The Role of Phonics & Sight Words in Word Recognition

Instructor: Sharon Linde
Teachers of young readers need to have strategies for teaching phonics and sight words in their tool bag. This lesson discusses the role of these two strategies in the development of word recognition and reading development.

Learning to Read

Learning to read involves the combination of several skills. Think about what you need to know when reading - you must understand what letters are, what sounds they represent, and even that there are sounds in speech that are represented by letters. Eventually you apply all this knowledge to reading, building on your skills as you progress until you are able to read words without using sound/speech relationships. You are then reading sight words.

Sound complicated? While learning to read and teaching young readers can be a nuanced process, it's simple when you break it down. Let's start with the basics.

What Is Phonics?

Phonics is the cornerstone of beginning reading instruction. It's a method of teaching students to read that shows sound/symbol relationships. Let's say Lisa, a kindergarten teacher, is working with her student Juan on phonics instruction. She knows Juan needs to understand that individual phonemes, or sounds in speech, are each represented by a letter or series of letters in the alphabet. For example, 'a' makes one sound, and 't' another.

Over time, Juan will begin to develop skills that help him easily identify words, or have word recognition. But instruction in phonics alone isn't enough for students like Juan to build strong word recognition skills. In order for them to fully develop as readers, they need instruction in other strategies too. Let's take a look at these.

Phonological and Phonemic Awareness

An important part of learning to read and develop strong word recognition skills is understanding what we call the alphabetic principle. This is an understanding that sound/symbol relationships are predictable. This awareness helps students rely on patterns to be used often when reading.

Because children aren't born understanding the alphabetic principle, teachers need to teach these skills through phonological awareness skills instruction. Phonological awareness includes the ability to hear and identify syllables and phonemes and to segment, blend, and substitute these sounds.

For example, Lisa will teach Juan basic skills such as rhyming and beginning sounds in words. Soon, he'll be ready to use phonological skills when decoding unknown words, or using his knowledge of the sounds in speech to read. With enough exposure and practice, Juan will be able to read and write more complex words.

Instruction in Spelling

The skills used in reading are related to those used in writing. When children learn to write, they're encoding, taking their knowledge of sound/symbol relationships and the alphabetic principle and making decisions about which letters build the words they want to write. In order for them to write, they need to be able to learn and apply spelling skills.

Aspects of reading, like phonological and phonemic awareness, as well as phonics, are used and reinforced when children write. Juan has learned in Lisa's phonics instruction about the letters 'a' and 't' and how to blend those sounds to read the word 'at'. When encoding during writing, Juan thinks 'I want to write the word 'at'. What letters make the /a/ and /t/ sound?' Do you see how the same basic skills are used?

Vocabulary Instruction

Lisa teaches Juan the basics of reading and writing, and he gains a solid understanding of decoding and encoding as he practices and applies his new knowledge in practice. What happens, though, if Juan is trying to decode an unfamiliar word? Let's say he is reading a book about where cows live, and he comes across the word 'meadow'. He knows about the alphabetic principle to decode the word, but because the word is unfamiliar he is unsure if he's reading it correctly and what it means.

Lisa will need to incorporate aspects of vocabulary instruction into her lessons. She can help him increase his working vocabulary by:

  • Teaching him to use context clues, using the surrounding text to determine what words mean
  • Reading text rich in vocabulary and explaining what words mean
  • Designing and teaching explicit vocabulary daily
  • Using complex vocabulary in teaching and conversations

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