Joe Kimble is a professor at Thomas Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan. He writes a regular column on plain language for the Michigan Bar Journal. He is the U.S. representative for Clarity, an international plain-language journal and is the editor-in-chief of The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing.

Joe Kimble's Crusade for the Client's Right to Know

Joe Kimble knows the meaning of struggling against the odds. He is a leading advocate of plain language not only in law, but wherever people have a right to understand important documents.

In his paper, Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please he summarizes 25 landmark studies of projects in which plain language significantly reduced costs or improved client satisfaction.

In Answering the Critics of Plain Language, Kimble argues that legal documents, in being clear and readable, are also more precise.

He writes: "Of course, legal writers must aim for precision. But plain language is an ally in that cause, not an enemy. Plain language lays bare the ambiguities and uncertainties and conflicts that traditional style tends to hide.

"At the same time, the process of revising into plain language will often reveal all kinds of unnecessary detail. In short, you are bound to improve the substance—even difficult substance—if you give it to someone who is devoted to being intelligible."

In A Modest Wish List for Legal Writing, Kimble gives 12 practical guidelines for a legal style that clients will understand and appreciate.

For these and other articles that Kimble has written, go to his page on the Web site of the Plain Language Association International: http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org/kimble.

Getting To Know Your Readers

Part 1. The Military Literacy Studies

by William H. DuBay

The first thing to know about your readers is that they have different reading skills and habits. For a long time, no one thought of looking into those differences. Adults were considered either literate or illiterate. This began to change with the first testing of adult reading skills in the U.S. military in 1917. The testing of civilians began in Chicago in 1937.

These studies discovered that average adult readers in the U.S. have limited reading ability. They are able to read with pleasure nothing but the simplest adult materials, usually cheap fiction or the illustrated news of the day. The studies also revealed that poor reading skills accompany significant handicaps in work and everyday activities.

The Military Literacy Surveys—Reading on the Job

General George Washington first addressed concerns about the reading skills of fighters during the Revolutionary War. He directed chaplains at Valley Forge to teach basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic to soldiers. Since then, the U.S. armed services has invested more in studying workplace literacy than any other organization.

Since the 50s in the U.S., one has to pass a literacy test to join the Armed Services. From such a test and others, the military learns a lot about one's aptitudes, cognitive skills, and ability to perform on the job.

Over the years, the military changed the content of the tests and what they measure. Testing literacy advanced in these general stages:

  1. During World War I, they focused on testing native intelligence.
  2. The military decided that what they were testing was not so much raw intelligence as reading skills. By World War II, they were focusing on a recruit's general learning ability for job placement.
  3. In the 1950s, Congress ordered a literacy requirement for all the armed services. From then on, the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) prevented people of the lowest 10% of reading ability from entering military service. The military then combined AFQT subtest with other tests, which differ for each service and sort recruits into different jobs.
  4. In 1976, with the arrival of the All-Volunteer Force, the military introduced the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). All military services used this test battery for both screening qualified candidates and assessing trainability for classified jobs.
  5. In 1978, an error resulted in the recruitment of more than 200,000 candidates in the lowest 10% category. The military, with the aid of Congress, decided to keep them. The four military services each created workplace literacy programs, with contract and student costs over $70 million. This was a greater enrollment in adult basic education than in all such programs of 25 states combined. The results of the workplace literacy programs were considered highly successful, with performance and promotions of the subjects considered "almost normal."
  6. In 1980, the military further launched the largest study ever in job literacy, the Job Performance Measurement/Enlistment Standards Project. They invested $36 million in developing measures of job performance. Over ten years, the project involved more than 15,000 troops from all four military services. Dozens of professionals in psychological measurement took part in this study.
  7. In 1991, based on these findings, the military raised its standards and combined the ASVAB with the AFQT and special aptitude tests from all the services into one battery of 10 tests. Both the Army and Navy continue to provide workplace-literacy programs for entering recruits and for upgrading the literacy skills of experienced personnel.

Military Lessons

The major findings of the military research were:

  1. Measures of literacy (that is, reading skill) correlate closely with measures of intelligence and aptitude.
  2. Measures of literacy correlate closely with the breadth of one's knowledge.
  3. Measures of literacy correlate closely to job performance. Hundreds of military studies found no gap between literacy and job performance.
  4. Workplace literacy programs are highly effective in producing, in a brief period, significant improvements in job-related reading.
  5. Advanced readers have vast domains of knowledge, which enhance their performance across these domains, while poor readers, lacking this resource, perform poorly. This means that, if programs of adult literacy are to move adults to high levels of literacy, they must help them explore and learn across a wide range of knowledge.

In the next issue of Plain Language At Work, we will look at the civilian studies of adult literacy in the U.S.

To read more on the military studies, see: Thomas Sticht. The Military Experience and Workplace literacy: A Review and Synthesis for Policy and Practice. Technical Report TR94-01. Philadelphia: National Council on Adult Literacy (1995): http://www.literacyonline.org/products/ncal/pdf/TR9401.pdf (PDF).

Plain Language in the News

Illiteracy linked to crime and drugs:

Health literacy campaign:

Plain English Campaign awards:

It is the essence of genius to make use of the simplest ideas.
—Charles Peguy (1873-1914)