Why is it necessary to decode in order to read with comprehension?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As recently as 2006 researchers were stuck in a conundrum: if fluency is listed as merely one out of five basic components of reading comprehension, why should teachers focus so much on fluency to achieve understanding? The answer to this question came quite as a surprise even to experienced teachers who found themselves looking back as far as 1998. During this time, phonemic  and alphabetic awareness became displaced by the concept of "whole language" learning. The latter proved positive in some aspects of comprehension, but the phonemic and phonetic awareness of words continued to be a very necessary element to complete the reading process. This is when whole language began to dwindle and phonetic awareness came back into the picture.

Studies began to surface. One of them, a study of Samuels (2002) concludes

 To experience good reading comprehension, the reader must be able to identify words quickly and easily.

This statement supports the teaching of decoding and phonemics because there is a positive and ongoing development as a result of the proper identification of words . As a result, the stimulus that is necessary to make the connection of sound-symbol-meaning will build schema. Once the schema is built, and the student continues to get exposed to words through more reading, the comprehension skills will deepen.

Pikulski and Chard (2006) quote an earlier study made by Stanovich (1986) which concludes in the following statement

If the ...cognitive capacity is drained by the processing of decoding words, little or no capacity is available for the attention-demanding process of constructing and responding to the meaning of a text. Therefore, the automaticity of decoding fluency is essential for high levels of reading achievement.

Additionally, if we follow Ehri's (1998) theory of reading stages as related to fluency, we would agree with his argument that

Being able to read words by sight automatically
is the key to skilled reading of text. This
allows readers to process words in text quickly,
without attention directed to the word itself.

This means that the more attention is given to the word, the more the brain can comprehend text within a context. Hence, the active and automatic comprehension of the text and its context is what leads to gains in cognitive ability. Even if we did not agree with Ehri's theory, think about the student who, because of struggles in fluency, forgets what he is reading about in the first place. The effort and time that it takes to recognize and decode a word completely makes the child lose his or her focus.

In conclusion, decoding aids in the understanding of words. Understanding words automatically helps in the conceptualization and placement of the main idea of the text within a context. One cannot happen without the other.