Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Nonsense Fluency

My kindergarten daughter recently brought home her mid-year report card. Parts were easy to read – e.g. that she’s only “partially developed” in her ability to tie her shoelaces, but “well-developed” in her ability to count. Somewhat more baffling was the chart that showed her performance on the literacy measure known as the DIBELS, presented as graphs and percentiles and jargon. In the prosody, however, there were nuggets of poetry.

In the category of “nonsense fluency”, my daughter is “low risk”. What that technically means is that she did ok on a test that asked her to read 2 and 3 letter nonsense syllables. Although at first I was pleased to know that she’s a nonsense fluency low risk, as I read on I was slightly alarmed by the sense I could make of the tests and the language in which they were reported. My daughter was given a percentile ranking vis-à-vis her classmates, who were admitted into a selective kindergarten based on tests that ranked them vis-à-vis other city applicants. It seemed, well, nonsense to rank them against one another. After all, that means that some child in her class ranked down at 1%, even though he or she is probably reading much better than many other kindergarteners. More to the point, since no sensible child would bother with the numbers, that means that some poor parent opened up the report to find their child in the percentile basement – and what’s the sense of that?

Lately, I’ve been wondering what exactly it would mean to be at high risk of nonsense fluency. What about the boy who wrote a story about how he and his mother sat on a booby-trapped bench, on the day I volunteered and was put in charge of helping children write stories using “ch” words. “In the picture I drew, it was in 3-D”, he told me, “but I don’t have time to write that”. High risk of nonsense fluency, I suspect, and a good story. When she’s playing by herself, my daughter sometimes invents “fairy language”, to speak to the imaginary fairies she’s playing with. High risk, and delightful to overhear.

Being at a high risk of nonsense fluency myself, thanks to many years of education, I take the report card as a reminder to shut up sometimes. If you start making too much sense of nonsense, you put yourself at a high risk indeed.

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