The “Hooked on Phonics” Scam

A Multimillion-dollar hype

By Foyne Mahaffey

Hooked on Phonics. You’ve probably heard the radio ads. The promise to create “super” readers in 2 hours is a real earcatcher.

The ad hits hard. It is intense, slick, and promises a miracle. Regardless of age, learning style, ability, background knowledge, or even learning disability, you will become an “extraordinary“ reader in a fraction of the time it traditionally takes. All it requires is $179.95 and a cassette recorder.

Does it sound too good to be true? It did to me.

When I asked one of our curriculum specialists about getting me a copy of Hooked on Phonics, she said, “What do you want with that thing?” She knows me. I teach in a Whole Language school, where phonics lessons are custom made to fit the individual and are part of a reading program that stresses literature and content, not mimicking sounds.

Phonics has to do with sound. Reading has to do with meaning. It was this difference that the International Reading Association punctuated in a recent critique of Hooked on Phonics. A highly respected, scholarly committee concluded that the program “totally defies decades of research in learning to read” and “really stinks” as curriculum design (Reading Today, June/ July 1991).

What exactly is Hooked on Phonics, and who is behind it?

Hooked on Phonics was assembled by graduate students under the supervision of musician and Gateway Educational Products president, John Shanahan. He says he decided to use music to make reading easier to learn. Although not an educator, Shanahan says he studied phonics for three years while developing Hooked on Phonics. Those are his credentials.

During those years he developed a no frills, no nonsense, sit down and do it phonics — not reading — program. The $179.95 program consists of eight 20-minute tapes, nine cardpacks and five booklets. The user runs the tapes, repeats word lists, and works on a series of sound/ letter/word/sentence drills.

Each lesson begins with an almost celestial chanting of “AEIOU are vowels, AEIOU are vowels, AEIOU are vowels.” Ms. Subliminal (as I call her) is your audio guide, providing minimal instruction, incapable of feedback and relentless in her monotony: “A-aaaaaaaaa-AT, B-baaaaahhhh,-Ball, C-cccaahhh-Car”, then on to “Bl-blaaa-black, Pr-pra-Print.” This goes on and on past my personal tolerance point. Ms. Subliminal is paced by a bland, aerobic style soundtrack which does not change from one level to the next.

I don’t see how someone could get less for their money. Gateway cut production costs by omitting graphics, pictures, and photos. Even though picture cues are vital to learning to read, Shanahan rejects them. Printing is done in cost saving style. List after list after list. Aesthetically, there is nothing. The music could easily have been created by one person, a synthesizer and 20 minutes of studio time. There is no justification for the price tag on this kit, yet Shanahan boasted to Newsweek that Hooked on Phonics, along with Gateway’s other teaching aids, brings in over $45 million a year.

Enclosed in the packaging is what Gateway calls its philosophy: “When the analytical left side of the brain is properly activated with the artistic right side of the brain, both the speed and retention of learning increases.”

Speed and retention. Though not high goals for reading instruction, Gateway has devised quite a prescription in their pursuit: a prescription they guarantee will be a cure for illiteracy.

You listen to the tape for directions. “Say the o sound ‘o’, Say the d sound ‘d’, Say (o and d) together ‘od’.” Ms. Subliminal then asks you to, “READ OUT LOUD! Odd, Todd, Cod, God.” These words, in turn, are strung together in the final book with sentences like, “The nun said, ‘God Bless You.’”

If you hear words enough and repeat them often, you probably will be able to decode them when placed with other words you’ve repeated over and often. But this certainly is not reading. Learning to read is more than learning to say words. Arming yourself with a Spanish phrasebook will not help you much when reading Pablo Neruda’s poetry.

Learning to read is learning to think. It won’t come in two hours, no matter how high the hope. It requires years of cultivation. It requires that people know how to use “meaning clues, background knowledge, and knowledge of language,” according to University of Wisconsin’s Associate Professor Mary Jett-Simpson. “People don’t just run around reading sentences.”

