One of our readers, educational activist Bruce Price from Improve Education, asked us an interesting question about our approach to teaching literacy, and the mix of both phonics and sight word (whole word) approaches. This seems like a good opportunity to discuss the reason we made these pedagogical choices.
You’ve done a curious thing here. About one-third phonics and about two-thirds Whole Word. So the phonics people will reject you out of hand; and the Whole Word people will reject you out of hand. What is the scholarly or research basis of this site? I don’t mean Prof. Dolch. I mean something in the last 10 or 15 years, some sort of serious testing. Please answer …
We do indeed endorse Phonics, but we also use Sight Words (what Bruce calls Whole Words) to teach high-frequency words that children need to recognize instantly or that are phonetically irregular. You often hear debate in the media and in education circles over whether children should learn Sight Words or Phonics. Many of us grew up learning one approach or another with various degrees of effectiveness, and many parents and educators have strong views on which approach is better.
We think that both approaches, Phonics and Sight Words, have merit, and both need to be taught if we want to develop fluent readers.
Phonics is the approach of sounding out words, from their individual phonemes (sounds). So a child would see the word dog, recognize the individual sounds d-o-g and blend them together to say the word.
Phonics gives a child strategies for learning to read new words that they have never encountered before. For example, a child may be reading a library book, see a new word such as the name Jordan, and will be able to figure out the pronunciation (or get close) just by sounding it out. Phonics also helps when a child starts spelling, because the same strategies that help them sound out new words help them spell out those words. Even proficient adult readers use phonics for recognizing new words.
Sight Words instruction teaches recognition of the whole word. So a child would memorize that the written word dog represents the spoken word dog.
Sight Words are important in two situations:
(1) where a child encounters high-frequency words, and
(2) where a child encounters phonetically irregular words.
Many of the words on the most-used sight word lists, (Dolch, Fry, Kuchera-Francis, American Heritage, 100 most common words listed in Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz MD, Common Core lists, etc.) are high-frequency words that readers need to recognize instantly by sight, rather than through phonetic decoding, to be able to read fluently. If a child can’t instantly recognize words that appear frequently (e.g. the, be, too, of, and, etc.), and has to stop and sound them out every time, then they will never be able to develop the speed necessary to be a fluent reader. In fact, if a child can sight-read just 100 of the most common words, they can read 50% of the words in a typical newspaper and over 70% of the words in a typical children’s book.
The remaining words on the common sight words lists represent phonetically irregular words, words that cannot be decoded by just sounding them out. For example, even simple words like the, could, and light do not follow the “rules” of phonics. Using only phonics to sound out and learn words will lead to a lot of stumbling blocks such as these.
Both Phonics and Sight Words work even better when used together. For example, if a child learns the word could through Sight Words, they can then use Phonics approaches to recognize similar words such as would and should.
The teaching techniques and strategies at SightWords.com are based on the work of Barbara Wilson (Wilson Reading); Samuel Orton, MD; Anna Gillingham (Orton-Gillingham); Grace Fernald; Beth Slingerland (multi-sensory approach); and C. Wilson Anderson, past president of the International Dyslexia Association. The correction technique is based on the work of Siegfried Engelmann, the originator of the Direct Instruction methodology.