Should Children Read Words by Phonograms or Sight?

Many teachers and parents teach sight words. It is helpful for a beginning reader to have a few words to use as anchor words when reading early reader books, but I don't think children should be taught lists of unrelated sight words. I think children should learn to read words by individual sounds or phonograms. I've steered away from this controversial topic for some time as not to offend anyone.
If you disagree with my opinion, please read some of the information I'm sharing in this post. I strive to keep an open mind and modify my thinking based on new information and results. Making learning to read easy for children is close to my heart and if I can help a parent or teacher find the easiest ways for a child to read I've helped a child I haven't met.

Here's some information that may make you re-evaluate your ideas about teaching sight words.
Beginning Reading by Mary Fitzsimmons
Learn to Spell by Phonograms, not Letters by Maeve Maddox
My Daughter's Path to Reading by Michelle Breum
Overview: How Children Learn to Read Words by Bruce Murray (The Reading Genie)

Here are a few parents' comments about sight word learning I found in a forum online.
1. "My son keeps getting "it" and "the" confused for some reason. He was able to get them both almost right away, but as soon as he learned the second, he seemed to unlearn the first. We are trying to teach him rhymes at the same time (one of the sight words is "look", so we also teach him "book" and "cook" at the same time, even though they aren't on his list)."

2. "I'm actually a fan of sight-reading rather than sounding out (though I hate the Your Baby Can Read sight-word crap). English isn't spelled phonetically, so while there's some merit in being able to break a word down into it's syllables and then put them all together to read the word, sounding it out doesn't always work. Skilled readers will need to know how to recognize words on sight rather than pausing to sound them out. (/end rant)"

3. "Yes - my kids' schools used a combination of sight-reading and phonics to teach the kids to read. I think it's nice to balance it like that, to try to reach all of the kids, no matter how they learn."

4. "My daughter is in kindergarten, and she does sight words. My son was in kindergarten 5 years ago and he had sight words!!
Next up will be red words, which are common words, but ones that you can't sound out. Phone maybe an example as new readers will not yet have learned that PH together make the F sound."

5. "They've been doing it for at least 10 years now, I did it when i was in kindergarten, I think they always did it, but just recently decided to give it a tacky name."

6. "Yes. It drives me insane. Personally, I worked with my kids and taught them to read before they started kindergarten. I find memorizing words by sight is just an easy way out. Just wait until she starts the "new" math. It will blow your mind."

7. "Yes, sight words are taught starting in kindergarten. It will make reading so much easier if she knows high frequency words by sight and sounds out the other words."

8. "Yes, my kids have "sight words" starting in Kindergarten, and it continues on through first and second grade, for reading and spelling."

I'm only interested in what makes reading easy for children. Many times teachers see success in early readers when they learn sight words. Children are not stumbling over words and slowly sounding out words. Children appear to be reading fluently. They know some words by sight and guess at the others based on beginning sounds and picture clues. What happens when there are more words and less picture clues? If a child has not learned to "read" words, that child will struggle like my daughter did in the middle of first grade. Some children will learn to sound out or decode words on their own, but children like my daughter who grab onto the sight word learning and guessing will be left behind.

Some children learn to see patterns in words. They are able to "read" sight words and learn them easily. My daughter was not taught sight words according to similarities or how to sound them out. She learned sight words by the picture or shape of the word. Her brain could only learn so many words like this before it became overwhelming. She looked in the air when she read trying to remember a word. It makes sense to teach children to "read" or sound out words. I read somewhere that sounding out a word and recalling a word by sight uses a different part of the brain. I think it would be difficult for a child to read fluently while constantly switching his or her brain activity.
The article that helped me feel confident in my stance on not teaching unrelated sight words is something I read in The Reading Genie's Overview. Instant recognition of words happens after a child has learned to decode the word. Bruce Murray shared a study of word recognition and children who were taught to decode or sound out a word recognized it after 4 exposures on average. Children who were taught by sight recognized a word after 35 exposures on average.

Even words that aren't able to be sounded out entirely have some letters or letter combinations that make sense. Here's a video made by an individual who is opposed to sight word learning. You may also want to watch this video from Elizabeth Brown of The Phonics Page. I'm not endorsing all opinions in these recommended videos. It's just food for thought.



