When I started kindergarten, my mom told me that I walked out because “I want to learn to read and all they are having us do is color pictures!” When I was in first grade I remember my teacher sitting in front of the classroom, leaning against her desk with her feet crossed in front of her. She held flashcards in her hands and every day we memorized phonics. I hated the flashcards, but to this day it’s one of only a few memories I have of public school.
By contrast, my sister was taught whole words, more commonly known today as sight words. They held up a picture with a word underneath and said, “This says house. What does this say?” And all the children would recite, “House”.
I asked my mom what she thought about that contrast once she pulled us out of public school. She said the following:
When my sister was little there was a program that was introduced at our school called I.T.A. It was teaching children to sound out words according to how the word sounded to them. A lot of parents hated it and it created poor spellers. Because of that program, I had already had an understanding of the benefit of phonics when I started homeschooling and I knew I wanted a phonics system.
The thing that I noticed about your sister and you, was your sister could not decode words as quickly and easily as you could.
Because we grew up talking about these things, and especially when we all started homeschooling our children and talked in even greater detail, my mind was already decided on the merits of phonics.
Phonics vs. Sight Words
Today, schools use a combination of phonics and sight words via the Dolch list primarily because educators have been taught two things. First, by having their students memorize sight words, they believe it will encourage fluency. Students will be able to see the word and automatically recognize it. This allows the kids to get more excited about reading and they will want to read more.
Second, it is a common belief that most of the Dolch list cannot be explained logically and therefore teaching students to sound out these words will hinder their reading ability.
However, they also teach phonics because phonics and the research behind it cannot be ignored. In a Stanford University study, it was found that when students learn through phonics, it activates the left hemisphere of the brain, where the language and visual regions are. When students learn via whole/sight words it activates the right hemisphere, where language does not take place. It doesn’t seem like a big deal until you realize that strong left-hemisphere engagement is a hallmark of strong readers.
When people are taught phonics it gives them a greater chance of deciphering other words that use the same phonogram combinations. Whole/sight words do not give people that advantage. Some are naturally able to decipher, but they are more the exception. My kids, for instance, look for the logic in everything. “Mom, does chocolate have chalk in it? Because it sounds the same in the beginning.” (True story, we talk about word, word orgins, dialect, etc. a lot)
Is Phonics Time Consuming?
Does teaching phonics take longer? It can. Some kids may naturally pick it up and sound fluent while others may struggle sounding like anything other than a robot for a while. Do we blame that on them learning phonics? No. Other studies have shown us that when people use phonics and read the word without sounding it out, they are processing those words instantaneously. In other words, they can decode words so fast that it looks like they memorized the whole word.
What about struggling readers? Shouldn’t we give them a leg up with sight words? Wouldn’t that help with their confidence and encourage more reading? It’s surprising, but no. Remember that struggling readers are usually processing words in the right hemisphere. Visual memory is usually just an educated guess. What it does is tricks the child into thinking that they understand the word, but when another word that might be similar comes along they stumble. It becomes frustrating for them and frustrating for the teacher.
If you have a struggling reader, as little as 80 hours of instruction is all that is needed to retrain their brains. They can and do become strong readers!
Let’s go back to my sister and me. We both read voraciously (or at least we did prior to kids constantly interrupting!). The difference is our ability to decode words. She has told me that when she didn’t know a word, she would skip over it, or guess. There was really no decoding for her. It wasn’t until she started homeschooling her kids that she discovered phonics in greater detail and learned them for herself with her kids. And really, what a great testament to homeschooling! We never stop learning, do we?
What I Use
So, what do I use? I’ve always said that I want my kids to understand the why’s of language, so I use the Logic of English. Logic of English is a phonics-based program but includes a lot of games for the younger kids. I feel that it gives a solid foundation for reading and more importantly (in my opinion) deciphering.
I know that there will always be some who are firmly on the sight words train, but for me, I love phonics! It will become a foundation for the rest of their education, so I would rather have it be firm and not rushed through.
What are your thoughts? Do you do both sight words and phonics? Tell me below.