Early Reading: Sight Words vs Phonics

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When teaching young children how to read, there are two ways you can go about it.  You can teach them to read using “whole words” or you can teach them to read using “phonics”. Which is better? Here’s what I’ve learned about both methods – have a read and see what you think.

Whole Words

The “whole word” method of teaching a child to read usually involves the use of flashcards. Children are taught to recognise the word as a whole and to associate it with an object. For instance, “shoes” are:

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Reading programs that teach children to read using “whole words”:

Benefits of teaching children to read using “whole words”:

  • children learn to read more quickly
  • they can understand what they read
  • children can start reading their first books within a few months

The disadvantage of teaching children to read using “whole words”:

  • they cannot read words they have never seen before
  • children who learn to read with whole words may have difficulties with spelling later on

However, Glenn Doman believes that if you teach a child to read enough words through the whole word method, your child will eventually be able to form reading rules to apply to new words they have never seen before.


The “phonics” method of teaching a child how to read involves breaking up the words into alphabet sounds.  In the example above, “shoes” will be taught as “sh” and “oos”.  A classic example of a program that taught children to read words using phonics was Sesame Street.

The advantages of teaching a child how to read using “phonics”:

  • children learn the rules of letter pronunciations
  • children can read words they have never seen before by applying the rules they have learned

The disadvantages of teaching a child how to read using “phonics”:

  • it takes longer for a child to learn how to read
  • children usually take about 1-2 years before they can read their first book

Phonics rules can be taught with fun rhymes and songs, for instance:

“Cuddly cats are calling – ‘kuh’, ‘kuh’, ‘kuh’”

“Dirty dogs are digging – ‘duh’, ‘duh’, ‘duh’”

Another popular phonics program is called Jolly Phonics:

Combining Whole Word and Phonics

To get the best of both worlds, you can combine both methods for teaching your child how to read. A couple of early reading programs that teach children to read using both methods – “whole words” and “phonics” – are:

Both methods have their merits and I believe a combination approach works best.  Rather than looking at both methods as either/or, it may be preferable to consider the “phonics” program as a logical continuation of the early “whole words” method of learning how to read. “Whole words” can give young children the opportunity to have fun with words early. They can learn new words quickly and apply what they have learned immediately. It also offers more meaning to a child to learn a word that is associated with an object rather than a letter and its sound.

When your child has a basic understanding of reading, the phonics program can be introduced to help your child learn to read independently. By having an understanding of the relevance of words and their appearance in books through the “whole word” method, your child will be more willing to learn the abstract rules of phonics.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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