Aunt Annie said...

I'm not a big fan of the exclusive use of sight words; I was married to a very intelligent man who couldn't spell many simple words because he hadn't had the experience of sounding out and wasn't a visual learner.

The easiest way for kids to learn to read? Lots and lots of stories read by mum, dad and teachers, with lots of interactions with the written letters and words on the page. Mem Fox (of 'Possum Magic' fame) has written a great book on the subject called 'Reading Magic'.

Debbie said...

As an Art teacher I never had the 'responsibility' for the reading journey.... so I can stay safely on the sidelines and watch the interaction of other informed folks.

It seems to me that one must have as many tools in the toolbox as possible and then be very observant.

****And of course, infuse every learning activity with lots of Art!!!

Sarah said...

Its very interesting!! I have always wondered (& still do wonder) what makes it easy for some and more difficult for others! I cant wait to check out your resources!! I am super excited to have found your blog!! Why would you NOT want children to recognize a word after 4 times instead of 20-30 times! Seems like a no brainer but I cant wait to see what research you found --I am neither here nor there...I just want what is best for the kiddos and what will add another feather to my teaching hat as something to TRY NEXT when the "other" stuff isnt work!!

Thanks for sharing .....I look forward to following your blog!!
Sarah Hetrick

MaryAnne said...

I think my daughter (entering Kindergarten this fall) might be like your daughter - she can "read", but it's nearly all sight words, even though I've worked with her on phonics and sounding things out. She gets "it" and "the" confused all the time, too. Do you have any advice for the parent of a child who resists sounding out words? She plays with; I'll have to check out the other sites your "Teach a Child to Read with Phonics" article.

Michelle said...

Your daughter is at such a fun age!
My advice is to get some magnetic letters. Lowercase letters are important since these are the ones she'll be reading in books. I've made some posts showing ways to teach sounding out using magnetic letters.
My other advice is to start slow. Play with a few sounds at a time. If a book is too hard, share read the book with your daughter. Let her read the parts she wants.
There is a lot of combining of thoughts that goes on when reading. Some beginning readers struggle with sounding out words. It is slow and labored. If given the opportunity to reread some favorite books at the right level these children will be able to read these books fluently and with expression. It's great to read a book to a child first sometimes too. Rereading the same books multiple times is great for a beginning reader. Finding good beginning reader books is sometimes challenging. Check out my Amazon Store for ideas.

Katey said...

When I first started teaching my daughter I felt like I had to choose between phonics and sight words, but I've really been happy with the hybrid method we ended up using. I taught her all the names of the letters first, then letter sounds, then we started The Bob Books (very simple phonics based stories- love em) but I didn't force her to sound out every word. (At first I did, and it was frustrating and overwhelmingly NOT FUN) Then I started alternating (making her sound it out for one word that she got stuck on and just telling her for the next one) It made it a lot more enjoyable and she was still learning to sound out phonetically.

Shortly after we started the Bob books, I also introduced her to Dick and Jane (sight word oriented) We read each kind of book every other day.

For a short time I tried sight word flashcards, but decided that they were a complete waste of time- better just to start reading and learn the words as they go along.

Now we just read whatever picture books we have on the shelf. I still make her sound out new words that won't be too difficult, but I try to keep her reading along at a fairly quick pace. If she has to sound out every letter she's not going to remember the flow of the words in the sentence and it will feel like meaningless drudgery. I try to be sensitive to how close we are getting to that line.

I also spend a little time with her every day teaching her blends and am incorporating those more and more into her reading times.

For my next daughter I'm planning to follow the same approach except that I'm not waiting to teach the letter sounds- I'm teaching them concurrently with the names of the letters.

Michelle said...

I love your approach, Katey! A good rule of thumb as a child gets older is if a reader struggles with more than one in ten words, the book is at frustration level. It should be a read aloud book. I agree with telling a child a word sometimes too. There is a balance and flexibility necessary to teach a child to read. I also recommend having a child reread books many times. (especially ones they liked) Learning happens each time a book is read. Fluency and comprehension improves with each reading too.