WHY Do They Teach Sight Words Instead of Phonics?

Updated on December 23, 2012
A.C. asks from Keller, TX
46 answers

Perhaps this is a silly question, but it bothers me. I'm asking here because there are a lot of teachers here, and a lot of moms who have done the "school thing". WHY are they trying to teach my son to memorize words instead of sounding them out? I'm a great reader, was always ahead of the "norm" (reading classics on my own in 4th grade, read many required reading books for high school before I entered middle school). I learned the phonetic way. Now there's this sight word stuff. Basically he's supposed to memorize it. I don't want him to learn like that!!! I feel like screwing up learning a basic foundation could affect his future skills. I MAY be over thinking this, but I don't know. No real experience with this sight word and look and say stuff. Any thoughts? Suggestions? Ideas?
ETA: Yes there are a few words that I can understand like "the".....but Big? Can? Yes? No? It? (etc) I just don't like the method.

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So What Happened?

Thanks for the replies I've gotten...to answer some questions: Yes, he's 4. When he was 3 we learned all the alphabet by sight and order by playing with alphabet train puzzles, painting them on butcher paper, etc. We learned the phonics by songs, watching The Letter Factory, playing variations of normal games like "I Spy" and stuff. At 4, he knows his basic letter combinations like "an, at, en, et, ig, ip, ot, og, ug, th, and ck" (first by sounding it out, now memorized but because we play with them a lot, not because we're just memorizing it only)....then what happens when we add letters to it: an becomes ban, can, fan, etc. He knows that can becomes cane when we add an e to the end because that's a "rule" (ending a word with an e can make the vowel sound long). I'm NOT a teacher. But that's how we've been doing it. He can read very basic age appropriate books(including sounding out the to say "theee" because a rule is th makes that sound). I agree that we memorize words by recognizing them instantly through practice. I think practice means reading though, not just learning a word for the word's sake. That might just be us "old fashioned" people though. As for his daycare / pre-K thing......he's been bringing home his "work" for months. They practice writing letters and matching stuff (to be fair, they are great with numbers and counting). Now they are working on "sight words": the, can, big, little. Little does not follow the rules but the other 3 do. They don't really do much (if any) with phonics because I'm looking at all his "work" and asking questions. They know that ball starts with b and sound that out, but don't do any of the other letters. Like REALLY REALLY basic 3 year old stuff, they are learning now that he's 4 1/2. That's strange to me, but whatever. The moms around at his kung fu, soccer, awanas, riding lessons, etc: we all talk. Some of the kids are in kindergarten. They are learning sight words. The school year is new, but phonics have not entered yet. A list of sight words have.
My question was more wondering if there was a REASON or theory behind the sight word push. I think some moms answered that though.....just convenient to get some of those words out of the way so that real reading lessons can begin a little later. I don't mind too much, as long as they'll still teach it all (phonetics, rules, and all). Seems like I just taught him what made sense to me first. I have always been one that believes education is ultimately MY responsibility and the schools are to help and to practice things in other settings (which is helpful). But when it comes down to it, I can't sit on my bum and blame someone later because I choose to do nothing and hope someone else gets it right. I'm not that kind of mom.

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J.Y.

answers from Chicago on

I asked my daughter's teacher the same question. Not only did she explain what the others said about sight words not being able to be sounded out but also that as you become a fluent reader most of what you read is memorized. You don't sound out words as you read, you just know them.

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G.T.

answers from Redding on

My granddaughter was taught sight words first and then learned to the sound them out thing. She's 3 and reads like a 4th grader.

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D.H.

answers from Louisville on

It annoys me as well, but they kinda teach both here

however - how does "because" become a sight word???

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J.P.

answers from Chicago on

My understanding (as a teacher and a mom) is that sight words are the words that kids need to recognize quickly when reading, and many of them cannot be sounded out easily (like "the", "come" "once"). A good reading program should teach young children the sight words AND how to decode phonetically. But, since our language has so many exceptions to the spelling rules, not all words can be sounded out phonetically. Maybe you can ask your child's teacher if they will be using phonics instruction in conjunction with teaching sight words. Some kids need phonics more than others.

