Whitefield Academy Blog

Sight Words vs. Phonograms: Teaching Reading

by | Jan 24, 2018 | Classical Christian, Education, Kindergarten, Parenting, Reading, The Classroom | 0 comments

The majority of the information in this post is taken from an interview with Whitefield Academy Kindergarten teacher Sally Dodd.

If you are a friend of mine you have probably heard me complain about how the world is going down the drain because of all the incorrect spellings of “there” and all the unnecessary apostrophes. Sending us a Christmas letter addressed to “The Hutson’s” is the fastest way to send me into cardiac arrest. As an English major and former high school English teacher I like to think that I understand the English language pretty well. Imagine my surprise when my kindergartner came home chanting, “English words do not end in I.” I stood for a minute and thought to myself, “Hmm, she’s right. I never thought about that.” That small little chant floored me as I began to ask myself, “How many reading rules did I never learn?”

The Standard in the U.S.

The majority of schools in the United States from the 1940s on have taught children to read by using the “sight word” method. When a child is taught to read by sight, they are taught to recognize a word and change out beginning sounds (For example: sun, fun, run, and stop, hop, shop). The lists of memorized words are created based on words that are most common in written literature for the child’s age group (the Dolch or Fry lists). A child begins to recognize words as they recall how a word sounds based on the way the similar word that they have memorized sounds.

Benefits of Sight Words

This method is often recognized as a great way to learn to read quickly. Many children have become solid readers after being trained with sight words, including the majority of the adults reading this post.

Drawbacks of Sight Words

Some drawbacks with sight words are that when a child has learned a word like “bed,” for example, what then do they do with a word like “pulled” or “jumped”? Why does the C in “cat” sound differently from the C in “city”? Some will teach the short sound of a letter first, as they are the most common. Often, however, there is a difficult transition when students learn that there is another sound or, in some cases, three or more sounds to a given letter.

A Different Approach

At Whitefield Academy, we teach a child to read by first teaching 70 phonograms (the letters or sets of letters that represent all the sounds in the English language) and 28 spelling rules. Rather than beginning with reading first and spelling later, we teach spelling first and then reading. Our students are taught the 70 phonograms by learning a few at a time and practicing them by sight and by writing them.  Students then learn to sound out a word as they are guided through dictation. Eventually, each child will be able to read words by knowing the sounds of the phonograms within those words and applying the spelling rules.

Rules That Give Answers

Addressing the problem from earlier, they will know, beginning in our Pre- K and Kindergarten, that “ed” is a past tense ending and that it has three sounds. Because of that rule they see the difference between “pulled” and “bed” and that “bed” is made up of three separate phonograms: “b,” “e” (the first sound of “e”), and “d”. As for the problem of “cat” and “city” having different sounds, Kindergartners learn that “C says /s/ before E, I, or Y”.

Building a foundation of understanding all the sounds and spelling rules sometimes means that learning to read in this manner can take longer than other methods, but having this foundation is crucial when students grow older and begin to encounter longer and more complicated words. Learning the phonograms and the rules for spelling makes for excellent spellers and then wonderful readers.


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