Critical Literacy, Not Nonsense Literacy

Here is the crux of the ultimate failure of the “science of reading” movement; it embraces nonsense literacy, claiming it is a necessary step on the journey toward comprehension for all students.

Paul Thomas
4 min readAug 25, 2020
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

At 59 with almost 40 years experience as an educator (focusing on literacy) and writer, I remain someone who struggles with spelling.

And when I come across an unfamiliar word, I ask around until I find someone who can pronounce it aloud for me; I have never really tried to “sound it out” — even though I have intuited a huge amount of letter/sound patterns in the English language.

Also, as a Southerner, my common pronunciation of many words doesn’t quite align with the so-called “proper” pronunciation of those words; I can make one-syllable words two syllables, and choke two-syllable words into one.

“Hell” is one of my better versions of the former.

More like “hey-uhl.”

None the less, I am a highly literate person with a reading and writing background that outpaces most people in sheer volume significantly. I also love language and the history of the English language.

After fumbling my way earnestly through a decade or more of teaching high school English and honing my craft as a writer, I discovered critical pedagogy and critical literacy in my 30s during my doctoral program. That “discovery” was simply a recognition of an ideology and practice I had already been attempting to grasp daily as a teacher, but finding this philosophy already existed was deeply liberating — and crucial for my own practice as an educator of literacy.

I have a very firm appreciation for and understanding of the holistic nature of literacy, but I also am an ardent advocate for critical literacy as the ultimate goal of reading and writing instruction.

My commitments to holistic and critical literacy have resulted in a career-long battle with advocates of isolated and intensive grammar and phonics instruction (what I frame as grammar/phonics as the goal of instruction, not as authentic components of broader literacy goals such as critical literacy).

For a couple years now, I have been confronting the most recent Reading War, often labeled as the “science of reading,” which is another veneer for advocates of systematic intensive phonics for all students.

The general public, likely, isn’t aware that “phonics” isn’t a monolithic instructional practice or concept; within the field of phonics, there is debate (such as synthetic approach versus analytic phonics).

The systematic intensive phonics being advocated for all students by proponents of the “science of reading” includes a focus on teaching students to decode nonsense words (such as the assessment DIBELS).

The embracing of teaching and assessing nonsense words is a central concern for me as a holistic and critical literacy teacher.

Consider this from Nicola Yelland:

Advocates of the phonics screening tests claim that they are fun. In fact, for fluent readers, it can destroy their recognition as competent readers. In one school example, a boy who came to school reading, and who continued to flourish as a fluent reader, scored 2/40! Since the test includes nonsense words in the quest to focus on decoding (he read “elt” as “let,” “sarps” as “rasp,” and “chab” as “cab,” to foreground a few). What he seemed to be doing was re-arranging the letters or sounds and reconstructing them into recognizable words that he knew made sense. Meanwhile, another child whom the teacher regarded as not being a fluent reader was able to sound out the nonsense words as well as regular words and achieve a score of 16/40, all without knowing their meaning. Thus, the raw scores from the test of each child give us no information about them as readers and how they can make meaning from text; they simply show how they decode words out of context.

Adoniou (2018) has pointed out that while the phonics screening test scores are increasing in the United Kingdom where it was introduced in 2011, with children improving in their ability to read words like “kigh” and “queep,” reading comprehension scores have not improved. So, the claims of success of teaching with the phonics approach would seem to be premature. She also notes that the assertion that the test has given teachers more data with which to support children struggling with reading is false. There is no evidence that test results data was any better than the teachers’ professional judgements. Some of the synthetic phonics “kits” include 80 hours of lessons for 20 weeks in small groups of no more than four children. This requires high-level resourcing for systems, and while research revealed improved skills in phonemic awareness and letter sound knowledge, as that is what the 80 hours was designed for, there were “no better outcomes on reading whole passages of text” (Quach et al., 2019, p. 8).

Here is the crux of the ultimate failure of the “science of reading” movement; it embraces nonsense literacy, claiming it is a necessary step on the journey toward comprehension for all students.

That is, at best, a tenuous claim, but it does expose the anaemic view of literacy and incomplete goals of the “science of reading” movement, which fails to reach for (or even acknowledge) critical literacy for all students and seeks to justify spending precious time on nonsense with children — time that could and should be better spent in rich and authentic literacy experiences.

As Yelland’s example above shows, nonsense is a distraction from sense-making in reading; however, nonsense makes for very manageable (and profitable) “phonics instruction.”

It shouldn’t have to be stated, but let me be clear, for children learning to read, we must choose critical literacy over nonsense literacy.



Paul Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.