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K.C.

answers from Orlando on

I haven't read any other responses so sorry if I am repeating them all. I taught first grade for four years and we taught to read phonetically. We also had a list of 5-10 sight words every week. We used the sight words for "spelling tests" they were just for practice. The reason for sight words is that they are the most common words in the English language and words that even if they can be sounded out, they shouldn't have to be. There are 220 words and 95 nouns that will most likely be asked to memorize before 3rd grade. Now I really don't know much about preschool/even kindergarten, but I know that at the school that I used to work at even K was taught phonics, begining within the first month of school. I think they only did one or two sight words a week, the first 1st grade list of sight words was a review of the 26 they should have known from K (a, and, big, blue, can, come, down, etc) Many sight words or dolche words are phonetically irregular, but others are just ones that a reader begining to read fluently needs to just recognize to be able to read quickly, smoothly, and with expression.
This is different than teaching the wholistic word approach to reading (ie. Your Baby Can Read) which I am 100% against! This approach was common in the 70s and even early 80s but is now almost never used in the US.

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K.A.

answers from San Diego on

They teach both sounding out and sight words. Sight words are the ones that don't actually sound the way they sound out such as "was", it should be spelled "wuz" if you were true to phonetics. They do add a bunch of words simply because you see them a lot though too which makes it an imperfect practice. I don't agree with that.
I always make my kids sound everything out. Using "was" as my example again..when they sound it out and come up with "W-long A-S which is pretty much how it would sound I ask them if that is a real word, they say no, I ask them what word it sounds like it could be in the context of the sentence..they get to "wuz" pretty quick. But we also do some things as sight words as a back up.
In the end the bulk of our reading comprehension is memorization. You learn new words by sounding them out but once you learn that word you memorize it. This is how you can tell what a word is even if it's spelled wrong but close enough. I think they figure it's taking a step out if the kids just memorize it, I don't know.

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G.R.

answers from San Diego on

Sight words can't be phonetically sounded out.

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L.L.

answers from Rochester on

Sight words are words that generally can't be sounded out. They teach phonics, still, with the typical short vowel sounds. Probably pretty helpful to teach sight words such as "are, from, or, for, friend, they, there, their, one, two, know..." These words can't really be phonetically read.

Some of the others you mentioned...can, yes, no, it...are sight words because you see them SO often in reading you need to be able to just pop them off. Trust me, your son will also learn phonics.

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P.M.

answers from Portland on

Are you sure you have the whole story? I haven't heard about any educational systems teaching sight words only. At my grandson's pre-K, they do have a couple of posters of "popcorn" words that the kids are encouraged to memorize – those short, extremely common words that pop up everywhere, often with irregular or unusual letter combinations. But they are still teaching the kids letter sounds and how to sound out words.

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C.C.

answers from San Francisco on

I couldn't agree more. Sight words are useless - it doesn't teach them to spell, and it doesn't teach them what to do when they come to words they've never seen before. Despite what my daughters were taught in school, I taught them phonics at home. They are both well above average in their reading and spelling skills, and I know it's not due to sight words. ;)

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T.S.

answers from Washington DC on

It's probably not INSTEAD of. What schools use as "sight words" these days are a specific list of very common words that DON'T adhere to simple phonics rules. Early readers can "sounds out" words cvc words and cvc-e words, but they won't be able to read TEXT unless they can also read "the" "what" "is" "of" "because" etc... They need those words to be automatic WHILE they are leaning to sound out words.

Don't stress about it and DON'T let your son think you disagree with how he is being taught at school... that can only lead to disaster!

HTH
T.

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A.H.

answers from San Francisco on

We did both with our son. The reason we had him memorize a set of common words was to reduce frustration, that surely would have lead to him fighting learning to read for a long time.

