Children's Literature and Nonsense

Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, used nonsense words in his writing. Many children’s authors also used nonsense words, for example Edward Gorey, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Nonsense words in children’s literature are important because the recognition of nonsense words by a new reader is an indicator of their future level of literacy. If improvements are made in the realm of recognizing nonsense words, the child can have an improved reading outcome. A quick look at the history of children’s literature, Dr. Seuss, and indicators of early literacy will show why nonsense words are important.

Short History of Children’s Literature

Children’s literature, as we know it in the United States did not come into existence until the 18th Century in England.1 Children’s literature originally started in the oral tradition, with folk tales being passed down through generations for instruction and entertainment. In fact, the idea of childhood is relatively new. Until the early 1900’s and the introduction of child labor laws, children often worked long hours alongside adults.2

Early examples of books children may were chapbooks that could include bible verses to nursery rhymes. Other examples include Aesop’s Fables, illustrated with woodblock printing and Charles Perrault’s Tales of Mother Goose. In the 1740s John Newberry was a noted patent medicine salesman, but was also considered the father of children’s literature. He mainly published children’s books. While they included pictures and rhyme, the themes were still mainly moralistic.3 In 1812 Household Tales by the Grimm brothers was published, it included German folk tales. Color was introduced to printing in the early 19th century, however, the color was usually added by hand, and often by child labor.4

Picture books entered into the popular sphere in the 1900s. Previously, images were only used as decorations, until Beatrix Potter wrote and illustrated The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902.5 The images in picture books are as important as the words on the page. A "fusion of pictures and text is essential to unity of presentation in such books . . . a child should be able to retell the story from the pictures."6 These books should be read aloud to children to encourage vocabulary expansion.7 Picture books, containing illustrations along with prose or poetry can help children read at a higher level. The use of rhyme, onomatopoeia and other uses of sound can create a sensory experience.8 The melody of language in a picture book can aid in developing a "child’s intellect, emotional life, and social skills."9 With beginning reader books, a child is becoming an independent reader, and the words are supported by the images. Beginning reader books can include compound words, large font, short sentences length, short lines, and patterned language.10

Today, children’s books are often turned into audiobooks, but how does the experience compare with the original? Extra text may be added to the audio to explain what is lost from the illustrations. Sound effects can be used to anchor words. They also aid literacy skills. For example, Seuss works have specially composed music and sound effects included in audio recordings. The text is not to be read along with the audio, such as read-a-long book. The sound and music in conjunction with onomatopoeic words creates and "audible-pandemonium."11

Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss lived from 1904 to 1991. He published 46 children’s books during his lifetime. The books were written and illustrated by Seuss in rhyme with anapestic meter. Some of the books have been animated or made into live action movies. In the 1980s he received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal and a Pulitzer Prize. In 2004 the American Library Association (ALA) created the Theodore Geisel Award for distinguished contributions in illustrations and authorship with limited vocabulary use. It was first presented in 2006.12

In 1954 a report by John Hersey, on children’s literacy in the United States was published in Life magazine. The report argued word recognition and memorization "left the child without resources when confronted with an unfamiliar word."13 It theorized reading primers were boring and not engaging to children.14 They included "abnormally courteous and unnaturally clean boys and girls."15 This created a push to have more interesting books for children, and to teach phonics instead of memorization. The use of phonics would allow children to recognize an unfamiliar word.

William Spaulding, who was the Director of the Education Department at the book publisher Houghton Mifflin, wanted a book written that children would not want to put down. It would also be written with a limited vocabulary. Seuss was given a 400-word list from the publisher, the word were one’s children should know. Seuss decided to "use the first two words that rhymed as the title of the book."16 The end result was The Cat in the Hat. It contained 225 distinct words published in 1957.17 This led to the creation of the Beginner Books division at the publisher Random House in 1958. The books written at Random House utilized a 200-word list, where the author could select 20 words of their own choosing. Green Egg’s and Ham was written with a similar word list in 1960, and contains 49 distinct words.18

Dr. Seuss employs a variety of techniques in his writing and illustrations to engage and teach young children how to read. For example, italicized text in his publications indicates a stressed word. Other techniques used include linguistic devices, patterns of sound, compounding words to make new words, utilizing morphemes, creating new words with pivot words, onomatopoeia, alliteration, superlatives, and other devices.19

The techniques used in his writing can be employed in the classrooms of young children. One example is lesson plan on phonics and spelling for grades K to 2, Dr. Seuss’s Sound Words: Playing with Phonics and Spelling. Using Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?, originally published in 1970, students are encouraged to explore sound using graphemes and phonemes. Graphemes are a letter of the alphabet or a combination of letters, while phonemes are what is said or heard. Repetition of sounds and words "help young children learn the sounds of language, ultimately enabling them to associate sound with their respective graphemes."20 Students write down sounds they hear to create a connection between the words and the sounds they represent. This activity should help the students develop spelling strategies as well. However, literacy is still a problem that persists today. The National Reading Panel in 2000 concluded systematic phonics instructions should be playing a major role in literacy teaching.21


Nonsense Word Fluency (NWF) is a standardized, predictive measure to assess early reading skills. It shows children’s understanding of the alphabetic principle. The alphabetic principle has two parts, knowledge of letter sound correspondences and phonological recoding to blend sounds.22 NWF is one of many Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS). It is used to measure early literacy skills in children and to help identify those who may have problems with reading. The measurement typically occurs in kindergarten through second grade. The NWF measure takes about two minutes to administer. Students are given a random list of nonsense words and are asked to say them aloud. Stating the whole word will result in a higher score than saying each individual letter. Students who phonetically pronounce the nonsense word are thought to be able to read unfamiliar words easily. For those children with reading problems, early intervention is recommended.

Reading is fundamental to a child’s success in school and life. Low reading achievement has been linked to a multitude of social problems, such as dropping out of high school, delinquency, unemployment and homelessness.23 "Phonological awareness and learning to read is sizable and indicates that tasks measuring phonological awareness are moderate to strong predictors of the speed with which children acquire reading skills in the early grades."24 For those students who initially had low to moderate decoding skills studies have shown strong relations between NWF gains, oral reading fluency and reading comprehension scores.25


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