Phonics is necessary but not sufficient

This post came from a listserve on reading:

This is in response to the NY Times article about Madison’s reading program. Of course a quick response is often inadequate. But here goes.
The simple fact is that correct decoding is necessary but not sufficient to comprehend what one is reading. Necessary but not sufficient appears to be a concept that escapes most of the field of education. What’s so hard about it, I wonder? You have to have water to stay alive, but that’s not sufficient to keep you alive. You have to have air to stay alive, but that’s not sufficient to keep you alive. Look at that dead person there. We gave him water and he still died. That must prove that water kills you!

However good the points made by the DC teacher, e.g., readers need to think about what they are reading, vocabulary development is critical, comprehension is the point of reading it provides NO support for the ridiculous teaching used to open the article about Madison. My gosh, the teacher thinks that the child should know that if a word isn’t “pumpkin,” because it is too short to be “pumpkin,” the child should be able to guess that the word is instead “pea.” Decoding or “word calling” must be accurate and facile so that the reader can turn their attention to comprehension. Guessing won’t get you there.
The most breathtakingly stupid assertion in the whole NY Times article is: “They also contend that children drilled in phonics end up with poor comprehension skills when they tackle more advanced books.”
That is the same as saying “People given water end up dead” when they starved to death. Research shows that learning how to decode via phonics is more efficient, leaving more time, eventually for work on comprehension. Therefore, the opposite is true.
If I were to be really generous I would guess that they are looking at at-risk, low SES children who have very limited word knowledge as well as limited world knowledge. The ONLY way they even learn to decode is via phonics–but then there is an additional job to be done in vocabulary and background knowledge instruction. If this is not done, or done a couple of years behind schedule, then these students taught with phonics methodology (probably only after they have failed to learn by guessing for years!) will indeed show low in comprehension.
People who use that data to conclude the above absurd statement are simply being obtuse. And we can’t afford to play stupid when children’s lives are at stake.