I used to scoff at teaching sight words, I taught phonics instead. But this year, I ate my words. I finally learned the truth about sight words vs. phonics.
This post was originally published in January 2017 and has been updated as I’ve learned more about this topic.
I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was a freshman in high school when I walked into that 2nd-grade classroom ready to tutor. I looked into the eyes of children who were struggling with reading and KNEW I could help them. Day after day we worked with phonics and by the end of the year, many no longer needed extra tutoring.
That was the year I fell in love with teaching. That was the year I fell in love with Hooked on Phonics.
Fast forward a dozen years and I was teaching my own child how to read. There was no doubt about what program I would use. Hooked on Phonics. Hooked on Phonics has children learning basic phonics FIRST followed by three sight words each couple of lessons. Through my years of homeschooling and running a child care business, I have taught or tutored numerous children how to read using this program. Teaching phonics works.
This is why when parents came to me asking me to tutor their kids I would blatantly dog the local public school systems approach to teaching sight words only. “Sight words don’t work” I’d say. “They need to be taught phonics first” I’d argue. I couldn’t tell you why sight words don’t work, only that I truly believed they didn’t.
But, this year, I ate my words. I finally learned the truth about sight words vs. phonics.
When I Realized There Was a Problem with Phonics
My boy is five years old and has been dying to learn how to read. However, there is one problem. He has a strong speech delay called Apraxia. This combined with three sets of tubes and dozens of ear infections has left him having a hard time distinguishing between and saying certain sounds. Because of this phonics has been next to impossible for him.
I realized this shortly into the beginning of the school year but kept pushing him anyway. This left him in tears, and me frustrated. He began to lose confidence in his ability to even recognize or say letters. I knew something had to change.
Learning How to Teach Sight Words
It was at this point I began talking to some other moms. One told me about All in One Homeschools Learning to Read Program. I checked it out and nearly disregarded it when I saw it taught only sight words. However, I decided to give it a try because my youngest REALLY wanted to learn how to read.
So, I began learning strategies for teaching sight words.
- I went through the lessons on Easy Peasy and wrote out all of the words from the first five lessons on flash cards. I numbered them at the top so I knew which cards went with each lesson.
- I printed off the reading lesson from Easy Peasy and paper clipped the flashcards to the lesson.
- We went through the sight word lessons VERY slowly. Easy Peasy has each lesson lasting one or two days. We made each lesson last a week.
Within a few days, he was recognizing words. After a few weeks, he was able to read the first two stories completely independently. After a few months, he is now reading much better and recognizing more and more sight words. We have yet to teach phonics. I have learned the importance of sight words in learning to read.
How I am Teaching Sight Words Today
We are no longer using Easy Peasy homeschool curriculum for sight word instruction, only because due to my son’s Apraxia it was progressing quicker than what he could pronounce words. Here are some tips on how to teach sight words to struggling readers.
- For the last year, we have introduced 5 dolch sight words at a time.
- I drill him on them and have him spell out the words he misses using foam letters or paper.
- He also has to trace the words with his finger three times.
- I add a check mark to the sight word card each time he gets it right and after five times it goes in the “knows” pile. I review that pile once every other week. If he misses one, it goes back into our current practice stack until he gets it right three more times.
- For more information about how to teach sight words, I highly recommend this post from my friend Marianne at Homeschooling with Dyslexia.
The Truth About Sight Words Vs. Phonics
So, what have I learned about sight words vs. phonics? There’s not one method that will work for EVERY child. Sight word only instruction CAN work. Phonics instruction DOES work. But the best method for teaching your child to read is to use the method that works best for YOUR child. I’ll admit I am a scoffer when it comes to sight words. I still TRULY believe Hooked on Phonics is one of the BEST methods of reading instruction. However, this just did not work for my son. So, thanks to homeschooling, we were able to find a method that does work for him. That happened to have me eating my words and teaching sight words only.
My Thoughts on Sight Words Vs Phonics Today
This post is one of my top SEO posts and I wanted to come back and update it for those of you who don’t know my son’s story since it was published. In 2017 he was diagnosed with Dyspraxia, Dysgraphia, ADHD and suspected Dyslexia (learn more about homeschooling with Apraxia here). At our reading and speech evaluation, I shared with the therapist how I was teaching him to read. At that point, we had again tried some phonics instruction through a popular program called All About Reading. I was advised to stop for the time and continue with the sight word only approach. She recommended we add in phonics only as it correlated with this speech practice. He has continued to thrive.
Here’s the thing, sight words are perfect for children with special needs, and those who just struggle with phonics. My son now knows the list of sight words for first grade and some beyond that. He has so much more confidence now when it comes to sounding out words (as he wants to).
We have also since this post was written switched to a program called Nessy. This is an online reading program perfect for kids with dyslexia, but it really works for anyone. We have also been using a lot of BOB books and find that they are the perfect size for struggling readers.
My son is still not where many would say he “should” be when it comes to reading, BUT we have found the perfect approach for him.
Sight words? Or Phonics? Which method has worked best in teaching YOUR child to read?
Like this post? Get more homeschool tips and encouragement for your homeschool journey each week by signing up for my weekly newsletter.