"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Monday, June 16, 2014

Plurp, fronkett, gan...

        Plurp, fronkett, gan, fosh, nubble, staviousness… I’m pushing spell check today.  Nonsense words follow conventional sound-letter rules.  To start teaching our students we need to know where they are at.  Their current reading level can be determined with various tests, but our reading this week discussed nonsense words and we were asked to ponder the idea of why students who cannot manage the nonsense, can make great gains with phonics instruction. 

        I recall reading “Jabberwocky”, Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem from the novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.  I knew it was a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but I didn't “get it”.  I could read it, but my comprehension lagged horribly.  I knew something was killed, yet I wasn't sure if it was a good thing or not.  I did learn that the term “chortle” came from this poem, and is no longer a nonsense word.  However, I digress… my point being that when we understand phonics, we can decode, and later (maybe) we can comprehend.  This is what Alamprese discovered from her analysis of results from the WJ-R Word Attack test.  I was trained to administer the Woodcock-Johnson as a learning disability teacher, and administering the word attack is probably my least favorite, because it does seem like nonsense – yet important nonsense. 

        The unevenness of the ABE readers’ profiles is the puzzle the instructor needs to understand and interpret.  It must be a huge challenge, given other students, time, and limited resources.  I understand why statistics consider comprehension when they measure results, and I recognize this must seem frustrating to teachers who witness so many other gains in decoding.  Comprehension is the level that makes a difference in real life.  Decoding “plurp” makes no difference if I cannot comprehend its meaning.  Still, I empathize for the student who takes pride in reading “plurp” and the instructor that devoted such time to hear them read “plurp”.


  1. I can relate, Lisa, as I also was a special ed teacher in areas of learning disabilities and emotional disturbance. And I binged out on the WJ-III, creating policy in the Bureau of Prisons that required each institution to have a special ed teacher qualified to administer both batteries. (We also recruited the psychologists to administer the WAIS-R so we could compare aptitude and achievement refer students for GED accommodations.) Here's the thing about the Word Analysis (and similar pseudonym-based) test: sometimes adults score poorly because they have been out of school forever and the task is incomprehensible to them. Everything they know about reading points to recognizing words. So, while the test is extremely valuable when administered in a valid way, it is problematic because it often times the score isn't. So Strucker uses Word REcognition as a proxy for phonics, even though it is actually sight reading. Hmmm, the adult literacy world is filled with weird practices and adaptations!
    One last thought: sometimes learners resist being taught phonics precisely because of the reasons you outline above. Sometimes we can convince them of its importance by (a) reassuring them that they are capable of reading at a higher level that the phonics tasks might insinuate; and (b) show them that by spending a little time each day fine-tuning their word attack skills, their fluency when reading higher level texts will improve. If they see the real-life benefit of phonics (in terms of becoming un-stuck decoding words), then that outcome can be just as meaningful to them as actual comprehension!

  2. Hi Lisa, I remember learning Phonics in grade school from 1st - 3rd grade. Perhaps that was the standard practice at the time or a benefit of having nuns as educators in my formative years? But, I found those lessons learned invaluable. Even now as an adult, having a base of phonics in my early education continues to serve me when I need to "sound it out" in order to pronounce a new word and imprint it in my memory. However, I also feel there are other ways to bring a reader into full comprehension with Phonics as a part of that process. As Bill stated in his reply above, teaching a reader the importance of knowing how to recognize those squiggles into sounds, and then text gives a connection to the learner and the text. Once they can see that text has more meaning, more pathways in their learning begin to take shape. It’s those nuances of meaning that will aid in providing a higher level of reading/language fluency to the learner. But fluency in reading is a learned process and finding the steps that will take the learner forward can be daunting for both the reader and instructor. Yet, those steps are of great importance, even if they seem like baby-steps for the learner.


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.