Phonics or Sight Words: What is the Best Method for Teaching Reading?

Recently, Alex Newman, was a guest on The Schoolhouse Rocked Podcast, with Yvette Hampton and Aby Rinella, to address the current state of education in our nation. During that conversation Alex covered the very important topic of teaching reading through phonics or sight words (also called “look say,” “see say,” whole-word, or whole-language method).

Yvette Hampton:           I want to go back to something that you talked about just a little while ago. You were talking about phonics versus other methods of teaching reading. Talk about that a little bit, because I know that’s something that you’ve studied, and I understand the difference between the two, but I’ve never actually heard anyone explain how has that played into what’s happening today in education?

Alex Newman:              I’ll try to condense it into as quick a time as possible. It’s such a huge subject, but it’s such an important subject. I had the chance to work with Sam Blumenfeldwho was banging the drums on this for 60 years, so I’m so glad you asked me that because I know there’s a lot of homeschool moms out there right now who are thinking about this exact thing. And I know how hard it is because my wife and I — me knowing all this — we tried to go out and find phonics books for our children and we’d order one and we’d open it up and the first page would say, “Here’s the list of sight words your children are going to remember.” Oh my goodness. Kick me in the face, please. Really?!?

Alex Newman:              I’ll try to boil it down quick. There are two basic ways today of teaching reading, and then there are some variations on those, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s just call it two. There’s the phonics method, which has been used from the time we had our written alphabet, going back clear to the Phoenicians. It was an incredible development in human ingenuity. Instead of having symbols represent words or ideas, we had symbols that represented sounds. And so a P makes a “puh” sound and an O makes a “ah” sound, and a P is a “puh” sound, and so that spells, “pop.” That’s very, very simple. That’s phonics. Each symbol represents one or more sounds. You blend those together and then you can decipher any word that you might come across. I mean, it could just be any combination of symbols, and you can sound that out and understand what it’s supposed to mean, assuming it has meaning.

Alex Newman:              The other basic way of teaching reading, which is used all over the United States today, is the whole-word method. It’s got such a bad smell, they started coming up with new disguises for it. They call it the “sight word” method and the “look say” method and now they’ve got “whole-language”. They introduced some caveats and stuff to try to conceal the craziness. But the heart of this one is, you treat the words as symbols themselves. And of course, words are not symbols. Words are collections of symbols that you can sound out to determine what that word means. So the history of this is really instructive.

Alex Newman:              I mean, I don’t want to give any bad feelings toward the people who developed this. They were actually good Christians who had the best of intentions. The guy was called Reverend Gallaudet. He was running an asylum for … they called it the deaf and the dumb back then … in Connecticut, and what he said was, “Well, we can’t teach a deaf child how to sound out a word because you can’t teach a deaf child what the symbol corresponds with in terms of sounds. So, what if …” And he got this idea from some French monastery where they had been trying this out on deaf and mute children. “So, what if we teach the children to memorize entire words as if the word itself were a symbol?” So, take the word “cat” as an example. If you were teaching it phonetically, you would say a C is a “cuh,” an A is a “aah, and a T is a “tuh,” and so the child could then read that by deciphering what each of those symbols stands for.

Alex Newman:              Gallaudet’s method – he actually created a primer for this in early America – was, “Let’s teach the children how to decipher ‘cat’ just from the symbol.” So, C-A-T, you don’t decipher that as a C, an A, and a T. When you see the squiggly lines like that, that means “cat,” and you can memorize those. And what he figured out was really smart kids could memorize hundreds, and really, really smart kids could maybe even memorize thousands of words that way. And so, if you’re a deaf child and you’ve never been able to access the written word because you can’t hear sounds, that is an enormous leap forward in terms of being able to communicate with the world. It was a great development.

Alex Newman:              But then Horace Mann said, “Hey, why don’t we try this in the public schools that I’ve created in Boston?” And they did, and it only took a few years for the quackery to be exposed. I’ve actually got a book behind me right here, The New Illiterates, by Dr. Sam Blumenfeld in 1973, and he has got a treasury in there. In the appendix, he republished the letter that the schoolmasters from all the public schools in Boston wrote to Horace Mann about this quackery that he had put into the schools, teaching non-deaf children to read using the whole-word method. It’s beautiful, it’s eloquent. It’s not written like it would be today. “You’re a poo poo head and we don’t like you, so you should be quiet.” It’s just a beautiful, eloquent explanation of why the whole-word method is not a proper way for teaching reading when you have a phonetic … In China, that’s how they do because that’s the writing system they have. For them, a symbol actually represents a word, so you actually have to memorize tens of thousands of symbols. Our writing system is not like that.

