George Lucas Educational Foundation

Phonics vs. Sight Words

Phonics vs. Sight Words

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Lauren D's picture

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.

Bruce Deitrick Price's picture
Bruce Deitrick Price

For anyone still confused by this debate, please see "42: Reading Resources" (on 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.)

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

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.


Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Editor

In education there is significant time spent in pitting sight words and phonics instruction against each other. Why not avoid this polarization?

Words Their Way is a program that utilizes the best of both -- and has demonstrated success. Thanks for posting this (below).


[quote]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.[/quote]

MAC's picture

As a teacher, I believe it is important to teach BOTH phonics and sight words. Each has it's own purpose. Phonics helps kids decode new and unfamiliar words. Learning sight words, since they are the most common words used in children's literature, help kids with their reading fluency which leads to better reading comprehension. So, IMHO, you shouldn't rely on one or the other.

I let my slower students check out my Rock 'N Learn DVDs. (They have both Phonics and Sight Words, and the kids LOVE them.)

Danielle's picture
First grade teacher from Pickens, South Carolina

I agree you can't just teach through sight words but I feel teaching sight words along with phonics and word study is very important! I've struggled with how to teach and assess spelling in the past. After doing a little bit of research, I have new ideas for the upcoming school year. I want to include 5 sight words and 5 word family words in our list each week. (the word family words my students will help choose) I want to encourage my students to use more of their words in their daily writing and I want to utilize my word wall MUCH more. I plan to do daily word wall activities with my kids, have my students keep a word wall and word study journal where we record words throughout the year, and plan to do a quick check of how many words my students can spell at the end of each nine weeks. To encourage students to use their words in their writing, I also want to have an incentive chart in the back of each students' journals where I reward them each time I see them using their words or strategies we've learned through word study to spell words better! I'm still uncertain however how to test their spelling words. Right now I'm thinking I want to test them by calling out their 10 words and then at the bottom asking them to apply their words by choosing a word and illustrating it, choosing a word and writing a sentence with it, writing a rhyming word for one of their spelling words, and asking students to write their words in abc order. What additional ideas and strategies do you all have to help teach, assess, and hold students accountable to their word knowledge???

Bruce Deitrick Price's picture
Bruce Deitrick Price

If by sight word you mean more or less a vocabulary word, it's probably a great idea. If by sight word you mean a graphic design somewhat like a currency symbol, then that's probably not a good idea.
Anyway I just created a video about the phonics side, and I think it's very clear and useful, for teachers or parents. Under four minutes.


Cathy's picture

Why the teachers we all know that not every word can be phonetically segmented into it's sound/symbols. Reading is a recipe of ingredients that must be blended together in order for the end result to be meaningful. One without the other yields an inedible result.

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