Today in Tedium: I watched a lot of Nickelodeon as a kid, and I think it had a weird effect on me. I can tell you all sorts of things about Doug, about David the Gnome. I can make a compelling case why Erik MacArthur was a better lead on Salute Your Shorts than Blake Sennett, the lead guitarist for Rilo Kiley, and that the actor who played Donkey Lips had a memorable scene in Tales from The Crypt. I remember Today’s Special, the show with the creepy mannequin and the magic beret who came alive after all the customers went home from the department store late at night, that Cuba Gooding Jr.’s brother made Wild & Crazy Kids a worthy watch, and know that the Amiga powered Nick Arcade. I can even explain why You Can’t Do That on Television was so ramshackle compared to everything else on Nickelodeon. But one element of Nickelodeon that should not be forgotten is the ads—and today’s Tedium ponders one type of Nickelodeon ad in particular, Hooked on Phonics. It’s a more interesting (and controversial) story when you break it down phonetically. — Ernie @ Tedium
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How Hooked on Phonics came to define a cultural movement towards infomercial-driven education in the home
As all stories like this start for me, I got my starting point in the world of Hooked on Phonics thanks to a ShopGoodwill purchase. It’s a bunch of tapes, some books, and some flash cards. (Honestly, it wasn’t even in that great of condition, but hey, phonics fans can’t be choosers.)
But as strangely ho-hum as Hooked on Phonics feels now, it was once a juggernaut in the educational space, selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of units each year. It promised something that seemed a little stunning to parents—the idea that, with a home program, students could learn how to read basically on their own by following a simple program.
One early ad, highlighting a response from parents, shows just how compelling this case really was. It seemed like a miracle of sorts—a program that you could buy that, with a little practice, could help struggling readers get a grasp on the English language.
Another early ad, appearing in The Los Angeles Times in June of 1990, made an even bolder claim. “After learning only one 18 minute musical cassette, students can read a 100 page book. Money back guarantee.”
And another, in the same newspaper ad. “Solves adult illiteracy in only weeks.” (Had anyone researched this?)
This product came about in the 1980s, developed by John Shanahan, a father that was determined to help his son learn how to read. He went to the library and found some old phonics books, then created some lessons on tape. And once he got the model working for his son, he expanded his efforts to a full education program, complete with music and flash cards. Not long after, he got some jingle writers to record audio lessons for it, and then Hooked on Phonics was off to the races.
The idea was that the program was meant to be something kids could work on without direct supervision thanks to the tapes—in other words, it was education for the latchkey kid generation.
It was not the only program of its kind. For example, the BBC program Muzzy, which aimed to teach children different languages with the help of a metal-eating extraterrestrial monster, was prominently sold in the U.S. in a very similar way to Hooked on Phonics, thanks to a commercial that also got heavy airplay on Nickelodeon. The part that Americans likely did not know was that Muzzy was actually started in the United Kingdom as a program to teach English as a Second Language (ESL), but was then translated to other languages, which meant that it was the perfect product to offer to parents already concerned about making sure their kids were watching something educational.
You may have never used Muzzy, buy you most assuredly remember this commercial if you watched Nickelodeon 30 years ago.
But compared to Hooked on Phonics, Muzzy was pedestrian. Hooked on Phonics seemed like it had the golden seal of educational approval. There was just one problem. It didn’t, really. Much the opposite, in fact—educators couldn’t stop complaining about it.
The amount in sales that the Hooked on Phonics series had in 1994 alone. The series’ popularity led to some high-profile legal battles. For one thing, the musicians that produced the original Hooked on Phonics music claimed that they owned the original product, not Shanahan. Just one problem with that—they failed to claim their right to ownership for their work in time for them to hold onto that ownership stake, leading to a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Shanahan won.
Hooked on Phonics’ dramatic success quickly raised lots of questions (and complaints) about the product
The thing we need to make clear is that Hooked on Phonics was not just an advertising source limited to Nickelodeon. No, it had its claws in lots of different mediums of advertising—especially radio.
See, in the first half of 1991, Gateway Educational Products suddenly increased its advertising on radio stations by an absurd 1,000 percent—making it the largest advertiser on network radio by a significant margin, according to The Washington Post. It makes sense why, by that point, the company had sold half a million of its remedial reading kits.
