Reading Instruction: Sight vs. Sound

How are children learning to read these days? Some reading programs focus on teaching from memorization through the use of sight words. Other programs also rely on memorization, but instead of memorizing entire words, students memorize phonemes, the units of sound made by words' letters. Perhaps the best reading programs are those that combine these two methods. By understanding the inherent problems of teaching sight words and teaching phonics, teachers and parents may find reasons why a mixture of the two is important for creating lifelong readers.

Upon examining the text of books used for teaching young children to read, we find that the words within them are usually short and often repeated. In 1948, Dr. Edward William Dolch published Problems in Reading, which offered word lists of commonly used English words. The first list featured 220 words (none of which were nouns) that were gathered from children's books of the time. An additional list of 95 nouns was also included in the publication. Words like "down," "can," "help," and "said" were on the lists, and many teachers still use the lists for instructing reading with sight words.

Teaching sight words can be effective for teaching reading. In fact, by students learning words, they are creating an "access to up to 75% of what is printed in almost any piece of children's literature." Methods for teaching sight words vary, but most programs rely heavily on repetition to get the words to stick in the minds of those learning to read. To get sight words into children's long-term memory, teachers (and parents) use visual aids. A word may be the only thing seen on a classroom word wall or on a flashcard, but pictures are often presented along with the words to help the students make the connection between the arbitrary group of letters that make up the word and the concrete image that it represents. Visual aids can be premade or students may engage in learning activities in which they create their own visual aids.

When students are being taught sight words, they often participate in oral activities to help them develop an awareness of the sound of the language. Verbal repetition, like visual aids, helps the content sink into one's long-term memory. While this can often lead to phonics instruction, not every word in the English language can be sounded out. If a student is being taught to read through the use of a phonics program alone, that child might be thrown into chaos.

Phonics reading programs rely on decoding words based upon one's phonemic awareness. Students are taught that the arrangement of letters within a word creates sounds that lead to one being able to "sound out" the word itself. They learn the parts before learning the whole. For example, the word "then" is broken into three phonemes: /th/, /e/, /n/. When a child has learned the sounds each part makes, the child should be able to pronounce the whole word itself; however, "about half the words in the English language cannot be pronounced correctly using commonly taught phonic rules." Consider the word "chaos." One learning to read through phonics would probably assume the first phoneme is /ch/ as in the word "cheese" when in reality it is the phoneme /k/. This can become incredibly confusing for a child who is taught only to read through the use of phonics.

Still, teaching phonics is too valuable to ignore. So many words in the English language are similar in shape. The words "full," "fall," and "fell" are often taught as sight words. The problem with that is that the way the words look varies only slightly. New readers can easily confuse these words because they aren't always looking for subtle differences in the letters themselves. Those studying phonics would be able to distinguish the different words because they have been trained to read the word according to each of its parts. Other common words are close in spelling, too: then/them, there/three, came/come. If one relies on sight alone, correctly identifying a word may be challenging (especially for students with disabilities such as dyslexia).

Today's society is lucky in that opportunities abound for accessing reading materials. Written words are everywhere we look, and children see them on TV and in their video games, as well as in books. Educators and parents have to find ways to engage children in meaningful activities that will help them in acquiring literacy. A combination of sight words and phonics may be the best method for teaching reading. Both methods come with drawbacks, but each could be a necessary tool for decoding an unfamiliar word.