Phonics vs Sight Words

Once upon a time there was a great controversy regarding phonics vs sight words. Well, yes, the controversy still rages in some quarters with advocates on both sides of the debate. And in fact, there are advantages to both.

Phonics vs Sight Word Debate

Advantages of Phonics Instruction

Advantages of Sight Words

While the controversy will likely continue to rage for years to come, today's parents can help their child read with one simple strategy: include both!

The easiest way to teach reading is to start with phonics and add sight words as needed. If your child struggles with that approach, there are more advanced methods to help both of you.

More Info on the Phonic and Sight Word Debate

Some reading experts advocate a phonics approach to reading; while others advocate for sight word instruction using whole language or other methods.

From the halls of academia, to the circles of kindergarten classrooms, and even to the floor of Congress - the debate continues.

So, how does the parent sitting at the kitchen table or snuggled on the couch have confidence to teach reading if the experts don't agree?

Simple. Do what has always worked. Let's just break the process down a bit.

Which strategy (phonics or sight) does a competent reader use?


Try reading this word: "stringle."

How about this: "flodify."

Could you read it? You used phonics if you did.

You didn't recognize those words? Great, because they don't exist.

But if you were to read those words over and over again, your neurological system would recognize them as sight words. Here's a simple analogy. Imagine you have a file cabinet with three drawers marked "A-G" on top; "H-R" in the middle; and "S-Z" on the bottom. If you have a "p" file to put away, you might have to stop and figure out which drawer it belongs in. After repeated use, you "know" that file goes in the middle drawer without having to figure it out.

In the same way, the proficient reader has phonic strategies to decode and encode words, but also reading experience to recognize a vast number of words by sight.

It is interesting to note a progression in academic circles. In the "good old days," classroom students were taught to read using phonics, but taught math facts with a rote-memory system. Then it switched. Strategies were developed to teach comprehension of math reasoning to understand why 25 X 4 = 100. It become more like phonics: explaining why and how. But at the same time, reading changed to a "rote" method via sight recognition.

It should be noted that this is a simplification of reality; in that theorists and teachers have been using a spectrum of methods over the last decades. Nonetheless, it is possible to see the proverbial pendulum swing from "comprehension" to "fact recognition" and back again. And it can be noted that while the overall trend swings in one direction for reading, it may be swinging in the opposite direction for math or other academic subjects.

A Delightfully Simple Model of a Complex Process

>For those of you interested in getting your PhD in this subject, the explanation here may seem a bit overly simplistic. Nonetheless, it works.

Let's break reading into three steps.

#1 Pre-reading

#2 Decoding

#3 Reading Competency

A Simple Strategy

Phonics vs Sight Words: A strategy that works

The strategy we suggest seems a common sense one (but then I suppose everyone thinks their strategy rates highest for common sense.)

1. Use phonics to teach word families. Groups of words can be learned together which increases the rate in which students learn new words. The student also learns important decoding skills.

2. Teach sight words needed to read common but phonically irregular or difficult words.

This strategy will work for most children. Is it guaranteed to work for your child?

Unfortunately, no.

Some children do struggle to read due to a variety of possible learning problems. Depending on the problem, some methods will work better than others.

Balanced Literacy
Read the critique about this educational method.

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