Isn't Reading Comprehension the Point? Why Teach Phonics?

People often ask me, if their student learns the phonograms and rules, will they be able to comprehend what they read?

Honestly, maybe. But, if they do not learn how to decode, they will likely struggle to read what they are trying to comprehend.

In other words, reading words is different from comprehending.

Let me bring this home quickly. Read the following text. (If you are a physicist you will hopefully still see my point.)

Time evolution of the discharge plasma in the dielectric barrier discharge (DBD) plasma actuator was simulated by the simple fluid model in which the electron and single positive ion species were considered. The characteristics of the discharge plasma evolution were investigated in detail, and the following results were obtained. When the positive-going voltage is applied, the streamer discharge is formed periodically. The periodically formed streamer expands from the exposed electrode, and its length becomes longer than the previous one. Periodic breakdown of the gas and step-by-step plasma expansion are also observed during the negative-going voltage; however, the streamer is not formed and the breakdown frequency is much higher. The simulation results with a triangular applied voltage waveform show the same characteristics as observed in the experiment; large discharge current spikes are observed during both the positive- and negative-going voltage phase, and the plasma in the negative-going voltage phase expands more smoothly than that in the positive phase because of its higher breakdown frequency. It was shown that even the simple numerical model could provide valuable insights into the physics of DBD plasma actuator; this indicates that the positive ions and electrons play a prominent role in determining the general characteristics of the plasma evolution.
© 2011 American Institute of Physics

Because I know the tools to decode, I can read every word in the text. I can even make a few guesses as to the meaning of unknown words such as dielectric, because I know and understand roots. But I could not pass a reading comprehension test on this text. Why? Because I do not have the background knowledge. I am not a physicist.

Reading comprehension and reading words are different. Reading words is foundational to reading comprehension.

Everyone agrees that the purpose of reading is comprehension. Literate people are be able to read certain texts, understand them, synthesize their thoughts, and hopefully join the great conversations.

Though a great deal of attention has been paid in academic circles to reading comprehension and its many facets, too often reading specialists skip the foundational step of teaching students how to read or decode words and go straight to reading and comprehending texts.

As a culture we need to understand that students who cannot read the words cannot comprehend, period. Jumping to teaching comprehension before teaching students how to decode words is akin to building the walls of the house without laying a foundation. No matter how hard you try to get the walls to stand, they will keep falling down and be unable to bear weight because they are not attached to the necessary foundational supports. Systematic phonics instruction is the foundation upon which comprehension is built.

Once students learn to read words, then we begin to build the walls: develop their vocabulary, work on fluency, and teach comprehension.