Gove doesn’t rhyme with Love

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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.


Phonological awareness

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We left our daughter for the first time with a baby sitter when she was about two. Although she knew her carer well she was distressed at our departure – until, that is, she became distracted.

I told her we were going to the theatre and would be ‘back soon’.

She dismissed the ‘back soon’ bit: after all her notions of time are not like mine. A minute can be an aeon when you want your mum.

However, she latched on to ‘theatre’ – a word not previously encountered. ‘That’s in my name’ she declared. And truly it was: Thea recognised not the meaning of the word but its individual components. She was able to segment the longer word into one that was important to her. Later that month she delightedly noticed the phonological similarities between ‘Smarties’ and ‘Martin’.

Preschool phonological awareness skills significantly predict later reading ability; but it also seems that phonemic awareness is a skill which develops through learning to read. Problems in detecting differences between groups of spoken words, or in deleting individual sound segments, (e.g. ‘flag’ without ‘f’, ‘enigma’ without ‘ig’), are believed to lead to phonemic awareness difficulties.

So, because Thea was playing with sounds within words at such a young age, I was confident that she was likely to become a proficient reader and speller.

Reading skill is closely associated with the ability to hear and process the sounds in spoken words, and to be able to segment these. (That’s why getting a child’s hearing checked is so important). When the child sees words in print s/he needs to recognise that these visual symbols represent sounds. Visual difficulties can very well contribute to a dyslexic profile, but auditory processing tends to be the most fundamental, not to mention intractable, challenge. (Get eyes checked regularly too).

Ascertaining whether a child can read nonsense words is an important part of assessment, as difficulties here can be a product of this primary underlying phonological disorder.

In addition, as well as difficulties encountered in applying phonemic information in reading tasks, such as non-word reading; poor readers’ demonstration of deficiencies in verbal processing have been noted in auditory perception, in segmentation, and in speech production difficulties. (Has s/he had input from Speech and Language Therapists?).

Also crucial for an identification of dyslexia are differences in phonological processing speed. Poor readers may have similar levels of accuracy in tests of phonological awareness, yet remain slower to progress in terms of their reading development. Slower response times taken for processing sounds and words are indicative of deeper phonological problems.

Such slowness to process phonological information, then results in tardiness in learning verbal labels for new reading words. Taken together these inefficiencies impact on a poor reader’s ability to establish and retrieve phonological representations from long term memory, and thus accounts for word recognition difficulties. This would also in part explain the fact that many poor readers in the early stages rely so heavily on visual codes in acquisition and phonemic processing, as well as in other reading-based tasks. All this can hide fundamental difficulties until too many unfamiliar words appear or the working memory is so overloaded that no more sight vocabulary can be retained.

The child who ‘can read with my eyes shut’, the book child who knows much about formal language structures and the nature of early reading schemes, can delude himself and his teachers into thinking that reading is developing apace. It is often at transition times that alarm bells begin to ring: when reading and writing tasks demand more complex vocabulary along with increased quantity of text read and produced.

Anyway, this was meant to be a short post in my holidays, pointing out this rather charming clip of a 2 year old well on the way to achieving proficiency in phonological processing. So, I’ll stop and go and read a good book now.


Building underlying skills

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Here are some free resources. I had a shot of these games and activities and, while not blown away by their graphics, feel they may be useful for assessment of very specific dificulties. Let me (and Ian Smythe) know how you get on.

Do you try to teach phonological skills to dyslexic individuals young and old?

But what about those other skills necessary to support learning of those phonological and visual skills. Dys2 offers over 300 fun visual and auditory games to support learning of auditory discimination, rhyming, alliteration, auditory memory, visual memory, visual-spatial and other important skills.

And before you ask, it is all provided free.

Example problem: Where do you find fun activities to practice rhyming skills? Answer: Dys2 (Under Auditory Discrimination and Auditory Memory)

If you are a teacher/tutor wanting to try or to sign up your students, send an email to

For accounts in other languages, see the website, Dys2 .

(Partner Languages – EN, BG, CZ, DE, GR, LT. Games in ES and DK are still available through the original website.)