Champion of Adult Education

American Educator Lyman Bryson 1888–1959

A poster from the country's first federal art program, funded by the U.S. Works Progress Administration (WPA). It advertises a Bryson public forum discussing the future of democracy.

DURING the depression of the 1930's, the government in the U.S. put enormous resources into adult education. An educator who found himself in the vanguard of this effort was Lyman Bryson.

A graduate of the University of Michigan, Bryson spent his early years working for the Red Cross. In 1935, he was appointed professor at Teachers College of Columbia University, where he helped set up the Reading Laboratory.

During the 1930s, there was a heated controversy about the role of commercial radio stations in community education. The big networks made some notable strides in public-affairs programming. In 1938, CBS hired Bryson as a consultant, and he later became director of their Great Books program, An Invitation to Learning.

During WWII, Bryson worked for the War Department of Information. After the war, he worked tirelessly to promote adult education through forums and discussion groups, his own books, and radio broadcasts. He worked with library professionals to extend public library services, which he saw as indispensable for adult education. Among his books are Adult Education (1936), Which Way America? (1939), The New Prometheus (1941), Science and Freedom (1946), and The Next America (1952).

Books for the Average Reader

Lyman Bryson first became interested in books materials written for the average adult reader while serving as a leader in adult-education meetings in New York City. He found what kept people from reading was not lack of intelligence, but the lack of reading skills, a direct result of limited schooling. At that time, 40 to 50 million people had a 7th to 9th grade education and reading ability.

He also found out there is a tendency of writers to judge adults by the education their children receive and to assume the great bulk of people have been through high school. Highly educated people fail to realize just how much easier it is for them to read than it is for an average person. They cannot recognize what is easy for them to read may be difficult others.

Although teachers of English and business had long promoted writing in a direct and lucid style, Bryson found that simple and clear language was rare. He said such language results from "a discipline and artistry which few people who have ideas will take the trouble to achieve... If simple writing were easy, many of our problems would have been solved long ago."

Bryson understood that people with enough motivation and time could read difficult material and improve their reading ability. Experience, however, showed him that most people do not do that. To improve their reading skills, all readers need materials written at their level and appealing to their interest.

Perhaps Bryson's greatest contribution was the influence he had on two of his students, Irving Lorge and Rudolf Flesch. Irving Lorge would develop the first simple-to-use readability formula, which was widely used by the government and military services during WWII. Rudolf Flesch's would revolutionize the language of journalism and communications in the U.S.

Listen to Lyman Bryson as he leads a 1950's WGBH radio forum on "Creative Mind and Method: Man the Creator"

Out With the Long

"Short words are best," said Winston Churchill, "and old words are the best of all."

AND, not for the first time, he was right: short words are the best. Plain they may be, but that is their strength. They are clear, sharp and to the point. You can get your tongue around them. You can spell them. Eye, brain and mouth work as one to greet them as friends, not foes. For that is what they are. They do all that you want of them, and they do it well. On a good day, when all is right with the world, they are one more cause for cheer. On a bad day, when the head aches, you can get to grips with them, grasp their drift and take hold of what they mean. And thus they make you want to read on, not turn the page....

That is why the short words, when old, are still the tops. Tough as boots or soft as silk, sharp as steel or blunt as toast, there are old, short words to fit each need. You want to make love, have a chat, ask the way, thank your stars, curse your luck or swear, scold and rail? Just pluck an old, short word at will. If you doubt that you will find the one you seek, look at what can be done with not much: "To be or not to be?" "And God said, Let there be light and there was light," "We are such stuff as dreams are made on," "The year's at the spring/And day's at the morn..../The lark's on the wing;/The snail's on the thorn."

It can be done, you see. If you but try, you can write well, and say what you want to say, with short words.... —From The Economist, 9 October 2004.

Building in the Quality

Plain-Language Procedures

PLAIN-LANGUAGE procedures are not only written so that all your workers can understand them. They also ensure that all the documents they produce are written in plain language.

The best way to satisfy clients and customers over time is to include the processes for plain language into your general work procedures. This means taking these three steps:

  1. Include a document plan in your procedures.
  2. Write your procedures in plain language.
  3. Build feeback and collaboration into the work procedures.

1. Include a document plan in your procedures.

Create a process for creating documents such as the one discussed in the last issue of the Plain Language At Work Newsletter. Such a process includes planning, creating, editing, and testing before signoff and publication. A simple flow-chart such as the following can provide the basics for creating quality documents:

Fig.1. A document plan. Quality documents are the result of a quality process, of taking certain steps.

2. Write your procedures in plain language

Since most organizations have readers at different levels of reading, it is important to write the procedures at the level of each audience. As a rule of thumb, if the audience of a procedure consists entirely of college graduates, write the procedures at the 10th-grade level. If the audience is mixed and includes high-school graduates and drop-outs, write those procedures at the 8th-grade level. It is best always to test procedures on members of the staff to determine readability.

3. Build collaboration and feedback into the work procedures

Today, effective collaboration is a requirement for success in every organization, not just manufacturing and engineering firms, but also service organizations.

There has been a revolution in work procedures in the last few years. No longer are they just the manager's description of how things get done. Prompted by the Total Quality movement and ISO 9000 registration, a top-down strategy has been replaced by one that emphasizes the feedback and collaboration of all employees. This goes for the writing of procedures.

Five years ago, we heard about the formation of communities of practice and information, in which people with similar skills worked on projects. With the use of e-mail and internal networks, certain people became identified as information and resource hubs.

You can extend this type of collaboration to your work procedures by putting your workers in charge of writing them.

It is quite a task to write a work procedure in clear language that can be understood by all. Organizations that bring in consultants to write procedures are short-changing themselves. They lose the opportunity to help employees improve the writing skills they need for today's knowledge world.

Organizations that involve all employees in writing procedures become better at managing e-mail, prioritizing information, and creating knowledge products. For these reasons, both managers and employees have tied company goals to the collaborative use of work procedures.

In this new millennium, quality standards focus far more on continuous improvement and customer satisfaction. That means more emphasis on procedures that tap into the creativity of all workers.

Consistently producing plain-language documents requires training and method. It also requires a firm commitment from management and making plain-language part of your quality procedures.

Plain Language in the News

Listenability of the Final Presidential Debate:

Tennessee Best Government Web Site

Language of Privacy Notices

Web To Get a Dose of Plain English

Language of Ballot Amendments

Language of Credit-Card Information

Illiteracy Still a Problem in the U.S.: http://tinyurl.com/3wyd73r

"We live, unluckily perhaps, in a world where a good deal of public and private business has to be done in print or in typescript. Nearly everybody must write. And, in most of these routine matters, the one virtue that is important, and seldom shown, is to be understood."
—Lyman Bryson, in his Foreword to The Art of Plain Talk, by Rudolf Flesch, 1951.