The Need For Nonsense

Recently, the Metro Nashville School Board had a discussion about nonsense word assessments. Since I had recently learned the evidence around these assessments, I listened closely. I didn’t like what I heard. Many people believe these types of assessment are harmful to children. I don’t think so. A nonsense word assessment is a way to remove the effects of word exposure from the child. It also lets us see how the child will decode new words. It’s important to use these measures in early literacy. These measures can predict the reading proficiency of children.

While I wish the Tennessean asked someone outside of Pearson to comment on nonsense words, I totally agree with the Pearson scientist:

Mark Daniel, senior scientist for research innovation at Pearson, said AIMSweb draws on more than 30 years of research to accurately predict achievement and growth. The company defends the use of “nonsense words.”

“Nonsense-word fluency uses pseudo-words instead of real words to require the student to engage in decoding rather than relying on sight-word recognition,” Daniel said.


Let’s look at some research. A 2008 study by researchers at the University of Oregon and the Oregon Research Institute looked to see if Nonsense Word Fluency (NWF) was a predictor of future reading. In their introduction to the study, the researchers explained the importance of NWF. (Fien et al., 2008)

Measures such as NWF and other pseudoword reading measures (e.g., Woodcock Reading Mastery Test—Revised Word Attack subtest; Woodcock, 1987) specifically isolate how well students apply their understanding of phonics rules in learning to decode. That is, NWF is designed to measure how well a student has learned the underlying letter–sound correspondences and phonological recoding skills of the alphabetic principle. The measure expressly avoids tap- ping student skills in reading real words be- cause it may not be clear what strategies the student is using to accurately read real words (e.g., actually reading a word by deciphering the constituent letter–sound correspondences instead of recalling the whole word from memorization without knowledge of the constituent letter sounds).

And the researchers found that NWF was correlated with other reading measures.

Concurrent correlations between NWF administered in kindergarten, first, and second grade were consistent and moderately to strongly related to performance on ORF (Oral Reading Fluency) and the SAT-10. Also, the relations between NWF and criterion measures of reading were typically as strong for ELs as ESs.

And since Metro Nashville got rid of DIBELS, let me show you this quote from the research article:

Regarding DIBELS generally, it has been suggested that DIBELS measures reflect superficial indicators of reading, little more than students “barking at print” (Samuels, 2007, p. 563). Decades of research on ORF has established the consistent association between reading fluency and comprehension. In the vast majority of these studies, fluency is defined as a combination of speed and accuracy of reading connected text, which is precisely the definition of ORF that the developers of DIBELS used when they constructed their measures. ORF is also highly correlated with prosody (Miller & Schwanenflugel, 2006). Indeed, the relationship between ORF and comprehension appears stronger than the association between prosody and comprehension, and there is only minimal evidence that reading with prosody mediates comprehension (Schwanenflugel, Hamilton, Kuhn, Wisen- baker, & Stahl, 2004). There are fewer studies on NWF than there are on ORF, and empirical investigations of these measures adjudicated through a peer-reviewed process should drive serious considerations of their quality. In this regard, we would like to further encourage the examination of DIBELS in the context of intended and actual use in education settings.

After collecting reading data from schools in Oregon:

Evidence from this study supports the use of NWF in the early grades to screen students for reading problems. Using data to intervene early and strategically is a major assessment activity expected by schools in Reading First as well as schools using RTI to assist in making decisions about instructional effectiveness and special education.

Additionally, here are some quotes from research abstracts on the topic.

“Slope of progress through the first semester of first grade on NWF was a strong predictor of first-grade reading outcomes, especially for students at risk of reading difficulty.” – Good, Baker, & Peyton (2009)

“Strong, positive relations were found between NWF gains and ORF and RC (reading comprehension) scores for students who began the year with low to moderate and relatively high decoding skills. For students at the highest end of the distribution (5% of the sample), NWF gains were not associated with ORF or RC scores. In addition, early gains on NWF more strongly predicted reading outcomes than later gains for students at the low end of the initial NWF distribution.” – Fien et al., (2010)

I completely agree that fluency does not equal comprehension. Reading something quickly does not mean that child understands what they read. But knowing if they can take a brand new word and sound it out correctly by blending the sounds together can really help the teachers know the reading proficiency level of their students. We need to find the students who need extra help and give it to them as quickly as we can. I spent over a week giving nonsense word assessments to fifth graders. After explaining the directions, the student gets 45 seconds to read a list of words. You can see a difference for those who struggle to read and those who don’t. Some of those who struggle with nonsense words also struggled with reading real words. Some did not struggle with real words but did with nonsense words.

For younger students, where this is really used, you can see if the child has trouble blending sounds. As I walk the hallways of the school where I have been working, I see the younger students receiving help with blending their sounds together and reading aloud. I think nonsense word assessments are one way to help students.


Fien, H., Baker, S. K., Smolkowski, K., Smith, J., Kame’enui, E. J., & Beck, C. (2008). Using nonsense word fluency to predict reading proficiency in kindergarten through Second grade for English learners and native English speakers. School Psychology Review, 37(3), 391-408.

Fien, H., Park, Y., Baker, S. K., Smith, J., Stoolmiller, M., & Kame’enui, E. J. (2010). An examination of the relation of nonsense word fluency initial status and gains to reading outcomes for beginning readers. School Psychology Review, 39(4), 631-653.

Good, R., Baker, S. K., & Peyton, J. A. (2009). Making sense of nonsense word fluency: Determining adequate progress in early first-grade reading. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 25(1), 33-56.

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