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Toy trend treats phonics as fun Learning: With microchips and batteries, this year's games teach reading, often by talking to youngsters.


THIS CHRISTMAS, the name of the reading game is phonics.

Visit the educational games section of Toys R Us or Zany Brainy stores and you'll see shelves full of colorful electronic learning aids. They're calling out to you: "Phonics!"

There's the Phonics Bus, the Phonics Traveler and Reading Blaster, designed to "teach your child to read with phonics."

Want more? Little Smart Phonics From A to Z or the Phonics Desk Learning System, which "brings letters and their phonics sounds to life." Or Think & Go Phonics, a compact, frog-shaped toy that teaches reading to children as young as age 3. Or the Phonics Interactive Learning Kit.

These are the latest examples of the phonics craze extended to toy emporiums. They're made possible by mass production of relatively inexpensive toys that are cleverly designed computers.

They talk to your children, tell them when they've pressed a vowel instead of a consonant. They offer praise when a child spells a three-letter word correctly. They offer encouragement when the answer is incorrect. They sound out simple words phonetically.

Meanwhile, over in the book section, traditional phonics materials race off the shelf -- books, flashcards, bingo games, you name it. "Phonics board games are coming back," says Giuseppa Ball, director of purchasing for Learning How, a seven-store, Baltimore-based seller of educational toys and materials.

"We saw phonics start to make a surge three or four years ago, and now it's everywhere. One of the books that's been around a long time, called 'Phonemic Awareness,' is now one of the top sellers."

Ball says the new electronic toys vary widely in quality. Some are based on solid educational theory; others have been thrown together to tap into what toy manufacturers figure will be a lucrative market. Thanks to inexpensive microchips, fairly sophisticated electronic learning games can be had for as little as $20.

We tested a few of the devices at Toys R Us and Zany Brainy in Columbia, and the School & Pre-School Supply Center on Edmondson Avenue in Southwest Baltimore (one of the stores in the Learning How chain).

We found them quite satisfactory -- and quite elaborate. Phonics Traveler ($29.99), for example, is an interactive talking toy with 20 electronic "word cards," a 20-page parent-teacher learning guide, headphones and four AA batteries. It takes children from consonant blends through long vowels, complex consonants such as "ch," complex vowels such as "ai" and vowels with the letter "r," such as "ar" -- much like the progression that would be used in an elementary school classroom.

My wife and I found it fairly easy to "fool" some games. Phonics Pro Reader ($39.99), for example, invites children to tap out three-letter words. It then pronounces the words phonetically. If it's not a word -- if it's XYZ, for example -- the computer voice says, "Great sound! Try again!" If it is a word, the computer calls out, "Wahoo!"

But Pro Reader failed to recognize the Scrabble-esque word "gnu" -- not that a 6-year-old would be likely to pose it.

Some of the electronic reading toys sold in Baltimore stores are highly recommended by the handful of organizations and individuals in the toy rating business. The Phonics Desk and Traveler, manufactured by LeapFrog, a California company founded by Mike Wood to teach his young son how to sound out letters and words, gets high praise.

Consumer Reports, in its Christmas toy ratings issue, recommends Educational Insights' Reading Safari Learning Module, a $20 computer that comes with a booklet containing 20 lessons that help children with spelling, grammar and reading. Consumer Reports, however, says the toy doesn't "get high marks for fun."

Reading toys and games from VTech Holdings Inc., a mammoth international company that manufactures its electronic products

in China, get mixed reviews. VTech's Little Smart Phonics From A to Z ($25) gets good marks from Consumer Reports for fun but poor marks for "problem-solving." Timothy R. Pyle, Learning How's vice president and general manager, says of VTech, "The quality doesn't seem to be there."

A final word of advice from Gary L. Adams, a Seattle-based reviewer of educational materials: If you're worried about your child's progress in reading, or if you're home-schooling, you don't have to spend more than $200 on the Phonics Game or other heavily advertised mail-order kits.

The Phonics Game, Adams contends, is "highly overrated and under-achieved." (Adams has bestowed upon the Phonics Game his annual Educational Mirage Award.)

For many parents, the answer, for a fraction of the expense, may be as near as their neighborhood toy store.

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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