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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Phonics vs. Sight Words

Phonics vs. Sight Words

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Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

Hi Lisa,

Thanks for the link.

Dr. Montessori wrote extensively on the subject of instruction for the 3-6 year old. But, like many educators of her day, she had believed that reading instruction before age 7 was not beneficial. She didn't include reading instruction in her curriculum until the children begged her to teach it. Because Dr. M was speaking a phonetic language, reading instruction was fairly straightforward and uneventful. American Montessori teachers have had to develop curriculum to support reading instruction in response to student needs.

What Dr. M did provide is a rich preparation for reading and everything that comes after it. Through two curriculum areas (known as Practical Life and Sensorial) Dr. M's work prepares the child's hand, eye, ear, and mind for all instruction which will follow. These sets of exercises promote concentration and focus, organization, and sequencing ability. They help children to develop stronger perceptual abilities and they promote vocabulary development. These lessons are accomplished through a variety of attractive object sets, the use of which promotes the underlying principles inherent in each set.

The primary phonics lesson seems to parallel the OG practices:

The student sits beside the teacher facing a work mat defining the child's work space. On the mat are two wooden tiles, each featuring a large sandpaper figure of a lower case letter. The letters are presented in strongly contrasting pairs (m with t, s with a, etc.). The teacher grasps one tile, strokes it with two fingers of the dominant hand, and says: "This is mmm," extending the sound if possible. The tile is given to the student: "Trace mmm with your fingers and say mmm." The teacher repeats the stroke + sound and replaces the tile in exchange for its contrasting partner. She performs the same introduction for the second tile and replaces it on the work mat.

The teacher then directs the child to manipulate each tile independently, following a series of verbal instructions: "Put mmm on your lap. Give mmm to me. Put t on your lap. Give t to me. Take mmm and place it on the rug. Take t and place it on the rug." By assessing the child's success with regard to following the instructions, the teacher can gauge how well the child has internalized the symbol/sound pairing. If the teacher feels the child has understood the labels given to the figures, and can differentiate them, then the last part of the lesson is given. If it is clear that the child cannot differentiate the tiles, we may end the lesson at this juncture, without asking the child to name each sound.

In the final phase, the teacher holds a letter and asks: "What is this?" If the child answers correctly, he has accomplished the lesson, if not, the teacher notes his practice and plans to represent the pair another day. At this point the lesson can be extended whether or not the child has experienced success. Some students love to make crayon rubbings of each letter as it is presented. They often choose to include a drawing of some object which begins with the letter. Others just want to sit and stroke the letter while they repeat the sound.

Like OG phonics, this presentation involves multisensory input and encourages the child to participate actively in the lesson. Beyond this initial presentation, Montessori instruction has a definite "writing to reading" bent that encourages students to encode before they get into any heavy duty reading. To that end, students work with plastic alphabet letters which allow them to "build" words one sound at a time at a very young age, even before they can form letters with a pencil. The preceding is just the tip of the iceberg, but I feel like I'm talking your ear off...cybernetically, that is...


Lisa's picture

Mary Kate - Thanks.

What a rich explanation, very interesting. It seems that with the Montessori approach the preparation to read greatly facilitates skill acquisition. You see that to some degree unfold in public schools. Those children who arrive in kindergarten with a great deal of previous exposure to letters, their sounds and a solid oral vocabulary, they have a much easier time learning to read. There are certainly some students who despite such exposure will for neurobiological reasons (dyslexia, etc.) have difficulty learning to read, however, there is also a population, generally those from economically disadvantaged communities, who simply do not have the early exposure and for them learning to read is a challenging endeavor, perhaps because of what knowledge is assumed as the process begins.

Hardly talking my ear off - cybernetically or otherwise. Lots to think about. Thanks.

Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

Yes, so despite the rich multisensory phonics-heavy approach, some do not learn easily in this way.

This is the data bit that makes me think that phonics is not a universal road to reading. Brains have an adaptive habit of building work around pathways to get things done when the usual route isn't working. I'm wondering if these kids build a system which somehow bypasses the sound/symbol connection completely and instead relies on a whole word approach which involves mapping a word shape or letter sequence to its meaning.

My reader who doesn't do sounds can use root/prefix/suffix clues to aid in extracting meaning. She is very good at memorizing new rules. She relies very heavily on context. It's working for her now, but I worry how she'll do when she's in high school/college and the amount of new vocabulary becomes really overwhelming.


Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

I really can't add much to this conversation, however, Mary Kate Land said it best! Good Job!

Lisa's picture

Eventually, with enough exposure, what was once a word that had to be sounded out becomes a sight word. As you point out Mary Kate, the issue is that when students move into areas that involve more advanced vocabulary (multisyllabic/discipline specific) without a strong phoneme-grapheme connection the compensation strategies of the past can begin to become overwhelmed. A strong understanding of roots/prefixes/suffixes as well as established background knowledge (solid conceptual schema) will aid a labored reader right through college. This is where motivation becomes key, too frequently students become frustrated, give up and do just the minimum which isn't nearly enough practice to establish efficient pathways. I have always thought it was curious that for students who have issues with phonics we give them more phonics but it is essential for achieving true literacy and the ability to read actually alters the corpus callosum (connects left/right hemisphere.) From what I have studied, "efficient" or fluent readers rely much more on the left hemisphere of the brain than the right and activate an area in the temporal/occipital lobe. Less efficient readers, like the student MK describes, typically use both hemispheres. So long as she continues to read she will continue to advance, however, she will likely never be a fast reader but then accuracy/comprehension are perhaps much more important. In college balancing classes that have heavy reading loads with those that require less reading is a scheduling strategy that can support academic achievement.

Bruce Deitrick Price's picture
Bruce Deitrick Price

One thought: "sight word" should be kept to its technical definition of a word one knows only by sight, as a design or configuration. Anything that can be sounded out ceases to be a sight word.

Conversely, a true sight word reader will always confuse superficially similar words--such as violent, vigorous, virulent, velocity, virtuous, virtual--precisely because such readers are NOT sounding out the letters, rather they are trying to attach a name to a visual cluster that they are sure they have seen before. This is not reading.

Lisa's picture

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae.

The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

The above paragraph circulated for a bit in early 2000 and claimed that for the fluent reader word recognition boiled down to recognizing the first and last letters in a word. I share this because while it would seem that when reading is fully automatized in the brain less information is actually needed for comprehension, which is not the case, rather different information. What I think the paragraph really demonstrates is how fascinating the reading process is and as readers develop different processes clearly come online to support the task. Below is the source for the paragraph above and a link to the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University and an explanation by Matt Davis on the relevant research. It's very interesting.

Rawlinson, G. E. (1976) The significance of letter position in word recognition. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Psychology Department, University of Nottingham, Nottingham UK

Bruce Deitrick Price's picture
Bruce Deitrick Price

Funny....I always thought this bit of so-called research proves the opposite of what is claimed. The reason we can read the scrambled stuff is because our brain identifies the individual letters and then tries them out in slightly different arrangements, and quickly finds the answer. Unless a sight-word reader had memorized rghit as a sight-word, reading it would be impossible.

Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

is happening for some students. If we define reading as the process of extracting meaning from written text, then even recognizing a sight word is reading. Everyone reads some words without benefit of phonics. Some kids seem to rely on non-phonic strategies more than most.

BTW, my non-phonic friend would definitely confuse vigorous, virulent, velocity, and virtuous, but she would probably read virtual and violent because she has experience with those. She would also be able to read the others if I pronounced them for her, and talked with her about their meaning, and she practiced them in context.


Leslie O'Hagan's picture
Leslie O'Hagan
Dyslexia Tutor from Victoria, BC

Students that can't seem to catch on to blending are often dyslexic. As dyslexia is classified as phonemic awareness disorder, the correction involves first teaching them how to HEAR the individual phonemes in words. Only then are the symbols (letters) introduced in small groups. The reading/spelling process is then taught in small logical steps (Orton-Gillingham method). Check out Susan Barton's web sight. She is a leading expert on Dyslexia in the States.

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