When it comes to teaching phonics vs. sight words, do you feel confident you know the difference? Sometimes the line between these two elements of reading can be blurred.
It’s important to not only know the difference but have a systematic way of teaching both. When you do, it makes a huge impact on a student’s ability to take off in reading!
Sight Words vs. Phonics: Why Both Are Important
Reading Instruction encompasses five levels of skills which include phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. At every level, instruction needs to be explicit and directed.
For example, if you are teaching letter names and sounds, you would say something like, “Boys and girls, this is the letter M. What letter is it? The letter M represents the /m/ sound. What sound does it represent?” Asking students questions like “who can tell me what letter…” encourages students to guess and can create confusion.
It’s critical to model everything for students – a lot – before you expect them to do anything independently.
In addition to being explicit, instruction also needs to be systematic. There should be a certain order in which you teach certain skills. When it comes to teaching phonics, you will always see the most success in your students when you follow a Phonics Scope and Sequence. It’s best to follow a scope and sequence for teaching letter sounds too, like this one I created for you!
Sight Words vs Phonics: What Skills Students Need to Master
When we are teaching phonics, there are a few skills students need to be able to master. First, students have to be able to hear and manipulate sounds. Next students need to be able to put those sounds to print so they can decode words.
Once they have those phonics patterns down, then students can build their fluency skills. Strong fluency skills will help students begin to build their vocabulary skills too. All these pieces built upon each other allow a student to be able to comprehend text with ease.
Within phonics instruction, students need to have phonics skills, phonics knowledge and understand phonics patterns. At a basic level, phonics is just the idea that letters represent sounds. This understanding allows a student to be able to interpret the letters as sounds and decode the text.
In terms of the skills students need to have, they need to be able to apply sounds to print. They also need to be able to blend sounds together into one word. They need to be able to segment sounds or break sounds apart which will support their spelling skills.
Lastly, students need to be able to identify the parts of a word including the prefix, suffix, and root of a word. When we teach each of these, they also need to know the meaning of each of these pieces to increase their vocabulary and comprehension.
Teaching Phonics Patterns in Order
There are seven types of phonics patterns students need to know. These patterns should begin at a basic level and get increasingly more complex. For this reason, they need to be taught in this order:
The Best Strategies for Sight Word vs Phonics Instruction
If we can manage to teach phonics patterns and sight words both systematically and side by side, we are going to have students who are going to be able to decode.
Components of Phonics
The reason that sight words are important to teach is that we know that 100 words make up 50% of text and 300 words make up 69% of text. But what you also must know is that not all sight words are created equal.
There are many regular sight words such as in, an, or at. These follow regular phonics patterns and once those patterns are learned, students can easily decode these sight words.
But then we have irregular sight words and will never be able to decode words like the, you, of, or they. Students have to memorize these words so that they read them easily and never try to decode them.
How to Categorize Your Sight Words
When you are planning your sight word instruction, start with a list like Fry’s Sight Word List. When you look at the first 100 words, follow these steps.
- Highlight all of the words that follow that short vowel CVC pattern (but, get).
- Next highlight the words with a blend (/bl/, /st/, or /tr/).
- Identify all the words with a digraph like /ch/, /sh/, or /ng/.
- Find all the ones that follow a long vowel pattern.
- Look for the r-controlled words (for, first).
- Then highlight the variant vowels (look, down).
- Last, find all the multisyllabic words (number).
This may seem like a lot of work, but it actually simplifies the process for students. If we can make our instruction super laser-focused on teaching the irregular sight words explicitly and systematically, it’s going to be more powerful.
More Tools For Your Tool Belt
If you are wanting a way to simplify this process, I have some tools for you. When you use the Planning a Sight Word Intervention Quick Start Guide, you will have access to an assessment that breaks this all down so you know exactly where you need to start with your students.
You’ll even be able to assess on just the irregular sight words. Best of all, it breaks down all the regular sight words according to their categories identified above. You’ll also have a list of words that students should have mastered in each grade level.
So let’s commit to stop bombarding kids with sight words and hoping they catch it all. Teaching phonics and sight words systematically, it’s the road that leads to mastery!