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R.S.

answers from San Antonio on

Already answered...the sight words cannot be sounded out phonically.

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S.H.

answers from Honolulu on

Well my kid's school, uses both.

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E.J.

answers from Lincoln on

Julie P is absolutely right that there are words in our language such as "the" that cannot be sounded out. Also, as Jill Y pointed out being able to quickly identify a word leads to faster words per minute and that results in better comprehension of the text being read. I'm sure they are teaching both forms of reading. :-)

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A.J.

answers from Dallas on

Keep in mind that not every child can learn the way your son has. I was a kid that did not get phonics. I couldn't hear the different sounds and couldn't remember all of the "rules" . So memorizing was the way they taught me. Now that I'm a mom I have kids who are learning both ways I have finally been able to teach myself some phonics as an adult but it's still hard for me.

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L.M.

answers from Dover on

Learning sight words is an important step in learning to read. They are words that you don't "sound out" because you don't pronounce them phonetically. They have started returning to teaching phonics because they discovered that reading abilities suffered when they changed they way it was taught. Still, learning the sight words is still important.

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A.B.

answers from Pittsburgh on

There are learning theories to back this: Gestault (german for "group") theory and even Music Learning Theory have come to the conclusion that learning is largely based on context, patterns, and the relationship to the whole. In the case of English, there are so many exceptions to phonetic rules that it makes some sense to do a hybrid of both "whole language" as well as phonics.

I've come across this exception issue when doing letters w/my son: we'll see a "C" in the alphabet book, sound it and say the name, and they have a picture of a cat - which is the hard C or K sound. The lack of consistency can interfere with making the phonetic association.

At some point, of course, there will have to be acclamation to the exceptions, but allowing for whole language learning can be an efficient way to introduce a child to common words at phrases at first.

I agree with you. I saw very little value in whole language when I first heard about it, but now that I understand more about HOW we learn, using it to some degree makes sense. I would roll with it, but if the learning is exclusively whole language, I would supplement with the activities you're doing. I do think that kids should be able to sound out words, but especially later, we make sense of new words by recognizing their root words, not necessarily the phonics.

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J.C.

answers from Anchorage on

Programs like "your baby can read" have made this popular to young kids who don't understand letters yet can show off their "trick". It can make it harder for the child learn basic phonics later. Some small words can be taught this way, yes, but they still need to know how to sound out words, and that is still the way they teach it at my son's school. If they are not doing it at your sons school, I would start working with him at home.

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R.D.

answers from Richmond on

They teach single syllable sight words, then phonics, then mix it up here in VA.

Don't forget, the learning doesn't stop after school hours. There's nothing stopping you from buying phonics work books and working with your kiddos at home ;) We 'play school' on the weekends during the school year and my girls love it!

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T.C.

answers from Dallas on

If they are teaching only site words - definitely a huge mistake!

With phonics reading, though, not all words are phonetically sound-out-able. There are some words that you simply have to memorize.

If all his reading is site words that he is supposed to memorize, I would not allow my child to learn that way! I totally understand why there are some words that have to be memorized (since the phonetics don't work, and, of course, I can't think of any of those words right now)...but it definitely should not be THE way to teach him. Hooked on Phonics is pretty awesome...

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L.D.

answers from Dallas on

He is probably learning both. However, its pretty standard reading teaching to teach a standard list of sight words - they my be using a Dolch List of a Fry List. There are a hundred or so basic sight words that make up about one half of written text. And then another hundred that make up a smaller portion of the text. If kids memorize them, it helps their reading fluency dramatically, which then helps their comprehension.

As he gets older, he will also learn phonics, and also how to chunk words, pre-fixes, root words, suffixes, spelling patterns (which help with sounding out words - like CVCe consonevt vowel consent and silent E make the vowel say its name. :) syllabication (sp?) and other strategies to break down new and unfamiliar words.

