Phonics versus Sight Words -- What Is The Proper Balance?

by Bruce Deitrick Price
(Virginia Beach)

This is really a response to the article called Phonics versus Sight Words.

I think there is a confusion in the terms that is keeping us from ever escaping from this whole debate. I see this confusion all over the place. Many people insist that they learned to read with Sight Words. Many people insist that they now use Sight Words. The writers of this article say that they taught their children to read with Sight Words. Etc.

But I believe that what is meant in every case is what we used to call a vocabulary word. You have a list of words, for example, elementary, serendipity, etc. You memorize these words in many ways at once -- the sequence of letters, the general look of the word, the syllables, the sounds, other associations you may have that will help you remember the word.
More than anything else, you remember the pronunciation first, then the spelling.

But in no case do you memorize the word as a graphic design, a shape, a configuration. That's what Sight Word refers to -- a shape that you memorize visually and in no other way. To memorize many such shapes is very difficult. Once people get past the two-syllable words, the Sight Word reader is usually helpless. A cluster like virtually, vigilante, vestigial, variegated, violently, voluntary, virginal, and so on is just a blur for the true Sight Word reader. Such a reader will just make a wild guess based on context. That's because few human brains can retain all the different designs. If you were to put all these words into capital letters, these readers would be even more adrift.

Meanwhile, the phonetic reader has no trouble. You could make up a list of 20 words starting with V, put them in lowercase, uppercase, italic, and the true reader will fly through them as if he is reading, "The man is sitting in a chair."

The reason I'm upset by this whole confusion is that I believe that it provides cover or protection for the shysters pushing Whole Word. If they can get millions of people talking about Sight Words in an approving way, as if Sight Words are perfectly normal acceptable things, then the Whole Word promoters are shielded.

I think if we can look inside the heads of teachers, parents, and children in a typical fifth-grade classroom, you would find that all of them have different and somewhat personal definitions of Sight Words. Whatever person A says, person B hears something he can agree with and so millions of people chatter endlessly about Sight Words, even though only a very tiny fraction of people with near-photographic memories can actually memorize thousands of Sight Words.

My own prescription is to get rid of this term totally and forever. You learn phonics. Then, more and more, you learn vocabulary words. That's what most educated people have always done. Sight Words were an aberration, and are the reason that recent government scores show that only one-third of elementary school children are proficient in reading.

Bruce Deitrick Price

Comments for Phonics versus Sight Words -- What Is The Proper Balance?

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Books Based on a Phonic Perspective??
by: Bruce Deitrick Price

We agree on almost everything so we shouldn't waste time quibbling over details.

But I am intrigued by this statement: "I have found that early reading books - whether they are from a sight word or phonic perspective - are bland and fail to turn children on to the beauty of literature and reading."

A Sight Word book is one with a controlled vocabulary; and the kids are memorizing those exact words. I know what that is.

But I don't know what a reading book based on a phonic perspective is. It sounds undesirable, as in second rate or contrived. That may have been the problem.

I should admit up front that I'm no expert and not a teacher. But my sense of the process is that as the children are learning to sound out words, they would immediately start practicing on nursery rhymes, famous poems, Aesop's fables, the newspaper, anything not too complicated.

One of the strangest, perhaps most revealing, things is the bit in "To Kill a Mockingbird" where the cook asks for advice on teaching her child to read, And Atticus hands her a copy of Black's Law Commentaries (I think), thereby breaking every rule that the literacy experts had come up with. But this boy became the most proper speaker in the county!

I love this story. The so-called experts were always emphasizing the problems -- type size, lighting, parental attitude, prior knowledge, 50 things that didn't really matter. Once the kids see the sounds in the words, they're off to the races. I just wouldn't think you would want to use a book that was artificial in any way. Use, as you say, literature.

by: Karen Newell

Thank you, Mr. Price for your comments. I just checked out your Improve-Education website and I feel everyone visiting this page would benefit from it.

A few points - I am the writer of the article on Phonics vs. Sight Words and I DO teach with a phonics approach. All of the points in favor of phonics you reiterate here and on your website are correct.

However, with time I became less of a "pure phonics" advocate. I have found that early reading books - whether they are from a sight word or phonic perspective - are bland and fail to turn children on to the beauty of literature and reading.

By adding some of the whole word methods to unknown words my students progressed to true literature books much quicker.

Yes - I would agree with you that with my approach the words were "vocabulary words" rather than strictly "sight words." Historically speaking, sight words were taught as picture words for deaf children by memorizing shapes. It is an approach that has worked for some children. It has also confused many others.

I am not advocating a straight sight word method. Indeed, if I was pushed to say we had to keep one method and get rid of the other, I would strongly advocate phonics OVER sight-words.

However, I do believe some of the techniques used in balanced literacy CAN enrich the learning process for students and teachers using phonics.

I feel that an on-going public debate on the strengths and weaknesses of balanced literacy is valuable. Mr. Price has contributed to this debate by discussing the harm that the pure-sight word method has had on some children. I encourage all interested parents to visit his website for more detailed information on this subject.

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