Sight Words vs Phonics: Which One is Best?

Learning to read is one of the most important skills a child can learn. The best way to teach reading varies depending on who you ask, but sight words vs phonics has been a hot debate for many years.

Sight words are whole words that kids are taught before they’re exposed to letters and letter combinations. Phonics teaches children the sounds that different letter combinations make so they can sound out unknown words.

Which method should parents choose? Which one do you think is better? And which one is more popular in recent years? Keep reading to learn all about sight word vs phonics.

Learning sight words isn't enough. Here's what to try instead.
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Sight Words and Phonics

What are Sight Words?

Sight words are also called sight vocabulary or high-frequency sight words. They are a set of common words that kids learn to recognize by sight before they’re taught how each letter sounds.

The sight word “the” is a great example because it has three letters, but only one sound. This makes it a tricky word to sound out using phonics. “The” is a sight word because it needs to be memorized, instead of decoded using phonics.

What is Phonics?

Phonics means learning the relationship between letters and sounds. Letters represent sounds, and phonics teaches children to sound out an unfamiliar word using this relationship.

Phonics can be tricky because many letters make more than one sound. For example, the letter “a” can make the short vowel sound “ah,” like in the word “cat.” It can also make the long vowel sound “ay,” like in the word “grape.”

Sight Words vs Phonics

Although sight words and phonics are both methods of teaching kids to read, sight words and phonics teach children different things. Sight words give kids a sense of meaning and context. This method can help them sound out unknown or tricky words better than phonics alone because sight words are familiar. Phonics helps kids learn to decode words that are unfamiliar.

Kids can learn to read with either method individually, or by using a combination of both methods at the same time.

sight words vs phonics

Sight Words

Sight words are the most commonly used words in English. In the sight word method of teaching reading, kids memorize lists of these words. They don’t need to use the sounds of the alphabet because they recognize whole words by sight.

Kinds of Sight Words

The sight word approach usually asks kids to memorize both sight words, which are words that do not follow the rules of phonics, and high-frequency words. These words often do follow the rules of phonics but might be easier to read than to sound out since they appear frequently in written text.

When studying sight words, kids memorize lists of words with repetition, until they can recognize and read those words.

An example of this learning method is the Dick and Jane books, written in the 1930s and used until the 1980s. Some sight words that young readers might recognize are: is, was, see, look.

Sight Word Strategies

The sight word method encourages kids to use reading strategies to help them figure out new words. These strategies include checking for context clues, recognizing the shape of the word, and skipping words they don’t know. These strategies help kids find meaning in the text even if they can’t read all the words.

It is important to note that all words eventually become sight words once kids become familiar with them.

Whole Language

The sight word method is also called the whole word or whole language approach. This is because kids are learning to read whole words at a time.

The whole language approach can be traced back to Horace Mann in the early 1900s. It became popular in the 1980s when it was promoted by researchers Frank Smith and Kenneth Goodman.

The whole language learning technique aims to teach kids reading not as a decoding skill but rather as an enjoyable process of exploring stories and children’s literature.

Sight Word Lists

Sight words are organized into standardized lists by grade level. These lists include the Dolch and Fry word lists.

Dolch Words

The Dolch sight word list was created by Dr. Edward William Dolch in the 1930s and 1940s. The Dolch word list includes 80% of the words found in children’s books and 50% of the words in books written for adults. The Dolch sight words list includes 220 words divided into 5 lists for preschool through 3rd grade, plus an additional list of 95 nouns.

Fry Words

The Fry sight words list was created by Dr. Edward Fry in the 1950s and updated in the 1980s. Fry’s word lists contain the 1,000 most common words and about 90% of the words in most books. The Fry sight word list is divided into 10 groups of 100 words each.

sight words vs phonics

How are Sight Words Taught?

Sight words can be taught in many different ways depending on your child’s ability level and learning style. Here are a few sight word activities that kids can do at home.

Read books together. Ask your child to look for and read any sight words they can find.

Practice writing sight words. Ask your child to copy the words. Then, check to make sure that they wrote the words correctly.

Make sight word flashcards. This is a great way for kids to practice their sight words independently.

Play a game. The Reading Game is a great resource that turns learning sight words into a game. Check out my Reading Game review to learn more!

Use an app. Two great reading apps for kids that teach sight words are ABCMouse and Leapfrog Academy.

This list of fun ways to practice sight words at home will give you lots of other ideas!

Benefits of Sight Words

There are several benefits to teaching young children to read using sight words.

Builds Confidence

Kids who learn to read sight words often find that reading is easier and more fun when they have a library of words that they know. This builds confidence and a love of books.

A Quick Start

It is easier and quicker to read with sight words compared to the phonics-based approach. This is because kids can recognize words and read without having to stop and decode each word.

Because kids can read much more quickly, this also enables them to increase their fluency. Reading will get even faster over time as their sight word vocabulary grows.

Increases Vocabulary

The sight word approach encourages kids to learn sight words as vocabulary words. This is an essential building block for reading comprehension.

Encourages Reading in Context

The whole language method of teaching reading encourages kids to look at the context of the words they are reading. Context clues and sight words help children read more accurately and fluently even if they can’t decode or sound out every word.

Some Words Aren’t Decodable

Even with a phonics-based approach, some words aren’t decodable words. They don’t follow the rules and must be memorized as sight words for kids to become fluent readers.

sight words vs phonics


The phonics method is a method of teaching reading in which children are taught the relationship between letters or groups of letters (graphemes) and the sounds (phonemes) represented by those letters or groups of letters.

