As someone who was taught phonics and has always been an avid reader, I believe that trying to teach a child reading by the use of sight words is cheating them out of some very useful skills.
When a child is taught to read by breaking down words and sounding them out, the phonics approach, he or she is able to figure out unfamiliar words when she encounters them. The child who relies solely on sight reading will stumble, frustrated and ill-equipped to figure out the new words.
It reminds me a little of the old saying, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat forever.” If we teach children a limited number of sight words, they will be able to fumble through a few sentences. If we teach them the basics of reading and language, they will be able to use those skills to learn on their own, teaching themselves new words and giving them an even stronger sense of accomplishment when they do.
Another consideration is the different ways different people think and process information. Even children have these differences. The sight word approach would work well for a visual thinker, but not so well for someone who is not a visual thinker. If you are not the type of person who processes information visually as well as you do in other ways, you may have a hard time with the sight word method. This puts those who process information differently at a disadvantage.
I would be interested in seeing empirical information on the effectiveness teaching reading by the use of sight words versus teaching reading by use of phonics. It may be quicker and easier for the teachers, which is what I suspect is the true bottom line, but I doubt very seriously that it is a true benefit to the students.
If teaching reading by the use of sight words is so effective, why is it that today’s children can’t read as well as they should? And why do you see parents scrambling to buy phonics-based learning aids and teaching their children themselves what they used to learn in school?
Writing is another area in which the use of sight words instead of phonics fails a child. How can they be expected to learn to write clearly and concisely with a limited vocabulary? It’s not possible to take a narrow list of words and write on any topic without being stifled in your creativity and limited in your ability to communicate.
My humble opinion is that we should make a return to the basics. Arm our children with the ammunition they need to be able to conquer unfamiliar words. This will make them able to read and write any word, instead of something they’ve seen on a list somewhere.