Monday, March 28, 2011

Phonics vs. Whole Word Reading

In my quest to learn as much as possible about homeschooling, I've seen phonics and whole word (also: whole language, sight words) discussed several times. Nothing about it seems definitive, so I believe its safe to say that both methods have some good points, and using them in conjunction with one another seems to be the way to go. From what I can tell, my son's kindergarten class is doing just that, for which I am thankful. He has learned all the letter sounds and is now working on letter combination sounds, all the while adding a few new sights words each week (usually 5 or 6). This method has been very good for him, and he can now figure out new words on his own (with encouragement) during our nightly Bible reading.

The basics of the argument is this. Mature readers do not read by phonics, sounding out each word as they come across it. We read by whole word recognition, for the most part. If we happen across a word we don't know, then we may slow down to sound it out, but what I find I do is figure out the root of the word and what it means (based on similar words or context) and take a guess at it. This method has served me well since elementary school, but maybe that's not what everyone else does, LOL. Alternatively, young readers don't have all these word symbols stored up in their brains and have no starting point, other than knowing the letters themselves. In this case, I think it is well to teach the sound of the letters and their combinations, so they can decipher the code (read the word) for themselves as interest dictates. Some people are against teaching phonics because it slows down reading, or takes away the enjoyment of it. Other are staunchly opposed to whole word learning, saying the child will only ever be able to read words they have previously been exposed to, through memorization. While both have valid points, as usual, the middle ground is the most fruitful.

What brought this to the front of my mind today was the reading of Theodore Wade, Jr.'s book from the early 1980's entitled "The Home School Manual" (yes, the selection at our rural library leaves something to be desired). While extraordinarily outdated and making me laugh through the mention of records and tapes, and the absolute exclusion of computers, it is still interesting to read. I am now on the Teaching Reading chapter, and he includes an extensive list of words that are very common and do NOT follow phonetic rules. I thought I might make sure these are some of the first sight words to teach my son, if any of them aren't already covered this year in kindergarten. Here they are!

a, again, against, answer, beautiful, been, breakfast, buy, catch, choir, come, could, do, does, dumb, eye, friend, girl, gone, have, laugh, money, neighbor, none, of, once, one, only, ought, people, pretty, put, ready, said, says, sew, shoe, some, should, the, their, to, two, was, Wednesday, were, where, who, whose, women, would

Now read it again, pretending as I did that you only knew phonics and had to figure out what each word was. Eye-opening, isn't it?


  1. We use mainly a phonics program in our homeschool, but I have nothing against sight words, as you are so right in that we read by sight and not stopping to sound out every word. We have words that "break the rule" in our house, sight words! I do know a few people who never learned phonics, just whole words, and their reading skills are stilted. Great post!

  2. I tend to more on the phonics side of the argument as well at least for beginning reading skills. Then I'm very heavy on root-based vocabulary building.

    I think it was in Gatto's "Underground History of American Education" where they talked about how the test scores for the military dropped radically between WWII and Korea and the only thing they could trace it to was the change from phonics-based teaching being replaced to whole-word teaching in the 40's.

    But as you say, the truth is usually somewhere in the middle and can widely vary from kid to kid.