Alex Newman:              So they took it apart, they dismantled it, and in this beautiful essay they said, “Sorry, Mr. Mann. We tried it. It didn’t work.” They actually explained that the children were getting symptoms of what we would today call dyslexia. They said they couldn’t read. They would read words backwards

We didn’t hear about it again until our good friend John Dewey came along and said, “Hey, let’s resurrect that whole-word method.” And he tried it out in that experimental school that the Rockefellers funded. Actually, the kids graduated illiterate. They couldn’t read properly. And John Dewey thought, “Hey, this will be perfect. Let’s create some reading primers.” And he did. He created the Dick and Jane series, which a lot of our parents and our grandparents used. “See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.” This is just teaching the children to memorize the whole word.

Alex Newman:              Now, this is ubiquitous in America. Now, there are still a lot of rogue teachers who will defy the Common Core standards and who will use only phonics, but if the administration figures it out, if the school board figures it out, if the state superintendent figures it out, there’s going to be a big problem. Now, a lot of parents now have figured this out, so they teach their children to read using phonics before they send them to school. And after you know how to read using phonics, all the sight words in the world are not going to hurt you. But it’s such a tragedy and it’s so unnecessary. America was the most literate society on the planet before this innovation came. If you look at the literacy data we have from the early 1800s it is very clear. Dupont de Nemours did a study of literacy in the United States in 1812. He said “not more than 4 in 1,000 young people were unable to read and write even legibly,” he said.

Aby Rinella:                  Wow.

Alex Newman:              If you look at the reading statistics from the government today, they will tell you that most of our children today are below basic proficiency. We have tens of millions … maybe a hundred million, maybe more … who are functionally illiterate. Some parts of Washington DC, half the population is functionally illiterate, and the reason why is very simple. They were taught to memorize words rather than to sound out the words.

Alex Newman:              So, what they do under Common Core now, they say, “Well, first we’re going to do the sight words, then we’ll sprinkle in a little bit of phonics,” after you’ve already built that faulty reflex in your brain. And so that really does enormous, devastating damage to the children, and that’s why so many children today can’t read

I think Satan probably just thought this was brilliant. “Hey, if they can’t read, they can’t read the Bible.”

Yvette Hampton:           That’s right.

Alex Newman:              “And they can’t go to the library, they can’t educate themselves, they won’t know their history, they won’t be able to read their Constitution.”

Yvette Hampton:           That’s right.

Alex Newman:              “This is positively brilliant.” And that brings us to today.

Thankfully, the solution to this problem is clear. There is an effective method for teaching reading to our children. Phonics works.

For more on this subject, listen to our interview with Andrew Pudewa, entitled “The Importance of Reading Aloud.” In this lively conversation, Andrew Pudewa, founder of the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW), explains the importance of reading to our children to establish a firm foundation as they become great readers, writers, and communicators. 

Alex Newman is an award-winning international journalist, educator, author, speaker, investor, and consultant who seeks to glorify God in everything he does. In addition to serving as president of Liberty Sentinel Media, Inc, he has written for a wide array of publications in the United States and abroad including the Epoch TimesThe New American, the Law Enforcement Intelligence Brief, WND (World Net Daily)FreedomProject Media, and many more. He also serves as executive director for Public School Exit, a ministry to rescue children from government schools. One of his major works was an exposé of government schools with internationally renowned Dr. Samuel Blumenfeld called Crimes of the Educators published by WND Books, endorsed by conservative leaders ranging from Phyllis Schlafly to Ron Paul. Last year, he travelled across the United States for the “Rescuing Our Children” speaking tour urging parents to get their children out of public school. Alex has appeared on hundreds of TV shows including Newsmax, One America News, the Dove Network, the Christian Television Network, the SonLife Broadcasting Network, and many more. In addition, he serves on several advisory boards for education-focused organizations, including U.S. Parents Involved in Education (USPIE), the Nehemiah Institute, and the Samuel L. Blumenfeld Foundation for Literacy. For the last seven years, Alex has also been teaching advanced economics to some of America’s brightest high-school seniors through FreedomProject Academy, an accredited K-12 Christian school offering a classical education to students worldwide. Alex and his wife homeschool their 4 children. 

Recommended Resources:

Alex Newman – Rescuing our Children Video

Rescuing our Children Special Report

Crimes of the Educators: How Utopians Are Using Government Schools to Destroy America’s Children, by Samuel L. Blumenfeld and Alex Newman

Why Johnny Still Can’t Read: A New Look at the Scandal of Our Schools, by Rudolf Franz Flesch 

If you are considering homeschooling or just need some great homeschooling encouragement, please check out for over 9 hours of FREE homeschool videos from the 2020 Homegrown Generation Family Expo.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

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