Smallwood, Christine. 'Misreading the Cues'. The New York Review of Books, vol. LXX, no. 2, February 9, 2023, pp. 6-8.
Phonics, in the words of the reading researcher Reid Lyon, is "nothing more than a relationship between sound structure and a print structure."
In Reading in the Brain (2009) ... the cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene identifies three stages of learning to read: the pictorial, where children memorize a few words as if they were pictures (these are likely to be the child's own name or a familiar brand logo); the phonological, where they "decode graphemes into phonemes"; and the orthographic, where "word recognition becomes fast and automatic."
Ultimately there are two distinct neural pathways that are used in reading. The "phonological route" is used for words that are "very regular, rare, or novel." In the beginning, of course, all words are novel. But even when we become fluent at reading and are not aware of using the phonological network, it still operates at the "non conscious level." The other network, the "lexical route" -- in which the brain sees letters and "takes a direct route that first recovers the identity and meaning of the word and then uses the lexical information to recover its pronunciation" -- is used for words that we encounter all the time or whose spellings are irregular. Without this network, we would not be able to distinguish between words like "maid" and "made," or "board" and "bored" -- a whole world of puns and double meanings would be lost.
... the glory of reading, the reason for reading at all, is to encounter the new. To be surprised by where a sentence lands, to trip over an unexpected adjective, to be thrown out of the dullness of habit into a new and unfamiliar place. That's the whole point -- that of all the possible words that could come next, this one does. That of all the possible worlds, the writer -- someone who is not you, who has thoughts and way of expressing those thoughts that you could never have -- imagined this one.