Phonics vs. Sight Words

Should sight words be exclusively taught above phonics? I see the importance of these base words being learned by repetition, but my son’s K-5 teachers ONLY use sight words. My son had been working with me at home with phonics for over a year, but we stopped for a month when school began. It wasn’t until he stopped trying to sound words out that we decided to go back to our phonetic pronunciations and lessen his dependence on the sight words. I don’t know how to tell his teacher that phonics works best for him. Am I doing the right thing by continuing to teach him an alternative path to reading? *

Sight words need to be taught in conjunction with phonics. It’s important that beginning readers are able to automatically recognize sight words, but without a sound background in phonics they will never be able to sound out unfamiliar words. As a teacher of beginning readers, I always stress a strong a background in phonics for all levels of students, accompanied by many lists of sight words to be learned over the course of the year.

I’d suggest that you arrange a conference with your son’s teacher. She may be focusing on sight words at this time, but I would be very surprised if phonics are not being used at all in his classroom. In the meantime, keep up what you’re doing. It sounds like phonics are working well for you . Remember, the more decoding strategies your son is able to utilize, the stronger a reader he will become.

*This is a question I’ve paraphrased from a comment I’ve posted from a reader. As teaching reading is such a key issue, I’ve answered here where the response is more visible. For the entire comment and question, please go to the comment section following, “All About Learning Sight Words.”

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8 Comments + Add Comment

  • I totally agree. Phonics and sight words should both be taught. Some students need that extra explicit instruction with phonemic segmentation and manipulation. I have heard that one needs to know approximately 150,000 words to be fluent in English. There is no way a student can memorize those. Also, what happens when they come to an unfamiliar word and all they know is sight words – they have no strategy.

    I say teach both – I would also add teaching reading fluency to make it a triumvirate.

  • Great advice! From my experience using Montessori methods to teach reading, I KNOW that phonics works. Of course, some words have to be taught by sight but those are best taught after a strong foundation in phonics.

  • I actually started with phonics with my daughter, since she seemed more willing to work on sounding out words than memorizing sight words, so now I’m having to work on getting her to memorize certain words rather than trying to use phonics to sound them out. It’s definitely a balancing act, and both are important!

  • Hi Maggie,

    Having been a first grade teacher, I’ve been teaching my grandson letter sounds since he was a baby. Nothing big, just abc cards and books. It taught him both vocabulary and letter sounds. By age 4 he put together 3 letter words. Now he is going into 1st grade and can read words without knowing the phonetic rules I used to teach my classes. I’m amazed.

    My point is that I agree with you. Kids need phonetics to break the code and they need sight words like “The” to learn how to read. With both phonetic and sight words they sometimes jump way ahead.

  • I say it has to be both phonics and sight words. Phonics unlock the door to many different kinds of words, whereas sight words enable the development of automaticity.

  • As a second grade teacher, a parent, and grandmother, I agree that phonemic awareness and automaticity with high frequency sight words are essential for developing new readers of all ages.

    As parents we are the most powerful and important teachers our children have.

  • I’m with everyone here…both phonics and sight words are important and necessary to grow a good reader. However, one thing that frustrates both parents and kids, is not knowing when a word can be decoded phonetically and when it is a sight word. Asking a child to sound out “though” or “some” is just asking for trouble.

    So, I encourage parents to familiarize themselves with the sight words being taught at their child’s grade level so that they don’t mistakenly try to have them sounding out those words.

  • I have always relied on phonics, but found that 1st grade reading was a disaster when our teacher introduced phonics to my child. As stated earlier, it is very difficult to teach certain words phonetically and after hearing that she was free to spell words the way they sounded….Well, we haven’t ever really recovered. It has been hard to convince her now, after 2 years, that you can’t always spell a word the way it sounds. Much of the english language is simply memorization. I know it works for others, but it backfired horribly in our case.

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