Reading instruction has come a long way since Dick and Jane. :)

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S.B.

answers from Redding on

The bad thing about phonics is that you also have to learn all the rules as to why so many words just aren't spelled the way it seems they should be.
Why isn't couch spelled "cowch"?
And then there's cough.
Too many words simply aren't spelled the way they sound.
They defy the rules of phonetic logic.
It is what it is.

Learning both ways is the only way to go.
I made up songs about remembering tricks for my kids according to their list of spelling words.
You just have to be creative so that your kid isn't nervous about how things are so complex when it comes to reading. That could make it seem harder than it has to be for them and make them fear reading.
There isn't a right way or a wrong way. There is always something in between that will click and when your kid takes off reading, it is such a wonderful thing.

Get your son an age appropriate dictionary.
Convince him that it is his favorite book.

It holds the key to so much knowledge.
Not just spellings or how things sound, but what they mean.
Memorizing it is a glorious thing.
It's pretty imperative in life.
It's never too young to help build that skill.

Just my opinion.

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H.B.

answers from Chicago on

I don't like the sight words either; I believe that it's not the best foundation to start on. I taught my son phonics first. I also have been teaching him the rules. He's young (6) now, it's the best time to teach him. About the word 'the'... We usually pronounce 'the' like /thu/ (short u), but it can be pronounced /the/ (long e) when it comes before a vowel sound (the apple). The long e sound would also be more correct since 'the' is an open syllable word; the vowel in an open syllable word is usually long.

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D.B.

answers from Charlotte on

.

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K.L.

answers from Savannah on

Methods on teaching reading go back and forth all the time, so what was taought when you were little may not be what is taught now, and what is taught this year might go back to the way you were taught for next year. In my oppinion, I think that both methods should be used for the best outcome

Sight words are great for words that you cannot phonetically sound out. Decodable words are words that you can sound out and sight words (aka high frequency words) are usually words that you cannot learn to properly sound out or words that are pretty mandatory to read simple sentences and comprehend. These words are best memorized so children do not get confused every time they read words. For example, the word like (or any other silent e word) as well as a word like my. Little kids always sound these words our the wrong way and then either get frustrated that they did not read a real word or keep reading and get confused with comprehension. If your child is not learnnig phonics, then you should work with him at home, but also use the sight words. You can even show him how to decode the sight words that are able to be decoded!

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K.U.

answers from Detroit on

My guess is that there are only certain words that they are expected to know on sight, like "the", "and", etc. that should not have to be sounded out phonetically. I doubt that they expect them to learn ALL words this way, especially since that's how that "Your Baby Can Read!" program works, and that has been shown to be garbage which makes it more difficult for kids to learn to read later in school - because the emphasis then IS on phonics.

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V.S.

answers from Atlanta on

I really feel your pain....as to the Whys...The frequent usage list (our district uses Rebecca Sitton) is supposed to aid in the spelling and recognition of commonly misspelled words. I have long believed that this was to aid in the Standardized test prep work. One of my children (who was involved in the Abeka Curriculum which is phonics based) was a fluent reader by K4. The other child was in a system that dealt with the sight word approach - he was a struggling reader until we started working on phonics at home. (understanding too, that each child is different) So, to me sight words do help when children are taking standardized test AND they seem to help in develop reading fluency. But Hooked on phonics worked for me and my Kids! Now, Comprehension is another subject.....lol.

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B.Z.

answers from Chicago on

A. - is your child 4 years old? If so, he should be learning letter sounds and eventually letter/sound matches. Then, he would learn how to piece together the most common sounds of the letters to form words (phonics).

Although sight words will help him later when he's reading connected text, a typically-developing 4 year old would not need to be instructed on sight words at this time. I think you should poke around with his teacher(s) to find out the whole story.

Someone posted about how we all memorize words eventually... that is only partially true. People who learn to read English with phonetics memorize the sounds that each letter can make, including, with experience, the irregularities. This is why we can quickly recognize/read a word that cannot be sounded out exactly right.

