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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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Bruce Deitrick Price's picture
Bruce Deitrick Price
Founder, Improve-Education.org

If you go to YouTube you will see that the Reading Wars rage on. To my surprise, there are a lot of videos that present sight-words (or Dolch words) as a good and necessary thing.

I would've thought that "Why Johnny Can't Read" disproved that a long time ago.

Be that as it may, if you are looking for arguments against sight-words and for phonics, I have a dozen videos on YouTube that explore these issues. (These are short graphic videos for the most part.)

The newest one is called "Why Sight Words Prevent Reading and Cause Dyslexia." Basically, English has far too many words and far too many typefaces for anyone to learn to read with sight-words. Automaticity might be achieved for a few hundred designs, but not for thousands, especially when the designs are constantly changing due to our uppercase, lowercase, etc. It's astonishing that the experts pushing Dolch words pretended for decades that automaticity can be routinely achieved; and they did this without ever once suggesting how students are supposed to cope with our fairly astonishing range of fonts. For one tiny example, if a child memorized this configuration, far, would the child recognize this configuration: FAR? How could he? The two designs have little in common. They are much further apart than, say, S and $.


Bruce Deitrick Price's picture
Bruce Deitrick Price
Founder, Improve-Education.org

Sorry about the double posting and the typo in the first try. The site just did what it wanted. You know how computers can be.

karen smith's picture
karen smith
first grade teacher from Chattanooga, TN

I agree that phonics is absolutely essential. However, don't you think with the way our English language has so many rule breaking sounds that many of our words are indeed "sight words"? I teach a strong phonics based curriculum, but we also teach 20 new sight words every 2 weeks.

Lyanne's picture

I teach in Delta, British Columbia grades 1/2. We use Words Their Way - a phonics and sight word based program. Excellent to balance both methods and teach kids the patterns of the English language.

Ms. A.'s picture

Words Their Way is phonics - It uses the onset - rime and word family approach. You are sorting words based on word families. Sight word reading takes me back to - Dick Jane Sally and Spot. I was taught to recognize words that didn't relate to one another; the flash card approach. Some children will learn to read regardless which approach you use, but without phonics, they will struggle with English spelling. The children I teach are special education English language learners. The sequence of instruction is, concepts about print - phonemic awareness and phonics. Sight words are taught for those words that aren't phonetic.

Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher
Blogger 2014

I agree that some English words must be taught by sight. Most students also respond well to phonics instruction, especially when it is embedded in a rich literary environment. I have worked with a few kids who really did not "get" phonics at all and learned to read by memorizing word shapes. Some of these kids are very good readers as upper el students, so it must have worked for them. But it can be a real struggle for them to get started as readers.

One of the most precarious dangers in this realm is the assumption that there is one way to teach reading. There are many strategies to learn which will help people to decode words. We all depend on these strategies to different degrees. We ought to be thinking about diversifying reading instruction to reach multiple modalities and presenting information through a variety of activities.

There is always more than one way to learn something because there are always so many different approaches to learning. Keep in mind that learning involves students making a change in their brains. The quickest route is to relate new information to old stuff already in storage. That means that the curriculum we present is only half the story of any learning situation. The other half comes from the student, occurs in endless variety, and constitutes a substantial portion of the challenge of our profession.

One size is never gonna fit all when every brain is so unique!


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