Home-schoolers ignore FTC 'Hooked on Phonics' challenge


WASHINGTON -- Hooked on phonics? Many home-schoolers are, and they were m-a-d after the government took action late last year against the "Hooked on Phonics" program's company, saying it could not back up its advertising claims.

"Hooked on Phonics" used real-life testimonials in its television ads, with children and parents marveling at the extraordinary successes they enjoyed with the program. The Federal Trade Commission charged that Gateway Educational Products Ltd., which owns "Hooked on Phonics," could not substantiate the testimonials and barred the company from using them.

"The FTC challenged the advertising claims; we did not challenge the product," said Bonnie Jansen, a spokeswoman for the FTC. "We did not challenge phonics-based instruction."

But thousands of phone calls and letters said otherwise. The FTC was bombarded by messages from people who perceived the action as an attack on "Hooked on Phonics" itself -- and indeed, on all home-teaching aids, said Ms. Jansen, who answered many of the calls.

Walter Sofko, executive vice president of marketing at Gateway, based in Orange, Calif, said his company received up to 1,000 responses to the FTC action. "We had parents who were calling us upset," he said.

Seven members of Congress, including House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican, and Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican, also questioned the agency's action in a letter to the FTC in February.

"We believe your actions may have broad implications for all home-based, commercially produced, education products," they wrote.

"I have no idea what their motivation was," Mr. Bartlett said. "This program worked for a whole lot of parents. Just because it's old doesn't mean it doesn't work."

The FTC professes surprise that its action was misinterpreted. Officials note that when they took action in December, they stated that Gateway had "made misleading claims about the ability of its 'Hooked on Phonics' program to teach users -- including those with learning disabilities -- to read."

In December, the company and the FTC agreed to settle the complaint. In exchange for avoiding a fine, Gateway agreed to the FTC's demand that it not use testimonial commercials and that it provide support for any other claim about the material. Gateway had previously advertised that students needed no supervision in using the product and made great strides even if ** they had a learning disability.

The reading aid, which includes flash cards, workbooks and a cassette tape with words sounded out to a beat, will now be sold in stores, Mr. Sofko said.

This is not the first time that home-schoolers have spoken up against government action. In February 1994, home-schoolers barraged members of Congress with angry calls about a proposal to require all teachers to be certified. Although its sponsor, Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, claimed it applied only to public schools, the House rejected the proposal after home-schoolers objected.

Despite FTC assurances that its action against Gateway in December targeted only the product's ads, some home-school supporters and other conservatives who say that public schools set liberal curriculums and disregard the basics, saw something more ominous.

"It was a very chilling action that the FTC took," said Robert Sweet, president of the National Right to Read Foundation, which promotes phonics instruction. "They alleged they were only concerned about the advertising because of the fact the FTC said not everyone learns as well as the people on TV. The FTC had no business even involving itself in it."

While many schools use the more popular "whole language approach" to teach reading, some parents, Mr. Sweet said, believe that phonics is the best way to teach reading. With whole language, students read by studying whole words. With phonics, students learn to read through sounds and syllables.

The Department of Education estimates between 248,000 and 353,000 children were educated at home during the 1990-1991 school year. Nearly 4,500 children are taught at home in Maryland, according to the state Education Department.

While the FTC did not attack home-schoolers directly, Mr. Sweet said, it in effect challenged home-schoolers' belief that parents can teach their children at home as well as professional teachers can at school, because it had concluded that supervision was needed to use "Hooked on Phonics."

"The implication was, of course you had to be a professional teacher to teach children when in fact in home-schooling, the moms are teaching the kids to read with phonics," Mr. Sweet said.

Other advocates are more confident that the FTC will no longer target home-school products, at least in part because home-schoolers spoke up this time.

"I basically think the FTC was so overwhelmed with home-schoolers and others that they carefully limited the action to 'Hooked on Phonics' itself," said Michael Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Fund, a conservative group based in Northern Virginia. "Home-schoolers were very concerned that some of the preliminary actions [said] unless you were a trained professional, you couldn't teach children to read."

While not every home-schooling proponent believes that "Hooked on Phonics" is the best way to teach children to read, most of them promote other aids that teach phonics, including "You Can Read" and "Sing, Spell, Read and Write."

Jean Soyke, a home-schooler and member of the board of the Christian Home Education Network of Maryland, noted that "Hooked on Phonics" is not particularly popular among the 800 home-school families she supports.

But Ms. Soyke believes that other products that home-school families she knows do use are safe. "Since the FTC is aware we're aware, I don't think there's that threat anymore," she said.

"The FTC got a good dose of what home-schoolers are about and very carefully wrote the order," Mr. Farris said. "Home-schoolers are hooked on freedom, and it worked."

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