by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
John Maguire writes for the Martin Center about a man whose work should inform the debate about college writing reform.
I’m a college writing instructor and the sadly ignored innovator I think about all the time is Rudolf Flesch. Dr. Flesch (1911-1987) became known as a reading expert because of his best-seller Why Johnny Can’t Read. But few remember his The Art of Readable Writing, which is sad because we need it now. There’s a flood of college graduates who can’t write a clear sentence. Though writing professors are mostly defensive, at least some of them admit not knowing what to do about bad college writers. Prof. J.R. Teller, for instance, began his essay “Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong?” with this lede: “My students can’t write a clear sentence to save their lives, and I’ve had it.”
While everyone bemoans foggy student writing, Flesch’s powerful insights on achieving a readable style sit ignored on college library shelves. …
… He tuned up the readability formulas of his day and developed new ones. These formulas worked by calculating average sentence length and difficulty of vocabulary and allowed publishers to figure out the grade level of children’s books they were putting out.
Flesch’s first new formula estimated the reading ease of books for adults, a novelty at that time. He indexed average sentence length in words, number of prefixes and suffixes, and number of personal references. And he went on refining it until he had his Flesch readability scale, which counted average sentence length, average syllable length, and percentage of “personal sentences.”
Early reviewers of his work were skeptical, but repeated tests showed that the system worked. Because his reading-ease score consistently represented how easy or hard a passage was to read, its use spread quickly to businesses and agencies who wanted to know that their audiences understood them. Today it’s used by everyone from the Associated Press to the U.S. military.