Word Games and Nonsense Words in the Classroom

As I was writing the most recent post about poetry, as well as in our class discussion of traditional and nontraditional writing and the importance of writing everyday, I began thinking of ways to introduce nontraditional and non-assessed writing to students.  What about those times when we truly just want them to have fun with words?

In reading for this post, I came across a lot of articles that describe the use of nonsense words in literacy instruction with DIBELS measures, Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills. DIBELS-Kindergarten-Test-Sample.jpg

I can see the use of activities where you create nonsense words like the ones on the right to reinforce students’ understanding of phonemes and letter-sound recognition.  However, what I’m more interested in is the use of nonsense words with older students with the intention of expanding ideas of language and its limits.  One could introduce instances of neologisms or nonsense words in classic literature, as well as in contemporary writing or music.  A class studying Shakespeare could shake things up with a lesson dedicated to his creation of new words and doing some writing exercises to explore how students could create their own.

I grew up in a household that loved its word games, we played Taboo, Scattegories, Fictionary, Scrabble, Acronymble and some that I think my parents made up.  Where could these games fit into classroom instruction?  With inspiration from Fictionary or Pictionary, students could be encouraged to find obscure words in their readings and challenge their classmates to come up with definitions for it.  Make an Oddball WordWall!

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/0/09/Acronymble_box_cover.pngTaboo 02.jpg

I grew up with wordplay and nonsense words in some of my favorite books, such as those by Lewis Carroll, Shel Silverstein, William Steig and Dr. Seuss.  The nonsense words in Dr. Seuss books make kids laugh, but it can also make them think about rhyme and rhythm.  The coded sentences created from individual letters in Steig’s C D B! were hilarious puzzles when I was a kid, and although some might seem familiar to kids today since the dawn of online language’s abbreviations, I think it could be fun to engage an elementary class in the creation of similar letter-play.

I love the words Lewis Carroll created in Jabberwocky (especially “frumious Bandersnatch” and “mome rath”) and I always thought creating nonsense word poetry would be really fun with a class.  I’d most likely look for some more recent nonsense word poetry to read with them, rather than relying solely on Jabberwocky as my model.  Creating poems in internet speak/abbreviations, complete with “smh” and “imo” and “icymi,” could be a fun way to explore that language in a different medium than it is normally used.

I spoke with a librarian last year who leads an enormous yearly project around the book The Phantom Tollbooth (wordplay galore!).  She hosts a Word Bazaar (from the book) in the library, where students must trade and create words, using letters as currency.  I always wondered how much instruction would have to accompany a class reading of this book for students to be able to grasp the wordplay, but it remains an extremely popular read and the Word Bazaar is a favorite activity with the school that hosts it.

I’ll finish by repeating the idea that cultivating a healthy sense of fun when it comes to words and language could be a great way to engage learners in expanding their view of what writing can be.



More reading on Wordplay:

Eckler, R. (1996). Making the Alphabet Dance: Recreational Wordplay.

Figgins, M. A., & Johnson, J. (2007). Wordplay: The Poem’s Second Language. English Journal, 96(3), 29-35.

Whitaker, S. (2008). Finding the Joy of Language in Authentic Wordplay. English Journal, 97(4), 45-48.


One thought on “Word Games and Nonsense Words in the Classroom

  1. I’m a little late on the comment, but WOW! What a great concept – incorporating nonsense words into something beyond assessment! As a third grade teacher, when you say ‘nonsense words,’ all I can think of is the assessment from mClass for lower grades. It’s frustrating that even something so potentially silly and fun (like nonsense words) can become bogged down with assessment! I love your idea of incorporating the nonsense words elsewhere and using other texts that support nonsense words 🙂 You are awesome!


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