It was education, tied up in commercialism. And, as I’ve written in the past, when learning and commerce are tied together, the result often leads to controversy.
By the time the Post got to Gateway Educational Products founder John Shanahan—the same John Shanahan that originally developed the phonic-focused product—he sounded like an old pro at dealing with an unfriendly press.
“Sometimes reporters have to side with the so-called experts, because if they don’t they feel they lose credibility,” he told reporter David Streitfeld in 1992.
In part, the scrutiny came because the product was not cheap—at $180 a pop ($350 today), it was a significant cost on top of everything else, comparable to the price of a top-of-the-line video game console at the time. Then add to that the fact that educators found the product controversial, and you have all the elements needed for a blowup. A 1991 Dallas Morning News article laid out four specific criticisms of the product from educators, which I’ll highlight here:
- People can’t teach themselves to read, a claim that the program actually made for adults—and something that the program supposedly took advantage of, as adults who failed to learn to read were unlikely to return the product.
- There’s no real feedback or explanations as to what’s happening on the flashcards, so if something didn’t match, the program didn’t properly explain it.
- The program ignores some key elements of teaching reading, which educators said was a “fatal flaw,” especially for young children.
- It’s expensive and not worth the high cost, though some compared it to the cost of a private tutor.
And there were others as well—as EducationWeek explained in 1992, no formal studies of the program’s effectiveness existed, and the idea that this program directly appealed to consumers rather than educators, meaning that the veracity of such programs required jumping over a far lower chasm than they would have otherwise.
Which explains why the program was driven by testimonials from kids and parents rather than teachers. And if anyone else was still skeptical after all that, Gateway’s Shanahan was willing to fill the believability gap.
“The program works. We can do in 30 days what our educational system can’t do in 12 years,” he claimed to the magazine.
But despite his belief in those claims, consumer watchdogs tended to hit at the company hard for making such dramatic claims, favoring the educators. In 1992, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus found evidence of misleading advertising, and in 1994, the company was forced by the Federal Trade Commission to scale back its more dramatic claims.
(The FTC, facing controversy over this call from homeschoolers because it challenged the idea that the tool could be used without supervision, defended its decision to The Baltimore Sun in 1995, with a spokeswoman saying, “The FTC challenged the advertising claims; we did not challenge the product. We did not challenge phonics-based instruction.”)
Ultimately, the package reflected a debate that is likely picking up steam in the modern day—the idea that a product can replace an actual in-person educator. Maybe three decades ago it was a bunch of cassette tapes and flash cards, but now it’s a Chromebook, an iPad, or YouTube.
A big difference, though, is that devices like iPads have been field tested in classrooms and worked into curriculums, and as a result they’ve managed to show real staying power. Hooked on Phonics’ big pitch was this box can replace a tutor, and it was accepted as such.
Hooked on Phonics has largely kept up in that context, both expanding its educational offerings and bringing them into classrooms, partly as a way to bolster the reputation of the approach. These days, after the company had been sold numerous times, the tapes have been set aside, with interactive smartphone apps largely taking the role of the cassettes. The Hooked on Phonics approach is no longer sold directly to adults and is instead focused on children in the second grade and below.
Five interesting facts about Hooked on Phonics you probably didn’t know
- Its famous phone number—1-800-ABCDEFG—is now owned by a law firm. The number, which is equivalent to 1-800-222-3334, now resolves to Wilshire Law Firm, a California legal organization that specializes in personal injury cases. (Yes, I checked. No, I didn’t make any phonics jokes.)
- The company announced its agreement with the FTC on Dateline NBC in 1994. The company’s many claims about its products, as I pointed out earlier, had put heavy public pressure on the firm, and apparently the agreement had to be announced on that most ’90s of shows, the TV newsmagazine.
- Its primary voice actor is better known as the voice of the Oscars. I’m not kidding about this. Randy Thomas, the voice of those early Hooked on Phonics commercials, was first hired to announce people onto the stage at the Academy Awards in 1993, and it’s a role she’s done 10 times over the past 30 years. A trailblazer, Thomas was the first woman ever chosen for that role. She also does a number of other shows as well, including ABC’s Nightline and Entertainment Tonight, and the Tony Awards, which she’s announced 20 times.
