Know Your Reader:

The Message of George Klare

Picture of George Klare
George Klare. After serving as a navigator for the U.S. Air Force in WWII (in which he was shot down and captured by the Germans), Klare became a leading figure in readability research.

SCIENTIFIC research in plain language involved an exceptional group of investigators that included George Klare. Now Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Ohio University, Klare also served as Dean of the Department of Psychology and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. His field is psychological statistics and testing. He not only participated in landmark studies, but he took the results of that research to the public. He authored or co-authored almost 90 articles and books on what makes a text easy-to-read and why that is important.

His 1954 work written with Byron Buck, Know Your Reader: the Scientific Approach to Readability, is an excellent introduction to the early research in readability (reading ease).

Klare considers his best work a series of studies conducted for the military during the 1950s at Sampson Air Force Base in New York and Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois. Using 989 male Air Force trainees, Klare and his colleagues studied the effects of text that they had simplified using the Flesch and Dale-Chall formulas. They found the more readable versions resulted in:

Klare's paper, "Assessing Readability," published in the Reading Research Quarterly (1974-75), is one of the most frequently cited works in the literature of reading research.

In this work and others, Klare reviewed the scientific validity of the readability formulas. His scholarship established that the formulas are useful for obtaining a "rough estimate" of text difficulty. Largely due to the work of Klare and his colleagues, writers throughout the world confidently have used readability formulas to create millions of documents that meet the needs of their audience.

The Reader's Part in Readability

Also important in Klare's studies were those looking at the reader's contribution to readability. He and his colleagues investigated the effects of the following on reading ease:

Among their findings, they discovered:

  1. The lower the reading skill, prior knowledge, interest or motivation, the more important is the readability of the text. Readers of a low reading level, low prior knowledge, or low interest and motivation will be more apt to read a text if it is easy-to-read.
  2. High interest and motivation can enable readers to compensate for poor reading skills. Highly motivated readers can often manage to master even difficult texts.

George Klare and his colleagues completed the picture of what makes a text readable, giving us these components:

The TextThe Reader
Prior Knowledge
Reading ability

Plain language means adjusting the text to match not only with the reading ability of the readers, but also with their prior knowledge, interest, and motivation. When the readers are elderly, stressed, or easily distracted, they will be more apt to read an easy text than a hard one. There is no better principle in plain language than the lesson of George Klare's careful scholarship: know your reader.

The BANCO Experiments:

Plain Language Brings Results

IN the latest edition of Clarity, Rose Grotsky, a Toronto plain-language consultant, describes the results of her plain-language experiment.

The study used 30 customer-service employees of BANCO, a financial institution. The purpose was to determine the effects of plain-language revisions of online information used by the employees when answering phone calls from customers asking about company products.

The plain-language revisions resulted in these improvements:

  1. Improved employee productivity by a forecasted 36.9%
  2. Decreased employee errors by a forecasted 77.1%
  3. Decresed the frequency of calls to the Help Desk by a forecasted 17.4%
  4. Decreased the duration of calls to the Help Desk by a forecasted 10.5%

Projecting the results over a three-year period, she came up with
these savings:

  1. Using the best-case scenario with the same results of the revisions tested, $15.2 million CDN.
  2. Using the worst-case scentario with results that were 30% less than the revisions tested, $3.5 million CDN.

In conclusion, Grostky states:

Finally, the project's success and positive outcomes have led to a change in organizational attitude toward plain language and a willingness from BANCO to:
  • Modify its current practices for creating contact-centre documentation and
  • Allocate resources to plain language over the long term.

The BANCO study is a worthy addition to Joe Kimble's work, Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please.

To subscribe to Clarity: The journal of the international language movement to clarify legal language, or to request a free printed copy of Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please, send an email to Joe Kimble at kimblej@cooley.edu

Closing the Communications Gap:

You Need an Editor

AFTER managers hire their first writer, the next person they hire should be an editor. Why? Because editing is an essential part of the writing process. If your documents are not making a connection with clients, customers, or employees, consider hiring an editor.

Many organizations today have a production-line system for producing documents. Different people contribute to documents: subject-matter experts, writers, designers, illustrators, photographers, and lawyers, often in separate departments without much coordination. No one is responsible for the whole process. As a result, important things are left undone. No one accepts responsibility for the success of documents as instruments of communication.

The Editor Steps In

Editors are skilled communication professionals who mediate between the experts and the readers. Their job is to put the experts' message in a form the readers can understand and to look after the readers' interest in general. The role seems simple, but it is not. Editors need a good general education and a wide range of communication skills.

What Is Being Said

First of all, editors must be closely involved with the content—what is being said. They must understand it so that they can communicate it to others. But there is more to it than that. Editors have to discuss the content with the subject-matter experts, many of whom do not know what they have to say, or how to say it.

Editors have to question and analyze until they can put the author's intentions in the proper perspective. They are helpful listeners who gently refuse to go away until the confusion is sorted out. Text is never accepted without critical thought.

Muddled thinking never results in effective communication. Editors keep experts focused on the purpose, objectives, and organization of the text—to arrive at a clear logical structure.

How It Is Said

Secondly, editors have to address how it is said. To do this, they have to connect with the readers' world. They need to consult with members of the audience before, during, and after producing the text. To do this, they use focus groups, reader surveys, on-site interviews, and testing.

They assess the reading skill of the audience and adjust the readability of the text to their reading level. They organize illustrators, typographers, graphic designers, and printers to fine-tune the design and usability of the text.

These issues are not trivial. Poor readability and design can prevent understanding, even in advanced readers.

Improving Writing Skills

Finally, editors improve the output of writers. For one thing, editors keep writers focused on writing by relieving them of administrative tasks such as managing documents. For another thing, editors not only introduce new writers to the practices of the organization but also to the practices of good writing. One becomes a good writer by writing a lot and having one's work corrected by an editor.

Workers in many professions such as engineering spend up to 65 percent of their time writing. If your workers are not producing effective documents in plain language, it is because they have not been given the training and skills they need to do their jobs. All writers deserve a good editor. Hire one today!

Plain Language in the News

Plain Language for Europe

Plain Euro-Language

The Plain English Foundation

Operation Details in Plain Language

Irish Social Services Customer Charter

U.K. Government Revises Forms

Anniversary: Plain-English Campaign

Worst-Language Awards

Workplace Writing Gets Left Behind

"The chief virtue that language can have is clearness,
and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words."