The nonsense words in phonics tests, like those of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, can help children think laterally and creatively
According to the UK Literary Association, pupils with fluent reading skills are being confused by tests that force them to decode "nonsense" words using phonics, a system that breaks down words into sounds.
Generally speaking, nonsense words are a series of sounds with the original sense dislocated from them. They can be names broken down into sense like TS Eliot's Practical Cats, Coricopat, Munkustrap or Bombalurina; portmanteau words like Lewis Carroll's frumious, slithy, mimsy or uffish; Edward Lear's phonetic eggisbission and pollygise or Alan Coren's book titles for Punch in the 1970s which included shutzpah and shutzspeak.
The creative freedom of nonsense words and language is a peculiarly English tradition, stretching back to Chaucer and Shakespeare. We enjoy the absurd. It relates to an independence of outlook and a reluctance to conform. English eccentrics are valued and cherished, immune from the suffocation of standardisation.
Nonsense occupies a valued position in the literary canon. It is recognised as an expression of freedom of thought and democracy in opposition. It is a contrast to convention and formality and each serves to highlight the other. There would be no point, and indeed no fun, in nonsense without a formal structure to operate against. Fools and jesters are accepted as wise men whose nonsense conceals truths too difficult for mortals to accept. Lear's Fool, for example, argues that the Crown is an egg and makes fun of his master:
"Fools had ne'er less grace in a year
For wise men are grown foppish,
And know not how their wits to wear,
Their manners are so apish."
As for nonsense poetry, the imperative of a rhyme often results in the oddest conjunction of ideas. For instance in Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass the White Knight's song produces this:
"I sometimes dig for buttered rolls
or set limed twigs for crabs
I sometimes search the grassy knolls
For wheels of hansom cabs."
Or what about the nonsense verses of skipping songs that are everything to do with sound and repetition and make absolutely no sense at all?
"Onery, towery, tickery, seven;
Alibi, crackaby, ten and eleven
Pin, pan, musky dan
Tweedle-um, twoddle-um, twenty-wan,
Eerie, orie, ouri
You, are, out."
Children probably have a more natural grasp of nonsense than we adults realise and perhaps this should be cherished. Assessments involving nonsense words could well help pupils to think in a lateral and creative way by working backwards, and fashioning sense from nonsense. Ultimately, however, it must be a complement to learning proper vocabulary, the rudiments of grammar and basic spelling.