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S.!.

answers from Los Angeles on

We have the sight words but I have been having my kids tell me the letters they see and what do each letters say and then have them say them faster and closer together... so with "and" - they tell me they see the letters a n d - the a says ah, the n says nnnnn, and the d says duh... ah nn duh and keep repeating that until they realize they are saying "and". Not sure if that is what we were supposed to be doing but that is how I have proceeded with it. ??

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D.B.

answers from Dallas on

I'm not a teacher, but I believe schools should be teaching both phonics and sight words. The "whole word" approach failed big time in the late 80s, and by the mid 90s schools were going back to phonics again (at least in CA - my little sister was a victim of the whole word approach). However, it's beneficial for kids to learn high frequency words to help with fluency, which can help with comprehension (hard to remember and connect the meaning when it takes so long to sound out each word!). My oldest wasn't ready to read before kindergarten, so I know the school definitely taught him to read phonetically (because I sure didn't!). However, his brother was ready to read early, so I've done Hooked on Phonics with him at home. And even those kits have a sight word component. And now there's actually a movement to not teach all the "rules" because there are so many exceptions that it's confusing. It's great that you're so involved with your son's learning. You've already given him a solid phonics foundation. Have faith that he probably will continue to learn phonics once he enters kindergarten.

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K.W.

answers from Los Angeles on

The response below mine (Julie P.) nails it.
According to CA, kindergarteners should memorize the 100 most common ones (mostly words you can't read phonetically- the, was, my, etc.)

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C.P.

answers from Provo on

I think maybe when we were younger they had a certain name for these very common words that really can not be sounded out. Often when kids are first learning to read and they try to sound out these words it only confuses them but after they learn to read it seems to make more sense for them.

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R.K.

answers from Boston on

My solution to this was teach phonics at home. I all so have an issue with they way they teach math (at least our school) instead of memorizing flash cards like we used to they have them work it out it's like they reversed the methods of teaching math and reading....sigh

[email protected] Gee R at our school kindergarten sight words included common words like it and can sure there are some that you have to learn silly rules for or ones that don't follow any but phonics is important and at least in my district it is not promoted. We were actually given a handout requesting us not to ask our kids to sound words out when they get stuck....really?

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V.W.

answers from Jacksonville on

I agree 100% with you, which is why I taught my kids to read before they started school, using the Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons work book. It uses a Di-star method(?) that is phonics and is FANTASTIC! My kids both have always read well and early. One kid is a "reader" the other, not so much. He can, but it just isn't his "thing".
It isn't for lack of ability, however. I never understood "sight" reading. It just doesn't make any sense to me... there are HOW MANY words in just the english language? And they're supposed to what? Memorize them all or just not know them? Sick logic, to me.

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J.K.

answers from Sacramento on

Huh... our school uses both.

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M.J.

answers from Denver on

When my children started learning to read (they are now in 5th and 2nd grades) and I asked about the sight words, the teacher compared it to the times tables. They are taught HOW to figure it out (4x3=4+4+4), AND they memorize the times tables. That way they know what to do when they don't know the answer, and they are able to quickly and efficiently deal with the most common things they will face. They both have had sight words, but the rule for reading and writing has always been "if you don't know, tap it (sound it out)". They both read very well.

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J.S.

answers from Minneapolis on

My son is starting first grade. At his Kindergarten they had about 120 sight words they were supposed to know by the end of the year, but they also did a lot of phonics.

His teacher focused a lot of time on "creative spelling" where she wanted the kids to write what they heard in a word. Spell things to practice hearing the sounds and writing out sentences and not worry about the correct spelling.

My son was reading above his grade level by the end of Kindergarten.

Jessica

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B.C.

answers from Los Angeles on

Why teach by sight rather than phonetics? Because teaching phonetics requires more effort on the teacher's part and some people that have a hard time pronouncing english have a REAL hard time doing phonetics.

Phonetics is better for advanced reading, but we only want children to pass given tests at given times. If you see ask, but pronounce it ax, you will have a harder time leaning it correctly. Its part of the dumbing down of America and the American education system.

