I’ve been following  the furore in the press about the inclusion of nonsense words in tests to be given to 6 year olds in English schools. David Reedy of the UK Literacy Association called the suggestion ‘bonkers’, as ‘the whole purpose of reading is to understand words’.

Of course he is right: most six-year-olds expect to make sense of what they read and we certainly don’t want to confuse them or, worse, send out the message that all words can be decoded using phonics.

The debate is fierce because it seems that the emphasis upon teaching synthetic phonics in England is reducing teachers’ freedom to take an eclectic approach to teaching reading. Most of us intimately involved in supporting children to develop literacy would agree that instilling a love of reading is crucial and that children learn to read with many and various strategies (the context, the sentence itself and whether they have that word in their spoken lexicon, for example); decoding being only one. ’Although phonics is an important part of teaching reading, it should not be conflated with the teaching of reading itself’.

However, I wonder if the reaction against the perceived imposition of a solely phonics based approach has somewhat clouded people’s judgements. It is unlike me to defend phonics over meaning but I do believe there is a strong case for including the decoding of nonsense words in assessing reading skill. They appear in all good tests for identifying dyslexia, designed by peole much more au fait with the component skills required to read and spell than me.

This is because the ability to process phonics, while not sufficient, is important for fluent comprehension of text. Difficulty cracking the code, making sound-symbol relationships to recognise words, can’t be ignored. It is this skill that learners with dyslexia tend to find the most challenging. They are likely to recognise ‘cat’: they have seen it written next to a picture and so can pin a verbal label to the shape. However, the word ‘gat’ is not familiar though is no more difficult in terms of sound / symbol correspondence. Children may read it as ‘got’ or ‘’get’, or even ‘cat’: trying desperately to make meaning.

A child, such a the one whose profile is below, on the opposite end of the continuum, one who has ‘a precocious ability to recognize written words significantly above [her] language or cognitive skill level’, may be called hyperlexic.

Here is an example of good phonological processing ability and poor understanding generally: i.e. not a learner with dyslexia. This is the profile of a child I recently tested with the Cognitive Profiling System from Lucid Research (CoPS). As you see, all but one sub-test challenged her very severely. She had an excellent score when asked to connect rhyming words: she was able to break the words up into their component parts and recognise another word with the same sound at the end. This child happily linked ‘hen’ and ‘ten’ and ‘man’ with ‘van’. A learner with dyslexia when asked to take this rhyme test will tend to connect ‘parrot’ with ‘cage’, not ‘carrot’, ‘boat’ with ‘river’, not ‘coat’.

The ability to hear and generate rhyme is fundamental  for phonological processing. Without this ability a person will struggle  to read fluently and spell correctly. However, if someone does not make sense of the words and context then she cannot be said to be a reader even if she can decode effectively.

Reading non-words is a pure test of phonics and as such is a valuable addition to the battery of information we gather about individual children’s approaches to literacy. I agree with the government, not a phrase I say very often. It is important to find out how children tackle words out of context so that we are better able to make the best possible provision at the very earliest stages. My only proviso is that it is imperative that we explain what’s going on to the wee mites. ‘This is rubbish’ is better coming from us than from the child herself! ‘I know this seems daft but – to please me – just read these nonsense words. Crazy, I know but bear with me’. Then they don’t beat themselves up for failing and we accrue a huge amount of knowledge about how we can help that child make progress.