The role of phonics
I think there is a role for the direct teaching of phonics. This is not a "compromise" position but one that is fully consistent with the Comprehension Hypothesis: Phonics, or conscious knowledge of sound-spelling correspondences, can help when it makes text more comprehensible. Smith (1994) demonstrates how this can happen: The child is reading the sentence "The man was riding on the h____." and cannot read the final word. Given the context, and knowledge of ‘h’ the child can make a pretty good guess as to what the final word is. This won’t work every time (some readers might think the missing word is "Harley"), but some knowledge of phonics can restrict the possibilities of what the unknown words are.
The limits of phonics
There are, however, severe limits on how much phonics can be learned and taught. Smith points out that phonics rules can be very complex. In fact, teachers often tell me that they have to review the phonics rules they are about to teach before coming to class. What does this tell us? If experienced teachers who have taught the rules many times cannot remember them, how are six-year olds supposed to remember them? Here is a simple rule of thumb for teachers: If you have to look it up, don’t teach it.
Not only are the rules complex, many don’t work very well. Clymer (1962) is one of several studies showing this. The famous "two vowels go walking, first does the talking" rule, for example, didn’t work in 45% of the words with two vowels in a row in texts he examined.
Finally, Smith points out that different phonics programs teach different rules!
Some knowledge of phonics can be helpful, but most of our knowledge of phonics, Smith maintains, is the result of reading, not the cause. There has been, in other words, a profound confusion of cause and effect. This view is, I believe, held by many people. It is nearly exactly what the authors of Becoming a Nation of Readers concluded, a book widely considered to provide strong support for phonics instruction:
"…phonics instruction should aim to teach only the most important and regular of letter-to-sound relationships … once the basic relationships have been taught, the best way to get children to refine and extend their knowledge of letter- sound correspondences is through repeated opportunities to read. If this position is correct, then much phonics instruction is overly subtle and probably unproductive" (Anderson, Heibert, Scott and Wilkinson, 1985, p.38).