This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, July 15, 1992

July 15, 1992 - Hooked on phonics

I've got a dilemma.

Some months back, I started hearing the radio ads for the "Hooked On Phonics" kit -- a combination of booklets, cassettes, and flash cards that was supposed to help kids and/or adults learn how to read in just 30 days.

I directed my staff to buy a copy, thinking that people might want to examine the product before spending the money for it themselves.

Well, no sooner did we get it, than it suddenly had a big list of reserves attached to it. One of the policies I established when I got here was that when four people have requested an item, I buy another copy. That way, people don't have to wait so long for popular titles.

So I bought more Hooked on Phonics packages, bringing the total to three.

Yesterday, I discovered that we now have 20 reserves on the three copies. According to my usual policy, that means I should pick up a couple more. But I find that I'm having second thoughts about it.

The main reason I'm balking is the price: "Hooked on Phonics" sells for $179.95. The district has already spent over $500 on the kits. If I bring the total to five copies, I will have spent almost $900 out of the audiovisual line item, or about 2.5% of the entire AV budget on just one title.

It happens that a lot of people have been asking for more audiovisual materials -- mostly books on tape, but also children's videos. The average unabridged book on tape runs about $20. For every Hooked on Phonics kit the library buys, we can't buy about 9 books on tape. That bothers me.

On the other hand, public libraries should be as responsive as possible to public interests. There's a strong, continuing interest in Hooked on Phonics. According to a May 20, 1991 article in Newsweek, the kits were introduced in 1987, and had sold over 400,000 copies as of the Newsweek piece. So Hooked on Phonics isn't just a trendy little bestseller. It's got some staying power.

On the third hand, Hooked on Phonics is clearly designed to be an instructional, almost curricular tool. Is the library stepping directly into the public school territory here? Shouldn't the schools be providing this kind of item, through the District Media Center, for instance, which is available for use by the public right now?

But (on the fourth hand?) the Media Center doesn't currently own Hooked on Phonics. In fact, the current emphasis on so-called "whole language" seems to have all but eliminated phonics as an instructional approach -- at least in some local schools. The Douglas County School District may be reluctant to buy a pricey program that flies in the face of current trends -- and that some educators have already disparaged. (The Newsweek article quoted one education expert who said, "As instructional design, this really stinks." Another said, "I think it could be rather discouraging" to spend so much money and then fail. Shanahan, the developer of the program called these criticisms "sour grapes ... We can teach people to read in 30 days. They can't teach them in 12 years.")

So if people want to teach their children in ways that the school system doesn't endorse, where can they go to find what they need? The public library seems like a reasonable alternative.

I did some checking around, and found that neither the Arapahoe Library District nor the Aurora Public Library has any copies. (They do, however, have "Hooked on Polka.") The Pikes Peak Library District doesn't carry Hooked on Phonics, either.

The Denver Public Library, interestingly, has 34 copies. All but two of them are checked out.

Our own copies have been checked out since we got them. That's another problem -- the program is designed to be used over 30 days. For items that people are waiting for, our maximum checkout period is 2 weeks. So if the library really wants to meet the demand, we not only have to buy more copies, we should probably extend the checkout period for each one -- which further reduces its availability.

The patrons I've spoken with about it, say Hooked On Phonics works best with young children, even preschool children. Older kids find it a little boring. But the people that check it out are actually using it, not just previewing it for later purchase.

It appears that there is something of a groundswell of parental support for phonics. The School District might want to take note. In the meantime, I'm still pondering the precise line of demarcation between public library materials and curricular support materials. If you've got some thoughts on the matter, give me a call (688-8752), or send something to the paper.

Right now, this one is a puzzlement to me. I'd appreciate some advice.

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