Phonics instruction teaches that words are composed of smaller units called phonemes, which are the sounds of the letters in the English language.

In English, there are 44 different phonemes that can be combined to create words.

In phonics, kids learn how to sound out words by decoding them letter by letter. Kids learn strategies that can help them decode and read any word they find, without having to memorize the word.

How Phonics Started

The phonics method of teaching reading has been popular in the United States since the McGuffey Readers were published in the 1800s. It was defended in the famous books “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” (1955) and “Why Johnny Still Can’t Read” (1981).

The phonics approach is backed by a lot of scientific research which shows that it helps kids learn the skills they will need to be better readers long-term. A report by the National Reading Panel in 2000 showed that overall, phonics is a more effective strategy for helping kids become strong readers than sight words.

How is Phonics Taught?

Phonics teaching methods vary. The different types of phonics programs include synthetic (also known as blended or inductive phonics), and analytic (also known as implicit phonics).

Analytic phonics – A phonics program that focus on the first sound in each word. Kids sound out the first sound, then use rhyming words, word families, and context clues to figure out the rest of the word.

Synthetic phonics – A method of teaching phonics that teaches kids to sound out each phoneme in a word, no matter where in the word it is located. Kids learn sounds first, and then learn how to blend them together to make words.

If you are planning to use the phonics approach to teach your child to read, I recommend the book Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. You can learn more about this book and how to use it in my Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons Review.

Goals for Phonics Instruction

Phonics instruction helps kids develop decoding skills and the ability to read new words that they see. Phonics is not designed to help kids develop reading comprehension skills. The goal of phonics instruction is to enable children to read texts quickly and effortlessly through word recognition and fluency.

Benefits of Phonics

Some benefits to learning to read with a phonics-based approach include:

Builds Accuracy

Phonics instruction helps children focus on decoding each letter rather than guessing based on context clues. This helps them to be more accurate in reading and to learn to read new words faster.

Develops Fluency

Because phonics instruction helps children learn to read new words faster, this helps them build reading fluency as well.

Teaches Reading Strategies

Phonics instruction teaches students strategies for decoding new words. It also helps them learn to recognize patterns in words and to understand letter-sound relationships.

These strategies can be helpful when kids come across new words they need to decode. When learning phonics, kids understand how to read, instead of just memorizing a bunch of words.

Less Memory

A phonics-based approach means much less for kids to memorize. Kids will need to memorize a few rules and phonemes, instead of a large list of words.

Backed by Research

The phonics approach is backed by scientific research that shows that it is more effective at teaching kids how to read long-term.

sight words vs phonics

Comparing Sight Words and Phonics

Which Method is Better?

Both sight words and phonics can help children become better readers, but sight words are easier to learn at first. Phonics is a long-term strategy but it teaches kids the skills they need to become strong readers over time.

Sight words are considered easier for children to learn because they provide meaning and context, but phonics is considered better for teaching children to sound out sight words. This makes sight words vs phonics a hot debate because sight words may be easier, but phonics is better at teaching kids to read.

However, sight words and phonics both have their disadvantages. Teaching sight words alone doesn’t teach kids how to sound out words. Phonics doesn’t teach words that can’t be sounded out using phenomes.

Kids who learn with sight word lists alone often have a hard time decoding new words and may struggle with more difficult reading materials. Phonics lessons can help kids develop a solid foundation of the strategies that strong readers use to figure out new words. This means that phonics is a more effective method for creating strong readers long-term, especially when taught in combination with memorizing lists of sight words as well.

The sight words vs phonics debate has been a heated one in the United States, with educators and scientists taking positions on both sides over the years. Sight words were especially popular in the 1980s and 1990s as people believed that they would make reading more enjoyable for kids.

Now, more teachers and families are turning to phonics instruction to make sure that kids have a solid foundation of strategies that will help them become strong readers.

Which Method Should You Use to Teach Reading to Your Child?

When teaching reading, it is usually most effective to use phonics as the main method. You can add in some sight words as well to help kids memorize the words that they can’t sound out with phonics alone.

Having sight words memorized without phonics would be beneficial for primary grades when sight words are first introduced. But, over time, even the words that kids are sounding out with phonics strategies will become sight words as they become fluent readers.

If children are instead learning sight words alone, sight word recognition becomes harder over time. This is because sight words must be memorized and remembered in isolation without any understanding or context of how to use them in a sentence. Phonics relies less on memorization and instead gives kids tools that they can use to read any new word they find.

sight words vs phonics

Balanced Literacy

Balanced literacy is a method of instruction that uses sight words and phonics together. This means kids learn some sight words, and phonics provides the context for sight word recognition.

Balanced literacy is particularly effective when starting with phonics. Once kids can decode some words, then you can add practice in reading comprehension and memorizing sight words into the mix.

No matter which method you choose, you will need to include some sight words that don’t follow the standard rules of phonics.

The sight words vs phonics debate is a hot topic of discussion because it has many pros and cons. Sight words may be easier for children to learn, but phonics can teach reading strategies better than sight words alone does. This makes balanced literacy an appealing option for parents who want their kids to have both sets of skills. Combining phonics strategies with reading comprehension and memorizing sight words will help your child read fluently and confidently with consistent practice.

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