The Problem With Nonsense Words....and a Solution

Here is a summary of my issues with nonsense words:
Issue 1:  They are not real words.
Issue 2:  Students are being tested in isolation.
Issue 3:  For years, in Kindergarten, students didn't have to read a single word, and they could still be considered benchmark (now the goal is 44 sounds and 7 whole words read at the end of the year).
Issue 4:  It only looks at points scored to determine benchmark levels, not how students are actually reading the words.
Issue 5: It forces teachers to "teach to a test" in kindergarten.

This year, my district did away with Dibels!!!  Guided Reading Level was our only required data collection.  If students were below a level A, then teachers were to monitor letters and sounds.

At my school, we do walk-to-intervention.  It is 30 min of time where all the teachers at that grade level (plus support staff) teach students in small groups.  They focus on specific skills based on the data.  However, they are required to have students apply the skills into books.  We are not just teaching in isolation.  Last year, we would use our Dibels data and guided reading running records to help form groups...BUT WE WENT ABOUT IT WRONG!!

I'm embarrassed to say this is how our data meetings went.  We focused on the numbers!
"Brad Pitt* got 22 sounds and no recodes."  "Ben Afflack* had 34 sounds and 2 recodes"  "Bradly Cooper* got 14 sounds and no recodes."
We would enter students in a spreadsheet and then split students by how they sorted out by score.  (I'm embarrassed to write that sentence).

But, when we know better, we do better....

This year, in November a group of kindergarten teachers wanted to use the nonsense word test for a group of students that knew all their letters and sounds, but were still struggling with reading.

The teachers administered a one minute nonsense word test and brought them to the data meeting.  Teacher's brought them unscored!! We didn't even look at Dibels cut scores at our data meeting!  Instead we sorted students by how they were reading words.  

Group 1:  At least 75% of their assessment included recoding words
Group 2:  About 50% of the assessment was recoding words and 50% sounding words out
Group 3:  About 75% of words was sounded out
Group 4:  About 50% of the assessment was sounded out, but the other 50%  was read letter by letter
Group 5:  Primarily reading letter by letter, but accuracy was high
Group 6:  Primarily reading letter by letter, but accuracy was low

Sample of Scoring

This worked so well.  The teachers immediately embraced it because for the first time they were using the data to help the students, not just record a score.

Since we started this in November, our data is showing that students are improving and moving to the next level.  Teachers are able to help students based on what they really need and groups are going much better because students are in groups where they need the same skill.

Vocabulary associated with Nonsense Words
1)  recode:  students read the whole word, they do not sound it out 
2) correct letter sounds:  the number of correct sounds students correctly identified.

*Not the real names of students at my school  :)


  1. Congratulations to moving on past Dibels. :) I so agree with you that it is very important for students to be able to apply their skills to the process of reading and not just in isolation. Great work!
    Conversations in Literacy

  2. What an interesting post and it all makes perfect sense! I had to laugh at your disclaimer regarding your students' names!

    Learning at the Teacher Table


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