The great sight reading vs. phonics controversy - centered as it is on a specific teaching method - totally misses the most important point.
Of course, to know what point is missed, one would have to know what the point is in the first place. All educators (and by this I mean parents and teachers) will tell you that the point of any learning activity would be that a skill and ability is acquired and knowledge is gained.
The ideal teaching mode would not only give a child more understanding of something - a combination of abilities and knowledge - but also set the learner up in such a way that he or she is totally open and reaching for more, thus guaranteeing that the lesson is not a dead end but rather an inviting pathway to achieving even more understandings. This is the point.
And here is where the opposing nature of the two methods of teaching reading becomes very clear. Phonics gives a child a way to decode new words for himself. This makes him independent and able to forge ahead at his own velocity and is an inner-directed approach.
Sight reading does not develop any new skill, it is just a way of accumulating more remembered items. It is based upon memorization which is already inherent in all human beings from day one. Sight reading also "teaches" that a child must depend upon an authority to tell him what the words are in the first place, before he can even set about to committing them to memory. This is the authoritative approach, in other words externally directed and controlled.
In the end, the real question we should be demanding of any learning method is will it make my child brighter, the same or duller as a result of having gone through the process. And, upon that criterion we can properly judge the two ways of learning to read. Studies show that intense memorization, while spectacular in the short term, actually lowers IQ as the years go by and fosters habitual guessing as a "tool." Indeed, I read of the couple who wrote a popular sight word memorization program for babies actually being sued for causing lowered intelligence scores in children in follow up studies.
I once formulated a theory that the more names generated for a particular thing, the more contrived and counter-intuitive that thing must ultimately be. I haven't tested this theory out on absolutely everything but it seems obvious that having to put a spin on something by giving it numerous and palatable labels is an automatic red flag; truth needs no angle. On that theory alone, let's take our last look at the controversy between sight reading / whole language approach / word recognition / literature based / whole word reading etc... vs Phonics.
Lyn Demaree, Educator