Sight Reading & Phonics


The Advantage of an Integrated Approach

A prevailing educational paradigm that places phonics and sight-reading in opposition to one another has undermined the potential of existing reading programs and their students. 


Parents and educators alike fail to understand the effectiveness of these two approaches when they are used in concert. It is a debate that persists despite irrevocable evidence that the best approach to reading is a diversified one. Experts may align themselves with one method or the other, but the truth is that the two approaches are synergistic. Nowhere is this more evident than in the abilities of children who have had the benefit of a diversified reading program, one which integrates phonetic and holistic ways of understanding words.


Understandably, the phonetic approach to reading has traditionally been preferred. The benefits of phonics are irrefutable. With phonics, words that belong to the same phonic family can be taught at once. (We all remember the infamous cat that never seems to tire of sitting on the mat.) The phonetic approach encourages children to focus on the building blocks of words, to understand letter-sound relationships and identify patterns between words. Most importantly, phonics provides a strategy for deciphering unfamiliar words, an unquestionably important life skill.


Though the advantages of a phonetic approach are numerous, reading programs that favour phonics exclusively ignore the integral developmental component of language acquisition. The same is true for reading programs that disregard phonics in preference of sight reading. While the whole word approach has proven itself effective, particularly among visual-spatial learners, it simply cannot fill the void that the absence of phonics creates.


In the article Phonics vs. Sight Reading: the most important piece of information you need to know, Cyndi Ringoen, a neurodevelopmentalist, explains the relationship between developmental milestones and a child’s ability to apply phonetic knowledge. She links children’s ability to use phonics with their auditory processing level.


“Phonics is an auditory learning system, and it is imperative to have a sufficient auditory short-term memory in order to learn, utilize and understand reading using the phonics method.”

Ringoen goes on to explain how societal changes have affected the way children undergo language learning:


“When phonics was introduced many decades ago we lived in a different type of society. It was an auditory society. The children grew up with family dinners, listening to radio and listening to stories of the old days from their grandparents. Children in this rich auditory environment had the opportunity to develop excellent auditory processing ability (short-term memory). Today we live in a very visual society… it contributes to the development of children with stronger visual processing ability and reduced auditory processing ability.”


In her article, Ringoen qualifies short-term memory, explaining a concept known as digit span. She stresses that in order to effectively use phonics children must have a digit span of 6 a level most children achieve around the age of 6.


“To insist on teaching a child phonics before they are developmentally ready is to set the child and parent up for a lot of frustration and laborious struggle…some parents, once they understand the brain’s role in learning phonics, decide to utilize flash cards for sight words while they are building the processing ability. This enables the child to view reading as pleasurable, and then later adding the phonics to build the reading skill.”


It becomes obvious that  the controversy over which method is best is unnecessary. Phonics and sight reading are like peanut butter and jelly: they’re just better when they’re together.


Read Cyndi Ringoen’s full article at Phonics vs Sight Reading – Special Helps.

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