Mell, Darp, Gom! Nonsense Words Explained

image of two aliens-one red with many eyes and the other orange with only one large eye. The red alien says

On the desk of any phonics teacher worth their salt, you will find lists full of silly-sounding words like: ‘skron’, ‘spleg’, ‘drom’ and ‘pulk’! These strange words aren’t clues to a viral spelling game but nonsense words. Used as a diagnostic tool, nonsense words give teachers an insight into how much of the phonics code a child has learned and, critically, if they have the underlying skill of blending. In this post, we will explain nonsense words and provide some ready-made nonsense word lists so you can get stuck in right away.

What Is a Nonsense Word?

Nonsense words are made-up words you won’t find in any English dictionary! Words like ‘fim’ or ‘stap’. That said, they will always conform to the rules of English. For example, ‘ckad’ would not be used as a nonsense word, as ‘ck’ is never found at the start of a word in English.

Why Not Use Real Words? 

As you read my words, you are not s-ou-n-d-i-ng them out as you read; you are reading them as wholes. You recognise each word from your years of reading.

large white wooden sign which says

But when you attempt to read the name of this town, you will have to employ your knowledge of the English phonics code (for example, knowing that the ‘oo’ represents the /ew/ like in ‘zoo’ not the /u/ like in ‘cook’) and blend those sounds together to read the word.

Garrongoorung may as well be a nonsense word to the 99.99% of us who don’t know it and so makes a great word to test an adult’s phonics knowledge and underlying skills. Similarly, children who are learning to read are likely to have been exposed to lots of words and will recognise them by sight, words such as ‘dad’, ‘dog’, or even the name of their hometown (even when it’s as long as Garrongoorung!).

Nonsense words test if children really know letter-sound relationships and have strong blending skills. Since these words will always be unfamiliar, they must use their phonics knowledge to decode the word and accurately produce the whole nonsense word.

But why don’t we want children to learn to read by sight in English? 

Marnie Ginsberg, who wrote our blog post How Children Learn to Read – the Science of Reading by Sound, puts it so perfectly:

Thousands of brain imaging, psychological, and other types of reading research studies have built a mountain of evidence to demonstrate that young readers of alphabetic languages (e.g. English or Spanish) learn to read via sound. Yes, of course, our eyes and visual system are involved. But the heavy lifting in cracking our written code–learning how to convert letters on the page into sounds in words that make meaningful words–is done by our sound processing system, or phonological system.”

Essentially, a child won’t get very far if they try to learn each word by sight in English!

Nonsense Word Lists

Now you know what nonsense words are, how do you compile a nonsense word list?

  1. Download our Nonsense Word Lists assessment documents for our Playing With Sounds and Letters and Sounds orders.

  2. The Phonics Check from England is free and there are multiple years. They include 50% real and 50% nonsense words.

  3. Use our no-prep Phonics Lessons. If you’d like to integrate nonsense words into your lesson, our Phonics Lessons include over 1,500 decodable nonsense words. You can select a target phoneme (e.g. ‘ai’) or a group (e.g. ai, ee, igh, oa). The lessons will generate 50% real and 50% nonsense words. Each nonsense word will have an alien next to it, to indicate it’s not a real word (and therefore children shouldn’t try to attach meaning to it). 
    image of the Phonics Lessons screen. The word

    If you’d like to challenge some students – and for a bit of fun – you can remove the support and once the word is read, have children vote on whether it’s a real word or nonsense word. Tally up the votes, then click the question card to reveal the answer (and it’s meaning if it’s real).

  4. image of the Phonics Lessons screen. The word

    You can get started with a 30-day free trial of the lessons by signing up as a teacher.

  5. Write your own! Here are some helpful tips to get you started:

    • No illegal spellings e.g. j at end of word. Make sure your words conform to the rules of English.
    • on the left the word 'jaj' followed by a large red X and on the right the word 'jad' followed by a green tick mark

    • Try letter swapping in real words (consonant or vowel).
    • on the left, the word 'hip' followed by a green arrow pointing to the word 'hep' on the right

    • Say all of the words aloud (to make sure it’s not too close to a real word).

    • Get a second set of teacher eyes to check your lists for slang – we’ve had editors look at our words only to point out a naughty word for the youth of today!

    • Keep it short and sweet – stick to Consonant-Vowel-Consonant, CVCC and CCVC words. The longer they get, the more ridiculous they are to say!

When Not to Use Nonsense Words

Take care not to overteach nonsense words. These are best used as an assessment tool and occasionally to get children comfortable with the assessment process. New English language learners won’t find nonsense words helpful either; when one is first learning English, every word can feel like a nonsense word to the child!

There you have it! Nonsense words explained!

Author: Katherine Wood

Katherine is the CEO and co-founder of Phonics Hero. She has worked in phonics for over 15 years, working with hundreds of schools across the globe to support them in their implementation of synthetic phonics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *