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Phonics vs. Sight Words

Bruce Deitrick Price Founder, Improve-Education.org

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Eventually, with enough

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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.

Founder, Improve-Education.org

Words have too many meanings

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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.

Role of letter order on reading...

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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

http://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/people/matt.davis/Cmabrigde/

Founder, Improve-Education.org

QED

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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.

Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

Reading without benefit of phonics...

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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.

mk

Dyslexia Tutor from Victoria, BC

Students that can't seem to

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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. www.brightsolutions.us

i find this debate

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i find this debate interesting because I have never heard such a thing. I feel as though some words have to be learned by memorizing (sight words). Although I am a firm believer in teaching phonics, some words just can not be learned with a phonics rule like what or have. Students truly gain a lot from sight words, and I can say that being in the classroom and seeing it for my own eyes. I value your opinion, but unless you have seen it first hand you will not see how it benefits the students. Now, not all students learn the same way and some might not benefit from sight words, but some will. That is the whole idea of teaching. You have to teach multiple ways to make sure you hit all students different learning styles.

Founder, Improve-Education.org

More Support For Phonics

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For anyone still confused by this debate, please see "42: Reading Resources" (on Improve-Education.org). This article explains why phonics is essential and provides a list of a dozen phonics programs.

In just the last few months, I've learned about three more programs (the last three on the list). I talked on the phone with all three creators, and it's wonderful to find so much innovation.

Sue Dickson (whose "Sing, Spell, Read & Write" emphasizes music) casually mentioned that she has taught tens of thousands of children to read, with not one failure. Marva Collins claims on her site that she taught EVERY child to read by Christmas of their first year. Siegfried Engelmann said in one of his books that he and his staff have taught thousands of children to read, many of them with low IQs, and not one of them failed to learn. This is the extraordinary track record of phonics. (Meanwhile, the public schools, many still pushing sight-words, casually state that 20% of their students will be diagnosed with dyslexia.)

Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

Let's revisit the fundamental assertions of this discussion

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I thought we were considering the efficacy of ever teaching reading any other way than pure phonics. That is a different question than: should phonics be taught. That question has been answered, and the answer is yes!

My experience indicates that a very small percentage of otherwise normally developing learners do not learn reading with a phonic strategy even if it is carefully presented by competent teachers. My assertion is that something fundamentally different is happening for this small percentage of students, and that more practice with pure phonics will not help them transform into people who learn to read through phonics instruction. Just as tying a child's left hand down won't turn him into a righty (a once common practice in some schools).

Leslie posted:

"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)."

I don't doubt this is a factor for some students, but it's usually not a problem at my school. All our students (including the small percentage who do not respond to phonics instruction) are exposed to an excellent phonics immersion process. The process is so successful that many children learn to read fluently well before they enter kindergarten. The years of specific preparation and the careful attention to each student's progress allow for a very high degree of success. When we notice that students are not picking up phonics easily, we have many second line materials and activities which can help them get the practice they need. We have even used multiple waves of different types of instruction in an effort to reach individual readers.

Because of the overwhelimg success of the process, we know that it works to teach phonics. We still have a very occasional student who does not pick up the phonic code after years of careful prep, instruction, and review. I've yet to see a single one of them, though, who failed to learn to read. They are using something other than phonics which allows them to make meaning out of text. I want to know more about what they are doing, and asserting that phonics is always the answer for every reader doesn't help me find out.

I firmly believe that we should teach phonics to each and every child. I also firmly believe that doing so will not help every child become an efficient reader. I'm all for finding the best possible ways to teach phonic strategies (especially when they are supported by good data), but I also think we should explore what these non-phonic readers are doing and how we can help them do it most effectively.

MK

Founder, Improve-Education.org

Reading Scores Suggest Widespread Semi-literacy

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New national reading scores are BAD, and suggest that many current theories are merely myths.

As stated at beginning, I suspect that sight-words are leading many astray. Here's a new piece arguing that position: "Nation’s Reading Crisis Continues! Most Kids Functionally Illiterate!"

http://www.proskore.com/pressrelease.cfm?PRID=72791

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