As in many areas of education, there are differences of opinion as to what constitutes valuable instruction. Regardless of on which side one falls, the measure should always be student understanding and achievement. One classic divide in the approach to reading instruction is between a whole language approach and a phonics-based approach. Proponents of whole language believe that students acquire the ability to read by being immersed in the language. Advocates of a phonics-based (Orton-Gillingham) approach hold that success in reading comes from direct and systematic teaching of the structures of language. The pendulum is currently swinging between the efficacy of using pseudo words versus real words during instruction and practice. One Orton-Gillingham tenet is that one must learn to read before one can read to learn. A major criticism of those who oppose the OG approach is that pseudo words carry no meaning, therefore, they cause more confusion than anything. This misnomer comes from a lack of understanding about this aspect of teaching reading.
The English language is approximately 85% predictable, meaning that there are consistent patterns which can be taught that give beginning and struggling readers a solid base on which to build their reading skills. For example, when a single vowel comes between two consonants, it almost always makes its short sound. Once this skill is taught using the OG multisensory approach, it is crucial to give students ample time practicing the new skill. One way to ensure that new readers are mastering a new skill is to conduct a rapid drill using the consonants and vowels which they have been taught. By placing letter cards in a C-V-C pattern and randomly switching the cards, students practice blending the sounds together. Sometimes the letters make real words, and sometimes they make pseudo words.
There is, however, a method to the teacher’s madness! For example, the teacher would never place the X card at the beginning of the word, nor would she place the J, QU, W, or H cards at the end of the word. The students have learned that words in English almost never start with the letter X, which makes the /ks/ sound; they have learned that words in English never end with the letter J or QU; and, they are directly taught that when you follow a single vowel with the letters Y or H, for example, the sound of the vowel is no longer short. The point is, students are explicitly taught these patterns, so when they are asked to read a pseudo word like D E T, it doesn’t throw them for a loop! In this case, the students might say, “Hey! DET is a real word.” To which, the teacher would reply, “Yes, the word DEBT is a real word, but it is not spelled like DET, it is a sight word, which we will learn later.” This is what causes so much consternation with the pseudo-word naysayers. They insist that this kind of dialogue just causes confusion. On the contrary, this kind of dialogue is enriching the student’s understanding of our language. As the student progresses, more advanced phonemes, graphemes, and syllable types are introduced. By this time, they completely understand the pseudo word’s place in their instruction.
The whole language approach to reading by word recognition often gets more difficult and less effective as the students are introduced to more complex Greek and Latin-based words. Because students are not always taught word attack skills in the whole language approach, when an unfamiliar word presents itself, students often do not know where to begin trying to decode it. Using the OG approach, students are explicitly taught to break down a word by syllables, giving them a clear understanding that multisyllabic words consist of detached syllables, like SED. So, when the word SED shows up in a blending drill, students might say, “That is not how you spell the word SAID.” To which, the teacher would reply, “That’s correct, but remember SED can be part of a larger word like SEDIMENTARY or SEDATIVE.” An important thing to remember is, teachers are not teaching students to read pseudo words for the sake of reading pseudo words. They are teaching students to read syllables that are part of larger words. While the ability to read PATE, EX, and CUL has no meaning as individual syllables, a student who is comfortable reading each pseudo word will also be comfortable reading EXCULPATE. If a nonsense word is defined as one that has no meaning, and therefore no value in the process of teaching decoding, then why would a teacher have a student read COG if they do not know the meaning; yet, they will be expected to read the word INCOGNITO later on?
The bottom line is, pseudo words have a very important place in learning to master reading. They help the teacher know for certain that her students are using their skills to read words, not just memorizing; they are critical to diagnosing students with dyslexia; and, they give kids confidence that they can read any word that is presented to them. Actually, students find reading these pseudo words fun—and isn’t that the goal of reading, for if we inspire students to enjoy the process of learning to read, we will create lifelong, inquisitive readers.
Esther J. Moreau, M.Ed., CDP