Reading material, no middle man Phonics: Major publishers and marketers are rushing to pitch textbooks, kits and learning programs directly to families.


September 13, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE EDUCATION marketplace is awash in phonics.

As teachers and worried parents rush to phonics, publishers and marketers are rushing to grab as much of the business as they can. For the first time, major textbook publishers are pitching their wares directly to families.

Their theme is that phonics is at once fun and educational, not the "drill and kill" that prevailed in the 1970s, the last time phonics was in fashion.

"Brace yourself: Phonics Just Became Fun to Teach," screams the promotion for the Phonics Game kit that includes videos, card decks, audiotapes, stickers, a mirror to "practice the correct pronunciation of sounds," and a selection of short stories. All yours for $249.90.

Hooked on Phonics has emerged from bankruptcy with a promotional line that no longer makes grandiose claims. The "classic version," which includes tapes, flashcards, workbooks and 100 short stories, costs 5 cents more than the Phonics Game and carries a 90-day guarantee: Be satisfied or your money back.

Hooked on Phonics and the Phonics Game advertise with testimonials from teachers who've won honors, reading researchers, and a former president of the national PTA.

"Reading Reflex," a book by researchers Carmen and Geoffrey McGuinness, declares on its cover that it is "the foolproof Phono-Graphix method for teaching your child to read." The program, say the authors, "has been researched and proven to work on children age 4 to adult nonreaders. It takes what a child knows, the sounds of his language, and teaches him the various sound pictures that represent those sounds."

Some publishers are filling a niche in the phonics wall. Vangar Publishers of Baltimoreemphasizes the skills needed by children with learning disabilities. Teachers of children with dyslexia complain about a shortage of quality learning materials for bright youngsters who have trouble reading.

Behold the profusion of software and Internet reading programs: cassettes, CD-ROMs, Web sites, combinations of books and software. Order "Sparky's Spelling With Phonics" ($19.29) or "Learn to Read With Phonics" ($14.64) from the CD-ROM Shop ( Direct your search engine to "phonics"

and tap into a worried world of parents -- many of them home-schoolers who seek curriculum and advice.

Textbook giant Houghton Mifflin and other publishers are profitably bypassing the school market, selling directly to parents such books as "10 Minutes a Day to Reading Success."

What to make of all of this? Which are quality materials and which are not? Some answers are in Children's Literature, a newsletter available at on the Internet. Home-schoolers, fortunate to enjoy a wealth of Web sites and chat rooms, can tap into an abundance of advice, much of it expert.

But with such a surge of material, particularly of electronic books and educational software, most programs lack any evaluation beyond the claims made by their sellers.

"The best advice is caveat emptor, let the buyer beware," says Donald B. Hofler, director of graduate reading programs at Loyola College. "There's nothing quite as effective as a quality teacher or a quality tutor, preferably a private tutor. Even the big commercial tutoring outfits do their own evaluation, and they're always going to get spectacular results."

Finally, none of the fancy new material suffices for reading with -- and to -- a nonreader every day. Is there an "expert" in the quarrelsome field of reading who doesn't agree with that bit of common sense?

Adult-literacy survey offers facts on world situation

Buried in the 1998 "Human Development Report," released Thursday by the United Nations Development Program, are interesting data on world literacy.

Although industrial countries have achieved nearly 100 percent "literacy," the report says, 18 percent of adults in 13 European and North American countries have such low levels of skills they cannot meet the basic reading requirements of modern society.

Another 29 percent don't have the ability to be trained in skilled employment. "Industrial countries may even start falling behind the fast-growing developing countries, especially in technical education," says the first international adult literacy survey that is a part of the report.

It's not only the nephews and nieces of Uncle Sam who are lagging. "Fewer than a third of students in the industrial countries now enroll for applied or natural science -- in Norway and the Netherlands only 1 student in 5," the reports says. "But in Chile, China, the Republic of Korea and South Africa the proportion is 1 in 2 or 1 in 3."

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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