Good luck to you and yours.

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M.M.

answers from Washington DC on

Wait until they hit new math.
In Kinder the children, except my oldest, were taught a combination of both. My oldest was taught sight words first and basically no phonics, back in the 90's.
Because of his experience I got the book Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons. I taught the other 3 before kinder how to read. So whatever they did in K just reinforced what they learned at home.

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N.H.

answers from Peoria on

I agree...it's very important to pronounce words in the right way so we can better understand each other. I would work w/your kid(s) at home, work w/him on the words. Make it a game if you want, to work on pronouncing the words. Sometimes parents at home hafta work w/their kids too & can't often leave it up to teachers b/c 'school cirriculum' changes too much sometimes. Hope this helps, good luck.

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L.S.

answers from San Francisco on

You might consider home schooling. This would really bother me, as I am the parent and I want the freedom to teach my children by methods that work! I've heard sight reading is much harder and slower. You want to go from sounding the letters to piecing the words together, not the other way around! Don't write off home schooling because you're busy. There are all kinds of ways to make it work. If you stay with the school, I would recommend teaching your son phonics at home. I hope it works out!

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A.R.

answers from Boston on

i thought the same thing last year....my sons teacher started out with sight words then at the 1/2 year marker they come home with a phonics world list and a spelling list every week....that was first grade...
in kindergarten it was mainly sight words but he teacher thought it was a crazy idea so she used the sight words but made the kids sound them out....

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B.

answers from Augusta on

They teach both here.
They start with sight words likely to be able to teach phonics easier, if they already know a word with that letter and sound they can connect the two.

ETA : Him being 4 he's WAY ahead. They start sight words in Kindergarten here, not pre-k . then second half of the year they do phonics. They do letter sounds in prek but not beyond " b says "bu" "

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P.J.

answers from Fort Myers on

The name of this site is "the wisdom of mons" -- trust yourself -- you already know that phonics leads to reading -- after reading and rereading, soon your child has memorized lots without trying -- and he also has the skill of figuring out words he doesn't know. When kids can only 'read' sightwords (memory words) they don't have the skill to decode words they don't know. A child that only knows sight words is in big trouble especially in grade 3 ++ because many words are introduced that aren't memorized.

It helps to make a distinction beteween non-phonic words -- these are 'true-sightwords' (many of those still have patterns for a number of words) and high-frequency words -- in on is is has is as and -- why have a child memorize each one as a separate configuration rather than teach them how to blend -- then give them lots of practice wtih the words and they will naturally be 'memorized'. Folks befend sightwords because they are not phonetic --- but really only a few fall in that catagory --- many more fall int he high frequency catagory. the other reason for sightwords is that a child need to read fluently so they needs to know the meaning of the word quickly -- teaching decoding and giving practice handles this.
Many kids have trouble with learning memory words -- I get them when they are behind in reading, they don't have memory words, and they don't know phoics --- or they onlly have memory words and don't have phonics.
For some kids teaching memory words first leads them to think that that is what reading is -- 'knowing' or guessing -- mine all guess--guesses that have nothing to do with the letters in the words. Also, I've read that the brain uses one part of it for memory and another part for decoding -- so it makes more since to me to first teach decoding. (Phonics Pathways had great charts for blending to letters -- the first step to blending a three-letter word -- likely your local library has this)
I'm not attached to a reading philosophy as much as what works -- with 'my' kids memory words didn't work - and phonics does --- but some have learned quicker than others.
The kids I help that don't 'get' memory words, tend to be wiggle-bugs -- and they learn best when wiggling and moving. These kids need to wiggle and use movement to help remember their phonics.
For kids that have trouble with memory words -- I organize them by phonic patterns and teach the sounds -- or the exceptions.

Good reading to all

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K.S.

answers from Bloomington on

I've heard my 5 yr old daycare child sound out words.. I'm sure she learned it from preschool. So I'm thinking we do still work on phonics... But I really don't know...

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