Claims of Success By ‘Hooked on Phonics’ Called Into Question

By Debra Viadero — February 12, 1992 8 min read
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Ms. Chall said the debate over Hooked on Phonics underscores the need for all publishers of educational materials to offer proof that their products work.

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 a concerted effort by the manufacturer in recent months to tone down its advertising campaign--the product apparently continues to sell.

A growing number of reading experts, however, have begun to question some of the claims that 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 [Hooked on Phonics] and will 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,” said Jeanne S. 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.”

Read ‘Almost Anything’

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 then practicing putting them together to sound out words.

The company uses a similar approach with its other educational products, which offer to teach everything from history to mathematics.

The phonics program consists of eight audio tapes 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,” Gateway’s president, John M. Shanahan, said in an interview last October. “We can do in 30 days what our educational system can’t do in 12 years.”

As proof of the product’s success, the company offers up the testimonials-some of them heart-rending-- of satisfied customers.

No formal studies of the product’s effectiveness have been conducted.

In advertisements and marketing materials, a Connecticut man tells of finally learning to read after being illiterate for 46 years. A New York schoolteacher contends that the product produced results with her classes in “just a few weeks."A Michigan mother says her son’s grades in reading went from D’s to B-minuses with Hooked on Phonics.

Gateway officials said they receive “hundreds” of such letters, unsolicited, each week.

Direct Appeal to Customers

Company officials, however, did not respond to repeated requests by Education Week for the telephone numbers or addresses of any of those customers. And Mr. Shanahan, Gateways president, did not respond to repeated requests over the past few weeks for a second interview.

Mr. Shanahan pointed out in October 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.

Of those who asked for money back, the company’s marketing representative said, most made the request when the product was presented for cash on delivery.

About 6,000 purchasers, Gateway claims, have been educators.

The company is not alone in selling products aimed at teaching reading.

According to Douglas Carnine, the director of the Center to Improve Textbook/Media Quality for Educators at the University of Oregon, more than 10,000 such products are on the market.

What makes Hooked on Phonics different, according to experts, is the advertisements’ appeal directly to the consumer.

Rather than market directly to education professionals, Gateway targets the product to illiterate adults and the parents of children who are having problems reading or who are just beginning to learn how to read.

That makes the product’s claims, if they are exaggerated, all the more dangerous, critics of the program say.

“If you have a program or a campaign for adults to teach them to read, you must succeed,” Ms. Chall said. ‘If you do not, you have taught that person again that he can’t learn.”

“This does not mean that other people have good programs,” she added. “There are very bad programs being sold to teachers and taught by schools.”

“One difference,” she added, “is they’re being sold to professionals.”

‘Simple-Minded Approach’

Critics of Gateway’s approach say teaching reading is a much more complex process than Hooked on Phonics seems to suggest.

“I just think it’s a very simpleminded approach to teaching reading,” said Jean Osborn, the associate director of the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Ms. Osborn was among five reading experts asked by the International Reading Association last spring to review the Hooked on Phonics program. Ms. Chall, along with her doctoral student, Linda Rath, also wrote an analysis of the product for the 93,000-member association.

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, for example, 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?” Ms. Osborn asked.

In addition to showing that words have meaning, the benefit of reading in context, she added, is that “words get repeated or used with different endings.”

Spanning the Ages

Ms. Chall and Ms. Rath also pointed out that it is easy for listeners to lose their place if the cards in the deck are out of order.

Moreover, they said, there is no way for listeners to confirm that they are pronouncing the words they see in the lists correctly.

While the lists contain such frequently used words as “dog” and “pig,” they noted, they also include such unfamiliar words as “fob” and “hasp.”

Critics have also questioned the company’s claim 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 and doing all kinds of strange things as they attempt to learn to read,” Ms. Osborn said. “Older people really understand a lot of language, whereas young children don’t have that kind of vocabulary.”

One sentence in the workbook, for example, says: “Dad was very supportive when Mom lost her secretarial position with the employment division of the government” a sentence critics say makes more sense for older readers than for preschoolers.

And, contrary to Gateway’s advertising claims, critics have also noted, it seems unlikely that many buyers will be able to use the product without additional assistance from a tutor or classroom teacher.

“Any teacher will tell you that, for young children, it’s that someone else there who’s checking on you that’s important in learning,” Ms. Osborn said.

Added Ms. Chall: “Little children need something that’s much more interesting and varied.”

Those concerns were underscored in an investigation last year by the national advertising division of the Better Business Bureau Inc.

‘Sour Grapes’ Critics

After verifying the authenticity of the testimonials used by the company in its commercials, the division took issue with one Hooked on Phonics 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 did not mention, the watchdog group noted, that the book to which the man referred was the sentence workbook included with the kit. That commercial has since been modified.

The Better Business Bureau also criticized the commercials for implying that Hooked on Phonics is all a nonreader needs to learn to read and for suggesting that the product would work if “you or your kids have reading problems.”

The division said consumers could take “reading problems” to include reading disabilities, which may require special-education services.

Gateway discounted most of the division’s criticisms, but it agreed, nonetheless, to alter some of its ads.

The company has since announced plans to purchase broadcast and cable-television time for a 30-minute “infomercial ,” based solely on customer testimonials to replace some of its shorter, more controversial advertisements.

Mr. Shanahan called many of the attacks leveled at his product “sour grapes.”

Educators, in particular, he said, criticize his product because it poses a threat to the “multi million-dollar publishing and tutoring business.”

“Frankly, given the overwhelming statistics on illiteracy in our country ,” he said, “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 versus 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.

Ms. Chall and Ms. Osborn dispute that contention, however. Ms. Chall has long been a prominent advocate of phonics instruction, while Ms. Osbern describes herself as a “middle of the reader” in that debate.

“I know good phonics instruction when I see it,” Ms. Osborn said, “and this is not good phonics instruction.”

Ms. Chall said the debate over Hooked on Phonics underscores the need for all publishers of educational materials to offer proof that their products work.

“It’s like somebody putting out new food or new drugs without giving any evidence whatsoever that it works and, further, that it does no harm,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 1992 edition of Education Week as Claims of Success By ‘Hooked on Phonics’ Called Into Question


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