The intensive advertising campaign has proved successful for the product’s manufacturer, Gateway Products Ltd. of Orange, Calif.
According to the company’s marketing brochures, more than half a million Hooked on Phonics kits have been sold since the product was first introduced five years ago. Even amid the current recession--and despite an effort by the manufacturer in recent months to tone down its advertising campaign--the product apparently continues to sell. About 6,000 purchasers, Gateway claims, have been educators.
More and more reading experts, however, have begun to question some of the claims Hooked on Phonics makes in those commercials. And the debate over the product, now being played out in the popular press nationwide, has put some prominent educators in an unfamiliar role: that of consumer advocate.
“People will buy it and not send it back, because to have ordered it was a great thing for them, and to have not learned from it was a great shame for them,’' says Jeanne Chall, a professor emeritus of education at Harvard University and a former director of the school’s Reading Laboratory. “They feel very stupid, and they’re not stupid.’'
The concept at the heart of the Hooked on Phonics program is, as its name implies, phonics. The product’s creators say they have done nothing more than take a proven method of instruction and set it to music. Gateway promises that anyone can read “almost anything’’ by memorizing the letter combinations that represent the English language’s 44 basic sounds and putting them together to sound out words. The program consists of eight audiotapes with reading drills set to music, nine decks of flashcards, and five softcover workbooks, all of which are color-coded to guide the nonreader.
“This program works,’' says John Shanahan, Gateway’s president. “We can do in 30 days what our educational system can’t do in 12 years.’'
No formal studies of the product’s effectiveness have been conducted. But the company offers testimonials--some of them heart-rending--of satisfied customers. In advertisements and marketing materials, for example, a Connecticut man tells of finally learning to read after being illiterate for 46 years. And a New York schoolteacher contends that the product produced results with her classes in “just a few weeks.’'
Gateway officials say they receive hundreds of such letters, unsolicited, each week. But they did not respond to repeated requests for the telephone numbers or addresses of any of those customers. Shanahan says that fewer than 10 percent of the program’s buyers have ever taken advantage of Gateway’s offer to refund the purchase price of the product to dissatisfied customers.
The company is not alone in selling products aimed at teaching reading. According to the Oregon-based Center to Improve Textbook/Media Quality for Educators, more than 10,000 such products are on the market. What makes Hooked on Phonics different is the advertisements’ appeal directly to the consumer. Rather than market to education professionals, Gateway targets illiterate adults and the parents of children who are having problems reading or who are just beginning to learn how to read.
Some observers say this makes the product’s claims, if they are exaggerated, all the more dangerous. “If you have a program or a campaign for adults to teach them to read, you must succeed,’' Chall says. “If you do not, you have taught that person again that he can’t learn.’'
Critics of Gateway’s approach say teaching reading is a much more complex process than Hooked on Phonics seems to suggest. “It’s a very simple-minded approach to teaching reading,’' says Jean Osborn, the associate director of the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Osborn and Chall were among five reading experts asked by the International Reading Association last spring to review the Hooked on Phonics program. One of the most common problems cited by the reviewers was the program’s failure to provide any simple stories or sentences in context; the final workbook in the series contains 120 pages of unrelated sentences. “Why would anyone want to go through all the tapes and read pages of word lists and unrelated sentences?’' Osborn asks.
Contrary to Gateway’s advertising claims, some observers also note that it is unlikely that many buyers will be able to use the product without additional assistance from a tutor or classroom teacher. These critics say, for example, that there is no way for learners to confirm that they are correctly pronouncing the words they see in the lists.
Moreover, they question the company’s assertion that the product can help both children and adults learn to read. “It just seems really unlikely that one program can deal with young children just learning to read and older people who have been trying to read all their lives,’' Osborn says. “Older people really understand a lot of language, whereas young children don’t have that kind of vocabulary.’'
These concerns were underscored in an investigation last year by the national advertising division of the Better Business Bureau. After verifying the authenticity of the testimonials used by the company in its advertisements, the division took issue with one commercial in which a formerly illiterate man says he taught himself to read a 120-page book “after learning one 18-minute cassette.’' The advertisement failed to mention that the book the man referred to was the workbook included with the kit. The Better Business Bureau also criticized the commercials for implying that Hooked on Phonics is all a nonreader needs to learn to read.
Gateway discounted most of the division’s criticisms, but it agreed, nonetheless, to alter some of its ads. Shanahan calls many of the attacks leveled at his product “sour grapes.’' Educators, in particular, he says, criticize his product because it poses a threat to the “multimillion-dollar publishing and tutoring business.’'
“Frankly, given the overwhelming statistics on illiteracy in our country,’' he says, “we can’t understand why anyone would be threatened by a program which teaches the fundamental reading skill of phonics.’'
In its marketing brochures, Gateway freely acknowledges much of the criticism leveled against its product. The company frames the negative reviews, however, as part of the “whole language vs. phonics’’ debate that has divided the field of reading instruction. That debate pits phonics advocates against those who believe children should be taught reading using whole texts.
Chall and Osborn dispute that contention, however. Chall has long been a prominent advocate of phonics instruction, while Osborn describes herself as a “middle of the roader’’ in that debate.
“I know good phonics instruction when I see it,’' Osborn says, “and this is not good phonics instruction.’'
A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Too Good To Be True?