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What Should Be Stressed First From Research on Reading: Sight Words or Phonics?

by Dana Rongione, studioD

For nearly 100 years, a debate regarding the issue of phonics versus sight reading has circulated. Which should come first? Should they both be taught? Is either method detrimental to the overall education of the students? Researchers have studied both sides of the conflict and have discovered many opinions on the topic. And while the evidence may not be conclusive, it does lean heavily to one side.


The purpose of phonics is to teach children how to decode words by breaking them into individual letters and sounds. Those in favor of phonics education stress the importance of teaching students to decode words rather than guess. They believe that a child who can sound out words will be able to increase their vocabulary more rapidly because the tools used to decode a three-letter word are the same tools used to decode a three-syllable word. Those who dispute phonics instruction argue that learning all the various sounds and letter combinations within the English language is too time-consuming, resulting in frustration for the students. They further state that the children's reading and comprehension will be compromised if they have to decode words as they go along and that they will struggle when they come upon a word that is “an exception to the rule.”

Sight Words

Although many popular words in the English language are considered sight words, the most precise definition of a sight word is a word that cannot be sounded out or decoded using phonics. Common sight words include "were," "have," "of" and "was." Those that advocate the use of sight words declare that young children, with their ability to absorb information, are ideal candidates for memorizing hundreds of commonly used words. Teaching sight words speeds up the reading process and increases the students' reading confidence. However, others argue that this process is not reading at all, but rather a combination of memorization and guesswork. Those in opposition of sight word-based learning offer the viewpoint that the practice is partially responsible for the growing number of students diagnosed with dyslexia. These phonics defenders hold fast to their belief that phonics, while initially slower and more difficult, will provide a better, well-rounded education that will serve students in the years to come.

Professional Opinions

There are many articles, videos and interviews backing each side of this debate. If there a right way, why is the debate still raging? In this particular instance, there is no choice but to go with the majority vote, based on arguments by veteran teachers, reading gurus and phonics specialists, which is that both approaches are valuable and should be included after the initial emphasis on phonics.

Practical Compromise

Phonics is the basis on which students formulate their understanding of letters and sounds, along with the fact that those letters and sounds can be combined to make words. Once they have become familiar with the key components of phonetic awareness, then and only then should sight words be introduced. With this principle in mind, many teachers now add a few sight words per week to their general phonics instruction, seeking to find a balance between these two methods, each consisting of their own benefits and drawbacks.

About the Author

Dana Rongione has been writing since 2004. Her articles have appeared in "Teacher's Interaction" magazine, "Teachers of Vision" magazine and "Devo'zine." She is also the author of nine books. Rongione received two certificates of completion from The Institute of Children's Literature. She holds a Bachelor of Science in elementary education from Tabernacle Baptist Bible College.

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