Phonics or any aspect of reading ought not be approached in isolation. This isolation is what Whole Language programs are attempting to redress. Using real books written by real authors, with illustrations, and layers of meaning, readers become not only capable of making the sounds of the words they see but of making sense of the words they see. They become emotionally involved. They become readers and authors, bringing definition to text through experiences, through discussions with fellow readers and writers. They learn to read by writing and learn to write by reading.

Those who complete Hooked on Phonics, meanwhile, can only be guaranteed that they will be able to operate a cassette recorder, recite 510 pages of words and decode the ridiculous sentences in the final book.

And speaking of the ridiculous sentences. What exactly did Shanahan’s writers have in mind when these sentences were pecked into the old word processor?

“The scholar wrote a report on the safe use of nuclear power.”

“Jan felt helpless after her bicycle chain snapped.”

“Mom will press Peg’s red dress for the prom.”

“Hale said he was going to enlist in the Army after he got out of high school.”

“The football rally was held at the American Legion Hall.”

“Lisa said, “There is nothing better than a Domino’s pizza with pepperoni and extra cheese and an ice cold Coke.”

There were some other curiosities too. Endorsements for Dodge, Jello, Milk-duds, Ford, Fritos, Domino’s Pizza, Coke, Cracker Jacks and Time magazine are woven into the text. Christian references are made 15 times, albeit Christmas accounts for 10 of them. The only holidays acknowledged are Halloween, Thanksgiving, Easter and, of course, the Fourth of July.

Russian ballet, Sicilian pizza, “spicy Spanish food,” French beret, and Asian flu are the only attempts at multiculturalism.

I focused on these because they irritated me. They not only reflect superficial thinking, but are part of nagging, recurring themes in Hooked on Phonics. The lives of these “All-American” text characters are stereotypical and hopelessly unenlightened.

I followed up my ponderings with a call to the marketing department. They transferred me to one of the editors, who handled my interrogation with style and scripted ease. She was clearly a company person. She disclosed that a revised version of Hooked on Phonics would be out this winter, complete with activist moms and dads who eat quiche.

Acknowledging that the material was dated, she seemed optimistic about the reception of a new “Hooked.” “Very interesting”, I replied, though I was far from impressed. My sad realization was that Gateway was going to take all the criticism it’s been given, do some cosmetic surgery and raise the price another notch.

Plunging ahead, I asked why a pronuclear statement was included in book #5. In direct contrast with the composition of the text, she proclaimed that the writers’ politics actually “tend toward the left” and that other Gateway publications offer more voices, cultures and background. After pushing her regarding the ethnic make-up of the writing staff she (somewhat apologetically) replied, “Three white women. But we have degrees in literature.” (F.Y.I: there are over 300 people working in the corporate office on marketing, distribution and other business matters!)

I continued down my list of questions, referring to product endorsements, the non-ethnicity of names, and religious allusions. I was pretty certain I had hit a nerve when she complimented me on my interesting questions. She framed her explanations with an important statement. “The writers are restricted to using letter combination sounds as presented on the tapes. All the sentences must have sounds directly taken from the alphabet cards..

There are no exceptions to this rule. Everything has to fit the formula, no exceptions. And if the words in the real world aren’t part of this formula, tough luck — an approach that Professor Jett-Simpson has labeled “fake text.”

In response to my observation that religion, particularly Christmas, is mentioned over and over in the last book, she suggested: “There is no alternative to Christmas.” (I assumed she meant phonetically.) “We did drop Jesus, but we assumed that God was a part of every religion, or at least a higher power,” she continued.

“So atheists are pretty much on their own here, huh?” I joked. She laughed. “I have to admit you’re right,” she said. “No one else has ever raised these questions.”

I concluded my conversation with the Hooked on Phonics editor by asking if we could look for something more enlightened in the next edition. She assured me we could. (I wondered how they were going to manage that.)

I asked if the revisions were in response to (the absolute outrage expressed by) the academic review panel appointed by the International Reading Association. “Yes,” she responded, “and other things.”

I couldn’t help but wonder why, if Hooked on Phonics is as effective as their ads claim, they would change anything!

“Just how much will the new, improved, politically correct version cost?” I pried. She preferred not to comment further. Ditto.

Foyne Mahaffy teaches at 38th St. School in Milwaukee