/ acrefore/9780190264093.001.0001/acrefore-9780190264093-e-1543

Yelland, N. (2020, August 19). Phoney phonics: How decoding came to rule reading lost meaning. Teachers College Record. Retrieved July 23, 2022, from https://foundationforlearningandliteracy.info/wp-content/ uploads/2020/09/Phoney-Phonics.pdf

72  “Meta-analysis is the statistical combination of results from two or more separate studies.” See Deeks, J.J., Higgins, J.P.T., & Altman, D.G. (2022). Chapter 10: Analysing data and undertaking meta-analyses. Cochrane Training. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://training.cochrane.org/handbook/current/ chapter-10

73  Bowers, J.S. (2020). Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32(2020), 681-705. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10648-019-09515-y

74  Wyse, D., & Bradbury, A. (2022). Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading. Review of Education, 10(1), e3314. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314

75  Bowers, J.S. (2020). Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32(2020), 681-705. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10648-019-09515-y

Davis, A. (2013, December 13). To read or not to read: Decoding synthetic phonics. IMPACT No. 20. Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1111/2048-416X.2013.12000.x

Filderman, M. J., Austin, C.R., Boucher, A.N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E.A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children, 88(2), 163-184. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860

Pearson, P.D. (2019, October 12). What research really says about teaching reading—and why that still matters [Video]. International Literacy Association 2019 Conference. Retrieved May 18, 2022, from https:// ila.digitellinc.com/ila/sessions/123/view

Wyse, D. & Bradbury, A. (2022). Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading. Review of Education, 10(1), e3314. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314

76  Allington, R.L., & McGill-Franzen. (2021). Reading volume and reading achievement: A review of recent research. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S231-S238. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.404

Filderman, M.J., Austin, C.R., Boucher, A.N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E.A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children, 88(2), 163-184. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860