Sunday, May 10, 2009

From Hooked on Phonics to college graduate

Gayle was our second daughter and third kid. First kids always get a huge amount of attention, second kids a little less, and third and subsequent kids are essentially born into a commune with anyone who’s got an extra minute pitching in to deal with them. So it was with Gayle, whose dropped pacifier was dutifully picked up and returned by Emily, the family dog.

To say that Gayle was a picky eater would be an understatement. Her favorite foods were an eclectic bunch, including hot dogs (no bun, no condiments—just the “pure” ingredients of an All-American Frank), green beans (but only green beans made using my mom’s recipe: open can and heat in small sauce pan), and taquitos (which means small tacos in Spanish) dipped in honey.

When she was 3 or 4, I was watching an infomercial about Hooked On Phonics. It’s a reading program that claims phenomenal success teaching kindergarteners, pre-school and even younger children to read. It seemed so effortless on TV. Parents would open the Hooked On Phonics box, flash a few cards at their kid and, voila, the average, unremarkable pre-schooler would transform into a reading machine, digesting tomes from classical authors such as Daniel Defoe and Robert Louis Stevenson and reciting The Raven by rote.

It was an exciting day when the UPS guy brought the box. It included over 500 cards, games and other engaging activities, all for five easy payments of $39.95. I read through the program instructions and decided to start with some simple phonemes.

I showed her a “b” and pronounced it “buh.”

Can you say “buh?”


Fantastic! She’s going to be reading by tomorrow morning.

Just to be sure, I asked: “What sound is this?”


“Very good, Gayle. You’re already reading. Isn’t this great?”

I showed her the “at” card.

Can you say “at?”


“Great! One more time. What sound is this?”


Flipping back to the first card, “What sound is this?”


Alright. This is going to be a piece of cake, I thought.

“Now let’s put these sounds together. I’ll show you the card and you make the sound.”

I flashed the “b” card.


I flashed the “at” card.










“Now put the sounds together.”

I flashed the “b” card followed immediately by the “at” card.

“buh… at”

I showed her the “b” card and slid the “at” card over to it. “See. They go together. buh…at. Bat. Yes. Bat! See how easy? You try it.”


“A little faster, Hon. Put ‘em together.”


“The word is bat, Gayle. Let’s try this one.”





(Reread the last several lines, substituting “cuh” for “buh.”)

“Okay, Gayle. The word is cat. Get it? cuh…at. Cat. buh…at. Bat. Let’s try it one more time.”

No matter how impressive my prestidigitation, I could not get Gayle to actually put two sounds together. I was about to explode with frustration, at which time I was counseled to put Hooked On Phonics away for awhile. I put it away, all right. Right in the back of the closet, never to see the light of day again.

Gayle did learn to read. On her own time. In her own way. And with the patience of her mother. For all I know, they rescued the Hooked On Phonics box and used it successfully, but I was in no mood to hear about it.

I wouldn’t have bet, at that time, that Gayle would become the family scholar, but she excelled throughout grade school, middle and high school and decided on psychology as a college major well before finishing high school.

I took Psyche 101, as every college freshman did. I mastered Maslov’s Hierarchy and enjoyed Pavlov’s drooling dogs, but psychology never appealed to me as a potential lifelong pursuit. I didn’t know how serious Gayle could be about this field of study, but have since realized that she researched it thoroughly and was dead serious about it.

We attended Gayle’s graduation ceremony at New Mexico State University yesterday. She completed her undergraduate program with a 4.0 GPA and received high honors (top 1.5% of graduating class). I’m obviously very proud of her and, quite frankly, kind of blown away by her focus, dedication and perseverance in working through her degree plan without a single slip up.

She has been accepted to a four-year doctoral program in psychology and will receive a full scholarship and employment from the university. Quite an accomplishment for my little Gayle, who drove me to the brink by refusing to participate in my instant scholar gimmick.

This must have been rolling around in my head last night, because I dreamed that Gayle was quizzing me:

“Okay, Dad. Put these together.”







Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt


  1. You may have given up on Hooked On Phonics, but you never gave up on me. There's no way I could have made it this far or accomplished this much without your support. You've been there for me every step of the way and I can't even begin to express how much that means to me. I love you!


  2. Great story about a dedicated and focused young woman. Also, wonderful testimony from a loving and grateful daughter. Congratulations Gayle. Congratulations Randy and Mary. And a little credit to the rest of her brothers and sisters too!


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