I would like to add my personal experiences to this debate. As most of you know already, I am learning to read Arabic, when I first posted here I had zero sight words in Arabic, but could decode any Arabic text that was either written with all the vowel marks, or written without the vowel marks using grammar and vocabulary that I am familiar with. (the short vowel marks are not written in Arabic text intended for fluent readers who are native speakers, they are written in children's books and books that are read by non Arabs)
The situation is pretty much the same, but Jenny asked me to let her know when I start taking in Arabic words as a whole. I don't yet (and I've been learning Arabic for a few years, on and off, and living in an Arabic speaking country for just over a year). However I have been practicing reading a lot lately, and I can report the following sight words: The Arabic word for I (three letters) for in (two letters, written in a special way so it looks like just one symbol so maybe it doesn't count) the word for restaurant (four letters) the word for God (four letters, but the last three are joined as a special symbol not used for any other word, so actually just two symbols) and the phrase God Willing (three words: 2 letters, 3 letters, 2 symbols (God)) The rest of Arabic I have to decode letter by letter (or letter+vowelmark, letter+vowelmark, letter+vowelmark)
I only recently, in the last week or so, started to see the word for restaurant as a sightword. I have been doing lots of practicing reading shop signs as I go out and about, so have decoded the word for restaurant many times as there are a lot of them where I live. For a while, I'd not recognise the word straight away, but after decoding the first two letters, I would recognise the other two as completing the word for restaurant. Recently I have read this word just by looking at it without decoding it.
When it comes to decoding Arabic, I don't have any difficulty understanding the words that I decode if they are in my vocabulary (limited, I don't speak Arabic that well yet). I don't consider myself as a struggling reader in Arabic, even though I occasionally decode letters wrongly because some letters look the same but they are only distinguished by whether the dots are above or below the line, and even though I read very slowly.
Regarding teaching beginners I think it is very important to realise that you can't make a beginner do something by emulating what is going on in the mind of a person who is skilled. When you first learn to drive you have to consciously think your way through several different processes even just to start the car. Every time you have to change gear you have to think your way through the process. However an expert driver can just think "start car" and they start the car, they can change gears without thinking at all. Any skill you learn is like this, you can't expect to teach beginners by shortcutting thinking through and doing all the steps involved in the task, because it is through repeatedly doing whatever is required in the correct way that the skill becomes automatic. You can't jump the process of aquiring a skill and skip straight to automaticity. Therefore trying to make beginners emulate the way experts do something is not a logical way to teach. You have to break the skill down into its components and have the beginner practice these until they develop automaticity.
By teaching sightwords you are not skipping this process, or emulating the way skilled readers read (because the skilled reader can tackle unfamiliar words using their very well honed sounding out and blending skills), you are just dramatically increasing the number of individual components that need to be learned. Thus in the early stages it may appear to be quicker because a child learning sightwords can read ten words after learning ten units of information, whilst the child learning phonics can only read ten sounds and not blend (YET) - however once the child can blend words the number of words they can read grows exponentially as they learn more correspondences, overtaking and racing ahead of the sightword reading child who can only learn one new word at a time.
When it comes to the way reading is often taught, it is actually expecting a child to run before they can walk. I have been thinking carefully about what really stopped me from making progress in reading English to the point that I was diagnosed dyslexic at age 19 after struggling through secondary school labelled by teachers as "obviously bright but lazy" and employing all manner of "coping" aka reading avoidance strategies. Not only that, but I realised that a problem I'd had when I first started learning to read Arabic as an adult was actually rooted in the way I was taught reading in primary school. When I started learning Arabic, I found reading without the vowel marks easier than reading with vowel marks, even when I didn't understand the words and had to guess the short vowels using my incomplete knowledge of grammar. Everyone else thought this bizarre and illogical, but I had my ed-psych report saying I was dyslexic so the weirdness in this I put down to that.
What I now realise was actually going on, was that having twice as many symbols to decode was putting me into some kind of "panic mode" and instead of systematically decoding, my eyes were all over the place not taking in much information and certainly not taking it in in the right order. This problem was remedied before I even knew the cause of it, by a patient teacher who made me go through the text very slowly and systematically decode all the symbols in the correct order. She gave me back the TIME it takes to decode properly and therefore read properly. Having read on this forum of how a lot of struggling readers are guessing, thinking it's better to say anything than nothing, I'd imagine something similar to what I was experiencing is going on in their heads.
Looking back at how I read as a child, I can see the same thing going on... I used to "read" Asterix books, I enjoyed them, and figured out the story from the pictures and reading some of the words and guessing the rest. The names of the characters in Asterix are long and complicated, I used to completely guess them from the first letter or two and the last two letters. When I was diagnosed with dyslexia age 19, I still had problems with the middle of words! Why? Well I remember in primary school there was a LOT of emphasis on reading quickly and "with expression" - the children who read quickly were praised a lot and considered the best readers, anyone reading out loud was encouraged to make their voice go up and down as they read. If you didn't know a word the teacher would tell you what it was.
