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Reading, writing and readability—appreciating Rudolph Flesch

This October marks the thirty-third anniversary of the passing of Rudolph Flesch, the patron saint of brevity.

Born in 1911, Flesch was an Austrian lawyer who fled the Nazis in 1938, finding his way to New York City. There he completed a PhD in library science at Columbia University, studying the factors that make a text easy or difficult to read. His 1943 PhD dissertation, Marks of a Readable Style, provided a mathematical formula to predict the difficulty of adult reading material. The formula included such variables as the number of names and personal pronouns, which enhanced readability, and the number of prefixes and suffixes, which did the opposite. A later article proposed a somewhat simplified formula based on average sentence length and average word length. Flesch’s Reading Ease formula, still in use today, assigned a number from 0 to 100 to a text. (This paragraph has a score of 45.7, about high school level.)

Publishers soon applied the research of Flesch and other readability experts to books, magazines and newspapers. Flesch also turned his attention to freelance writing, following up his academic studies with lively, user-friendly books like The Way to Write, a co-authored volume published in 1947, and The Art of Readable Writing, published in 1949. He took particular aim at inflated, wordy exposition and the use of high-falutin’ words, favoring spare, simple prose.

In 1955, Flesch approached readability from another direction. He wrote the bestselling Why Johnny Can’t Read, and What You Can Do About It. Known simply as Why Johnny Can’t Read, the book created the why-Johnny-can’t meme borrowed endlessly by later writers.  Why Johnny Can’t Read was a critique of the look-say method of teaching reading used in the Dick and Jane books. Flesch called the look-say method “totally wrong,” because it required children to memorize each word. According to Flesch, that method was like teaching Chinese characters. The better way to teach reading, Flesch said, was by teaching an alphabet-based writing system known as phonics.

Flesch called the look-say method “totally wrong,” because it required children to memorize each word.

Flesch was denounced by many education professionals hooked on the look-say method. Time magazine reported in its January 9, 1956, issue that “American education closed ranks against Flesch,” attacking the “Devil in the Flesch” and “Flesch peddlers.” While Flesch did not succeed in convincing educators, he won a convert in William Spaulding, the Houghton Mifflin publishing executive who commissioned Theodore Geisel to write The Cat in the Hat. As Rebekah Fitzsimmons notes in her “Creating and Marketing Early Reader Picture Books,” the publisher of The Cat in the Hat advertised the book as using a vocabulary list “drawn up by experts,” and it was marketed to busy parents as one that children could read by themselves. And Dr. Seuss himself wrote to a friend that he expected the book to “make a tremendous noise in the discussion of Why Johnny Can’t Read.”

In the 1970s, Flesch’s work on readability found renewed interest from the Plain Language Movement, which arose in the wake of the Truth in Lending Act. Flesch was a consultant for the Federal Trade Commission and he published How to Write Plain English: A Book for Lawyers and Consumers in 1979.  His advice: “Use nothing but Plain English.” And he offered examples such as this one, from a Federal Trade Commission rule:

It is an unfair or deceptive practice for any funeral service industry member, whose establishment contains one or more casket selection rooms, to fail to display the three least expensive caskets offered for sale for the use in adult funeral service, in the same general manner as the other caskets displayed. Provided, that if fewer than twelve (12) caskets are displayed, only one of the three least expensive caskets must be displayed.

Flesch’s Plain English version went this way:

You must display the three least expensive adults’ caskets you offer just like the others. If you display less than 12 adults’ caskets, you must display the least expensive one you offer.

Flesch even revisited his famous title and topic himself in a 1981 follow up called Why Johnny Still Can’t Read: A New Look at the Scandal of Our Schools, continuing his critique of the look-say method and suggesting that education publishers and professors were engaged in a “great cover up” concealing the findings of recent research.  Reviews by principals and professors dismissed Flesch as a single-minded polemicist. Nevertheless, Flesch’s work spurred others to take phonics seriously. And as studies by federal education agencies and psychologists continued to confirm the importance of phonics, it made its way into more state reading standards and curricula.

Flesch did not live to claim victory. He died in 1984 at the age of 75. But his influence is felt by just about every reader and writer.

Featured image credit: Girl sitting whilst reading Dr Seuss book, ‘Hop on Pop’. Photo by Josh Applegate. CC0 via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Rudy Troike

    Ed,
    I’m glad to see you give some positive recognition to Rudolph Flesch, whose head was in the right direction, even though he was net informed by linguistics. A nice coda would have been to refer to Bloomfield’s earlier essay into this subject.
    It is sad that so many educational leaders and teachers can take such strong ideological positions on language when they understand so little about it (and refuse to learn). I recall that when Dell Hymes’ son was having difficulty in early reading, Dell led him, with examples, to discover spelling patterns, and the boy’s teacher sent home a stern message not to interfere with his son’s education.
    –Rudy

  2. Masha Ball

    The best way to improve the readability of English is to amend the spellings of at least the worst of the hundreds of words which make learning to read exceptionally difficult, such ‘on – only, once, other’ and ‘out – though, thought, through’. (See EnglishSpellingProblems blog). They are the reason why learning to read English takes roughly ten times longer than other alphabetically written languages, and why 1 in 6 schoolchildren never quite succeed.

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