Sight words vs phonics (what’s the difference?)

When it comes to teaching kids to read there are so many terms. Sometimes it feels like learning a new language!

Sight words vs phonics are two different skills kids will need when learning to read. They are also sometimes seen as two different philosophies of how to teach kids to read.

Let’s examine what these two terms mean, how they are different, the education debate surrounding them, and finally, some resources for teaching them.

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What are sight words?

Sight words are words that are typically difficult to sound out due to irregular spelling or pronunciation. Basically, they don’t follow the “rules”. So these words need to be memorized.

These words are also referred to as tricky words, heart words, or non-decodable words.

The most popular lists of these words are the fry 100 and the dolch sight word list. These lists, while often referred to as sight word lists, actually include both decodable and non-decodable words.

They are better referred to as high frequency word lists. Words that occur commonly in children’s books that kids should learn to recognize, but many can be learned via phonics rather than memorization.

This is where the term “sight word” gets especially tricky as many recommend that kids learn to recognize all these words by sight, but the method of learning them can be different depending on the teaching approach used.

Are you confused yet?

image of letters and words on a page

What is phonics?

Phonics, on the other hand, involves learning the relationship between sounds and the letters that represent them. This includes things like teaching the sound or sounds each letter makes.

It also includes more advanced techniques like blends, vowel teams etc.

By learning phonics kids develop the ability to sound out words.

How are they different?

These are two completely different strategies although whether and how much you need both is up for debate.

One focuses on simple memorization of words. The other focuses on learning the tools to sound out or decode words.

These words may eventually become recognized “by sight” but they will be learned by sounding them until they have been read so many times that they are memorized.

The sight words vs phonics debate

While sight words and phonics are often portrayed as competing methods, a balanced approach is increasingly recognized as the most effective strategy for teaching reading.

Much of the debate centers around reading education that focuses on a “whole word” or “look-say” approach to teaching reading. This approach aims to teach kids all words by sight instead of focusing on phonics and sounding out words.

It also often encourages using context to guess what the word is.

Thankfully most curriculums are now acknowledging the problems with this method and are going to a strictly phonics based method or some sort of mix of the two.

boy with letter cards and photo flashcards

Tools for teaching sight words

When I started looking to teach sight words I found tons of lists…and all of them were different. So I did a lot of cross-referencing and created my own sight word unit that I used with my daughter.

You can grab it here or on Etsy. Learn more about how I put it together here. These are best used for kindergarten or first grade.

Tools for teaching phonics

Explode the code is an affordable workbook series that teaches lots of phonics skills. They also have a primer series called get ready for the code for the youngest learners.

Logic of English is a popular curriculum that is completely phonics focused.

Tools that teach both

All About Reading is a popular curriculum that teaches phonics as well as some sight words that they refer to as “leap” words. (Can we please pick one term!)

Reading.com this is an app based program that does focus mainly on phonics but integrates some sight words into it.


Want to learn more, check out these resources.

Science of Reading podcast

Uncovering the logic of English – Ever wanted to understand the crazy english language. It’s explained in this book.

Need tips on teaching phonics. Check out the Recipe for Reading Manual. (This one was recommended by a teacher friend of mine.)

They also have workbooks available.

Thanks for sharing!

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