However, expecting a child to read quickly with expression before they've mastered decoding is like taking someone on the motorway before they've mastered changing gear. It doesn't make them read like expert readers, it makes them employ coping strategies. It is really vitally important to give learner readers time to decode properly. Even something as simple as jumping in to say the the word that they are decoding before they've read it should not be done, ever! This annoys me greatly when someone does this to me when I'm reading Arabic, and it comes from them not understanding the difference between struggling and decoding. (Arabs don't do this, its English people that do! Probably because all Arabs learn to read Arabic the synthetic phonics way) Decoding slowly is not struggling!!! If you do this to a child you are giving them the message that taking your time is not acceptable, that having to go through the word sound by sound is not acceptable and you should magically know what word it is already. I don't even think correcting mistakes is necessary, just ask the child to read the word again if they got one sound in it wrong (e.g. mixing up d and b which is a similar mistake to the kind I sometimes make when decoding Arabic). If they don't actually know a particular sound, that is when you need to tell them what the sound is. And forget this "reading with expression"! - thankfully I was never taught to guess words, but all I can see this doing is re-enforcing the message to the child that they should already know what the word is without decoding it.
And it is important to note here that what I knew about phonics 99% of it I learned from my parents, not the school. We did a little phonics work at school; someone on this forum said that at one time primary schools were teaching "look and say" initially with some analytic phonics later on... well thats what my primary school did. There was little to no encouragement to use phonics for reading at school, although my dad used to stop me guessing and make me decode words properly, even drawing pencil lines between each syllable and making me decode syllable by syllable and teaching me some complex code too. Given the long amount of time it's taken me to get any sight words at all in Arabic, I honestly believe that if my parents hadn't taught me phonics I'd have been completely illiterate. The only thing they did wrong is they didn't teach me enough phonics and they trusted the school too much, because I wasn't a "free reader" from what they taught me. So the try to read as quickly as possible mentality I got into at school prevailed and my reading didn't progress as it should have.
What helped me most other than my parents teaching me some phonics, was the dyslexic tutor at university. Having been diagnosed with dyslexia I decided to give education another go (I left school believing that I was completely incompatible with the education system, I had quite a few other problems besides haivng to continuously employ reading avoidance strategies, and when I was diagnosed with dyslexia the ed psych said my level of intelligence was such that if I'd had appropriate help with the dyslexia reated problems I could have got straight A's and gone to Oxford or Cambridge, which encouraged me to think about going to university) - this tutor did some phonics work with me, and a lot of work on study skills, and also got me going back to systematically decoding text as slowly as I needed to, encouraging me to re-read sentences slowly and carefully until I understood them. After about a year at university, I was reading well enough to read the scientific journals that were necessary for doing the coursework, and I also realised just how easy and regular scientific word spellings are, and I didn't need the dyslexia tutoring after my first year. It took me quite a while longer to read well enough to enjoy adult reading age fiction - and what helped here is having something to read that was interesting enough to want to slowly and systematically decode my way through because I needed an awful lot of practice at this! I recently read "The Hobbit" and thoroughly enjoyed it; this is a book I once thought I'd never be able to read. I have become a fluent reader, and I became one by systematically decoding words until either they became sightwords or I decode them so quickly and automatically I don't notice I'm doing it.
I do believe that we dyslexic people have something different about our brains; when at university studying neurobiology I learned about this and read a fair bit of research, what I found was that dyslexic people had more symmetrical brains with less lateralisation (i.e. fewer skills being focussed in a specific half of the brain) than most people, but the research quite clearly showed that lots of other people had the same symmetrical brain/less lateralisation and could read perfectly well, but still had various dyslexic traits such as a tendancy towards ambidextrousness, confusing left and right, reversing symbols and a lot of skills that are associated with dyslexia too. I now believe that the "missing link" in the data - why some symmetrically brained people can read well but other's can't - that is the way they were taught to read. I take longer to remember symbols and have a lot of difficulty learning sequences (even my own phone number!) and when I take in new information I take in the "global whole" first and let the details fall into place later. Disciplining my eyes to systematically decode in a sequence is difficult for me (but clearly not impossible seeing as I can do it!) - Its clear that with a brain like mine I can't learn to read using the "whole word" method. I have to learn the rules (the global whole) and apply them to specific cases (the details). People with brains like mine I strongly suspect will take longer than average to learn to read using synthetic phonics, in particular taking longer to learn to recognise the graphemes and to go from slowly decoding sound by sound to taking in words as whole entities (whether because decoding is automatic and subconscious or because they are now processing sightwords) however that does not mean that these children should be taught with non-SP methods, just that they need a lot more practice to do these two particular skills automatically. Learning words as whole entities is a LOT LOT more difficult for people like me, there is no "global whole" that can be applied to specific cases with learning whole words, just more and more things that are very hard to learn.
I would like to challenge the illogicality of the "whole language" method whereby they claim that individual phonemes/graphemes are meaningless. They are not!!! b stands for a sound, /b/; they all stand for sounds! I can't learn meaningless strings of information easily at all, by considering the whole word as the smallest unit of meaning, the letters in it become a meaningless string of just the kind that I find it extremely difficult to learn. Heiroglypics would be easier to learn, because the symbol in the glyph bears some similarity to the word it codes for. And this guessing nonsense sounds like an admittance of failure to teach a skill that eliminates the necessity for guessing. As for reading ahead for the context - I find it difficult to keep my eyes in the right place on the text. Even if I look away for a moment it takes me a while to find where I was before looking away (I found copying from a blackboard or textbook extremely extremely difficult at school because of this) - so if I were to keep on trying to look ahead for context I think I'd just lose my place and spend more time trying to find the words I was trying to read than actually reading anything.