This is a test of nonword reading. Nonwords (sometimes called ‘pseudowords’) are letter strings that are not recognised words in a given language (in this case English), but could be – i.e. they conform to orthographic rules of the language. For example, ‘gade’ or ‘tiphalune’ are not English words but are nevertheless pronounceable as though they were words, using phonological decoding skills (and, possibly, analogy processes, e.g. ‘gade’ might be rhymed with ‘fade’ or ‘glade’). If a student pronounced ‘gade’ as ‘gad´ee’ (instead of applying the silent ‘e’ rule which changed the short ‘a’ to a long ‘a’), or ‘tiphalune’ as ‘tip´hall´unee’ (instead of ‘tif´aloon’ or ‘ti´farloon’), we would have good evidence that the student does not possess the appropriate phonological decoding rules (often referred to by teachers simply as ‘phonics’). In some cases there may be other phonological problems, such as difficulties in sequencing phonemes or syllables (e.g. the student may pronounce ‘tiphalune’ as ‘till´a´foon’), additional to – or instead of – failure to apply rules of phonics.

Students with dyslexia typically experience difficulties in reading nonwords (Snowling and Hulme, 1994). Indeed, there is evidence from a wide range of different tasks (not just nonwords) that individuals with dyslexia of all ages generally find phonological activities difficult (Bruck, 1992, Snowling et al, 1997, Snowling, 2000) and there is a school of scientific thought that regards dyslexia as essentially a phonological processing difficulty (Rack, 1994; Snowling, 1995, 2000). Hence a low score on the LASS Nonwords test is usually a good indication of dyslexia. However, teachers should be aware that there are other possible explanations for a low score on Nonwords, including:

  • the student has never been taught phonics properly
  • the student has insufficient experience of English
  • the student has hearing problems

In order to resolve these possibilities, the teacher will need to consider other relevant evidence (such as medical history or information about the student’s primary or elementary schooling) but must also take into account the student’s performance on the other LASS tests. For example, if the student also performs poorly on Segments, then this would support conclusions of a phonological processing difficulty. However, although it is true that most students with dyslexia have phonological processing difficulties, there are some cases of dyslexia that do not display such difficulties (Beaton, McDougall and Singleton, 1997b; Rack, 1997; Turner, 1997). Hence teachers should beware of assuming that because a student does not have a low score on Nonwords he or she cannot therefore have dyslexia.

By inspecting the data pages for Nonwords, the assessor can examine the student’s results in detail. This will help to determine whether the problem is mainly one of hearing – in which case errors will usually be scattered throughout the test – rather than poor phonics skills, in which case errors will tend to increase as the test gets more difficult.

Lack of experience with English can limit awareness of pronunciation rules. For example, in one of the more difficult items in Nonwords: ‘troughilicancy’ (pronounced ‘troff´ill´ick´an´see’), in order to select the correct answer a student needs to know that ‘–ough’ is pronounced ‘–off’ and that ‘c’ followed by a vowel is usually pronounced ‘k’ but when followed by a ‘y’ is pronounced ‘s’). Inspection of the data pages for Nonwords will enable the assessor to determine the nature of the student’s difficulties in these respects. Further guidelines on interpreting results obtained by students for whom English is an additional language may be found in Section 7.10.