Developed in the late 1980s and first marketed widely in the 1990s, it used a particular instructional design to teach letter-sound correlations (phonics) as part of children's literacy. The program has since expanded to encompass a wide variety of media, including computer games, music, and flash cards in addition to books in its materials, as well as to include other subject areas. The target audience for this brand is primarily individuals and home school parents. The product was advertised extensively on television and radio.
The product along with its catchphrase, "Hooked on Phonics worked for me!" (spoken by happy children in the product's television ads) and its telephone number "1-800-ABCDEFG" (1-800-222-3334), became widely recognized during the mid-1990s. The phrase was used widely in pop culture to make pejorative tongue-in-cheek jokes about not being able to read or for making incidental reading errors. Modifications (typically phonetic misspellings) to the catchphrase also abound for both comic as well as promotional purposes.
In 2005 the product line was acquired by Educate, Inc., who also operated Sylvan Learning, and began selling products in retail. In 2006 the company released a new line of educational programs including Hooked on Spanish, Hooked on Handwriting, and Hooked on Spelling, among many others.
2007 marked the 20th anniversary of the company along with the release of Hooked on English and the introduction of Hooked on Phonics programs internationally. That same year the company was taken private in an MBO and was renamed as Smarterville Inc.
The history of the company has not been without controversy. Critics, including some of the nation's leading experts on reading, argue that the eight-cassette program doesn't live up to its billing. At best, they say, Hooked on Phonics teaches only one aspect of reading -- the ability to sound out words -- without teaching their meanings. The program is better for some groups than for others : among the criticisms, adult native English-speaking illiterates would recognize most of the words because they have large vocabularies. But children or non-native speakers, who know the meanings of fewer words, could be left clueless. According to the Baltimore Business Journal, in 2004 the Federal Trade Commission fined Hooked on Phonics $4,600 for sharing private customer information including that of children with marketing firms. Hooked on Phonics disclosed the names and contact information of adult customers, along with the age and gender of their children.