- Creator John Shanahan owns a high-end steakhouse in Dublin. In 1998, not long after he sold Hooked on Phonics, Shanahan took on a variety of other projects, including the creation of an American-style steakhouse in Ireland, located just off of St. Stephen’s Green, the famous public park in Dublin’s city center. Shanahan, a serial entrepreneur, has also found success with The Glasshouse Report, an HR-reporting tool, and as a radio syndicator best known for supporting the national rise of Dr. Laura Schlessinger.
- Alex Trebek was a spokesman for a Hooked on Phonics competitor. The then-mustachioed Trebek, who died last year, gave his support to The Phonics Game, an offering that distinguished itself by offering parents a money-back guarantee if the tool didn’t offer a full letter grade of improvement. While Hooked on Phonics was the most popular and best-known, it inspired an array of copycat programs.
Did Hooked on Phonics actually work? The debate hiding under the debate
As I highlighted above, Hooked on Phonics was hit upon by all sides as a for-profit attempt to replace in-person tutors with flash cards and boxes of tapes.
But if you dig a layer deeper, you might be surprised to learn that the fundamentals of the Hooked on Phonics approach were actually more on track than they were given credit for … well, depending on who you ask.
And it comes down to a conflict that emerged throughout the 1990s around that way we taught children how to read. And by releasing a tape set sold through infomercials and radio ads, Shanahan unwittingly jumped into a big educational debate that simmers to this day.
As academic Nicholas Lemann wrote for The Atlantic in 1997, there has long been different schools of thought between “whole-language” reading, a teaching approach that had gained popularity during the 1980s and 1990s, and the more traditional phonetics approach, which Hooked on Phonics was built to teach (perhaps with a little embellishing of just how good the method was).
In an era of large classrooms, whole-language was less prescriptive and less focused on breaking language down—and as a result, it became popular among teachers.
But by the time that Lemann got to it, however, the whole-language approach had basically been isolated, clearly on the outs with the public:
Support for it is limited to an enclosed community of devotees, including teachers, education-school professors, textbook publishers, bilingual educators, and teacher trainers. Virtually no one in the wider public seems to be actively promoting whole-language. No politicians are crusading for it. Of the major teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers is a wholehearted opponent and the National Education Association is neutral. No independent scientific researchers trumpet whole-language’s virtues. The balance of parental pressure is not in favor of whole-language.
And if you read the debates that emerged around Hooked on Phonics in the early 1990s, it’s clear that many educators of the era had a problem with it because it promised understanding of language through phonetics, an approach at odds with the whole language approach to teaching. One focused on the sounds, the other on the context. Hooked on Phonics effectively was a challenge to a new way of teaching.
These days, if you go to the Wikipedia page for “Whole language,” you’ll find the word “discredited” in the very first sentence, with a more balanced approach, driven by phonics, preferred today. But whole-language learning remains in use in schools throughout the country despite periodic criticism, and while there are adherents to the whole-language approach, it nonetheless highlights that Hooked on Phonics was brought into a world where literacy education was a complicated mess with a lack of agreement on what the best path was.
And if you do any serious digging into the education space, you’ll find some pretty passionate critics willing to go to bat for whole language over the synthetic phonetics approach Hooked on Phonics uses. This is a debate that is a lot more nuanced than you’ll probably pick up on the surface—and one that’s basically immune to miracle solutions.
Look, let’s be clear—a learning approach that was particularly aggressive about the fact that it was a commercial tool first rightly rubbed educators the wrong way. It was a one-size-fits-all tool in a world where people learn in different ways and at different speeds. It oversold itself as a miracle tool and got called out for it.
But on the other hand, it was destined to be controversial because of the educational climate in which it came about. It offered a solution at odds with the methods many educators used during its peak era of popularity—and worse, sold itself as a method that could be used without supervision!
Whether you agree with Hooked on Phonics as a concept or not, it’s worth understanding that there was this whole other debate going on that non-educators weren’t even aware of.
Who would have thought the non-controversial idea of teaching children and adults how to read could create so much controversy?
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