Phonics vs Sight-Reading Instruction

This is a big one.

It’s that eternal question which has been bandied about for the last 400 years of literacy instruction.

Which is the better method for teaching children how to read: phonics or sight-reading?

In most parts of the English-speaking world at this current moment in time, phonics are the go-to method for basic literacy instruction. Early primary school is focused on teaching the basic sounds associated with each letter in the English alphabet, with an emphasis on sounding out a word in order to capture its correct pronunciation and meaning.

However, there are some pockets of the educational sector who still hold fast to teaching sight-words as the building blocks of literacy. In this approach, children are presented with hundreds of the most common English words and taught through rote memorization to recognise them by sight. 

If you are interested in learning more about the ins and outs of this debate, get in touch and we can point you towards relevant reading material.

In general, however, we’ve found that sight-reading as a default reading strategy can be dangerous for one large sector of the population: ironically, highly visual learners.

Most visual learners find learning to read very hard and around 80% of children “diagnosed” as dyslexic are in fact visual learners.

At first, the sight-reading strategy appeals to their visual nature and they manage the alphabet and simple words easily.

They then progress to “early reader books” and look at the picture (visual cues) and rely on their sight memory to get through, guessing the words that they don’t know.

However, for visual learners, this method becomes something that is hugely over-relied upon and it soon fails them. There are simply too many words in the English language to recognise all of them by sight, and thus soon their confidence collapses and they fall behind peers who have learned decoding methods of reading.

You can actually see this visual reading process on an MRI scan as they read. The auditory cortex is not engaged at all, and the auditory cortex is key for beginning the processes of mapping letter patterns to sound patterns and comprehension.

The solution to this is to give the child the tools to engage with the phonic structure of each word and then force the engagement of the auditory cortex.

Easyread has been developed as a solution for exactly this situation, so I will give examples from Easyread as to how it can be solved for the child.

First, we take the visual strength of the child and use it to help guide the child towards proper phonic decoding of the text using our TrainerText system. This allows the child to access the phonemes within each word and then blend it successfully, without needing outside help.

Second, we create games that can be easily won if the words are decoded in this way, but are impossible if the child tries to use the familiar strategies of sight-memorising and guessing.

An example of that is our Mushroom Picker game. We read out a word. A series of words then appear on the screen and the child has to decide whether each one is the correct word (and therefore a mushroom) or a similar but different word (and thus a toadstool).

So, in some ways we are making the task easier, because the word has been read out. But in other ways it is far harder because the different words that appear are all very similar visually. So the child has to use the TrainerText to decode each one and confirm it is the same or different.

As they practise the new approach day by day, it slowly becomes more natural to them. Like any skill, it takes regular practice to see the change and seems harder when you first change technique. But eventually the new approach leads to far higher confidence and speed.

Because the child is now engaged with the internal structure of the text, we usually see a marked improvement in spelling, although this will lag behind the reading proficiency.

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