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Hooked on a New 'Phonics' Product

July 15, 1998|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Remember "Hooked on Phonics"?

Actually, who could forget?

A few years back, you'd hear the company's farfetched claims of success--"I read a 120-page book after using one tape"--every time you turned on the radio. In 1995, however, the ads were silenced when the Orange, Calif.-based company went belly-up.

Bankruptcy, though, didn't alter the value of the name. Tens of millions of advertising dollars had created a public awareness that, as with Kleenex or Xerox, transcended the product itself. The name "Hooked on Phonics" was recognizable by 90% of Americans, according to a marketing survey.

Enter Chip Adams, a Bay Area venture capitalist whose Rosewood Capital fund had given a boost to such consumer favorites as Noah's Bagels and Jamba Juice. Adams and his wife, Thayer, had four children and they'd been among the million or so buyers who'd been "hooked" by the phonics kit's ubiquitous ads.

They considered the kit's taped drills--letter sounds chanted to rhythmic elevator music--to be the equivalent of teaching a kid to field grounders in baseball or dribble left-handed. They weren't a substitute for "the game of reading," as Adams calls it. But they were valuable nonetheless. Especially if they were supplemented with books chosen to help reinforce the newly mastered skills.

So, convinced he could improve on the kit while capitalizing on its well-known name, and convinced too that there was a large market for "Hooked on Phonics," Adams decided to buy the company.

First he needed investors. Among those signed up to help Rosewood Capital were the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, the Fisher family (founders of the Gap stores) and USC, the standard-bearer of the entrepreneurial spirit among universities.

Two years--and between $4 million and $5 million in development costs later--the company now has relaunched the product. The 10 tapes, five workbooks, 30 paperback stories, wall chart, stickers and other doodads are packaged in six brightly colored boxes. The tapes still feature the say-along drills--"A," "Ah," "Apple"; "B," "Buh," "Bell"--chanted by the same cloying cheerleader-like voice. But now the kit also has original stories by children's authors such as Charlotte Zolotow and David McPhail, all illustrated.

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Stories were what was missing from the old product and what was too often missing from traditional "drill and skill" phonics lessons. "Whole language"--the philosophy that gained widespread popularity among California educators in the late 1980s--was supposed to be the antidote to that. Instead of breaking reading down into discrete skills, the "whole language" crowd wanted to plunge children right into reading.

But the books and stories used in many "whole language" classrooms were too hard for many beginning readers. Interesting, yes. Frustrating, also.

The stories in the new "Hooked on Phonics" were written using a formula keyed to the system's five levels. The rule of thumb is that nine of 10 words in each book must use letter-sound combinations the child already has learned, or words, such as "said," he has memorized.

The point is to build confidence and enthusiasm, as in practicing a sport, says Adams, who coaches his children in football and baseball. "You never end baseball practice fielding grounders, you end with a scrimmage."

Overseeing the development process was a team of experts including Ted Mitchell, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan's education advisor and, until recently, dean of UCLA's School of Education. The company gets to feature Mitchell's endorsement. And Mitchell, who has now moved to a top post at the Getty Trust, stands to gain financially if "Hooked on Phonics" does well.

Relying on experts and educators also was aimed at building the product's credibility among teachers. The company acknowledged the old kit's shortcomings in a full-page ad in "The Reading Teacher"--the International Reading Assn. journal. "You told us that children need more than phonics to learn to read for meaning," the ad said. "We've listened."

The company also listened to the criticism of the over-the-top advertising claims of the past, which Adams acknowledges were as "hokey" as they were memorable. The new ads don't tout "Hooked" as a reading problem cure-all. Instead, the only claim Adams makes is that the product "can be helpful as a tool" for parents. At $199.99, it's hardly cheap. But Adams quickly points out that it costs less than a regimen of tutoring at one of those mall outlets.

Will the venture be profitable? The product's name and its old phone number--1-800-ABCDEFG--gives it a good start. But there's no shortage these days of "miracle" books, "amazing" computer products and other "guaranteed" paraphernalia seeking gain from parental insecurities.

The toughest competition might come from "The Phonics Game," which promises to teach kids to read in as little as 18 hours, much like the old pitches for "Hooked on Phonics." "The Phonics Game" is even sold in a plastic suitcase, the exact size of the original "Hooked."

Amid the hype, will the new, lower-key "Hooked on Phonics" be heard?

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