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Sight Words and Advanced Phonics – What’s the Difference?

What are sight words and how do they help my child read?

You may have already read articles on phonics, advanced phonics, and sight words, but are now wondering, “What’s the difference between advanced phonics and sight words?”

While the answer may not always be an easy one, we can follow a few guidelines when making the decision.

How applicable is the reading rule?

Teaching the rules of advanced phonics makes sense when there is general applicability of the rule. That is, the rule doesn’t apply to only a handful of words, but is transferable across numerous words. In such cases, teaching the rule is worthwhile as it helps break the code when the child encounters similar words, e.g. the rule for ‘made’ applies broadly to ‘spade’ and ‘brave’, but also more broadly to ‘strove’ and ‘cube’.

This rule is often known as the magic e rule. Its use can be noticed in many words, so it’s definitely a rule worth teaching.

How easy is the rule to understand?

Some reading rules are quite simple, while some are more complex. If the rule is rather complex, then its explanatory power will be nullified. The way we explain something must be simpler than what it is we are trying to explain. Otherwise, our attempts will be futile, frustrating both the explainer (teacher or parent) and the explainee (the poor child who simply pointed to ‘was’ and asked, “How do I read this word?”).

Thirdly, and crucially, where is the child up to in their reading journey?

If the child is just beginning their reading journey, then we want to get them reading as quickly as possible. We want to kick-start the process, making it easy and fun, and helping the child achieve early success. If memorising common words like ‘the’ and ‘was’ gets them reading, then a little investment in memorisation is definitely worth it!

However, if a child is a bit older and still struggling to read certain common words, then it seems memorisation of sight words is not working for them. In such cases, it can be worthwhile analysing words in even more detail. If the more common approach is not working, then it only makes sense to try something new. Additionally, the older child is more mature, and therefore more able to think in abstract and conceptual ways.


While this article provides guidelines for thinking about advanced phonics, reading rules and sight words, the decision is not always clear cut, and it depends on contextual factors as well. To make things easier for parents, a good reading programme will progressively introduce these reading rules and also have made a careful selection of the sight words to be introduced.

Facebook Quiz:

So what’s the answer to the quiz question? As you probably worked out, the word ‘cube’ follows one of the most common reading rules there is – the magic e rule! This is a powerful rule to know. Therefore, it’s usually best to get your child to apply the magic e rule to work out how to read ‘cube’ rather than teach it as a sight word.

Blog author LCentral head of curriculum

David Rollings is an innovative educator. He has worked in the education sector in Singapore for over ten years, and is extremely familiar with the educational landscape both in Singapore and in China. He has a thorough understanding of literacy development, language acquisition, English as an additional language, the MOE English language syllabus, curriculum review and development, and education management. He is LCentral’s Head of Curriculum, and is still very much in touch with day-to-day teaching, and is passionate about creating positive educational experiences for teachers, students and parents.

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