Friday 25 May 2012

As Easy as IKEA

            IKEA has to be one of my least favourite shopping venues. Doubtless many excellent homeware products are available there if you are brave enough to enter the IKEA maze. But, frankly, I break out in a cold sweat on the rare occasions I venture inside and vow to take a ball of string next time, so that I’ll be able to find my way out again. I have to admit, however, that I am always fascinated by the Scandiwegian names of the various items on display. Last time I visited, I started to copy some of the words down until I was put off by the nervous looks of fellow shoppers who were clearly not as amused. ‘SNITSIG’ read one sign; STUVA read another; and then came GORM, LEKSVIK, BOLMEN, MAMMUT, BARNSLIG and SNIGLAR, like a troop of dwarves from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
            If it were not for the presence of the items themselves or the smaller explanatory labels in English, I would not know to what these words referred. Nevertheless, I could read them all aloud easily (if not necessarily pronounced totally correctly), as could most young fluent readers who have been taught the alphabetic principle of letter sound correspondence, also known as phonics. In fact, walking through IKEA and reading the signs is a bit like taking the sort of reading test we give young children to find out if they are making good progress in the basics of learning to read.
            Such tests of ‘nonwords’, words that are phonically regular but have no meaning in English like ‘snitsig’ or ‘gorm’, can be very useful. They help to tell us how well children are able to decode unfamiliar words that they have not learned by sight as a result of frequent repetition. If we were to use actual English words that are phonically regular (like ‘tractor’, ‘comment’ or ‘chapter’) we could not be sure that children were using phonic decoding skills; they may have memorised them as whole ‘sight words’ from reading books.
            Some educators get hot under the collar about the use of nonword tests. They argue that reading is about deriving meaning from the written word and since nonwords, by definition, have no meaning, testing nonwords has to be a totally pointless exercise. This argument misses the point about the use of nonword tests. I don’t think anyone would claim that reading is only about accurate decoding using phonics but knowledge of the alphabetic principle is a necessary (although not, of course, sufficient) precondition for reading for meaning. If children do not understand the words they are reading, they may indeed be said to be merely ‘barking at print’. But if they cannot decode the words on the page in the first place, they have no chance of utilising their existing knowledge of word meanings
            By using IKEA type tests of meaningless nonwords, we can help to determine whether children are progressing well in the important precondition of being able to decode words. If they are, when they encounter unfamiliar words in future, they will be able to use their phonic skills to sound out the word, relate it to a word already in their spoken vocabulary and, hence, derive its meaning. Of course, we also need to assess other aspects of a child’s reading skill such as reading fluency and, especially, reading comprehension per se. But it would be a mistake to dismiss nonword tests as irrelevant in the quest for meaning. Something to think about the next time you go past the sniglar and the mammut in your quest to find that elusive IKEA exit.