Governor Ignores Panel Recommendations

Language Violations Continue in California

KIMBERLY KINDY, writing in The Orange County Register, says it's illegal in California for government workers to write documents for the public—even guidance manuals for themselves—that are confusing, complicated or filled with jargon.

Since former Gov. Jerry Brown signed the "plain language" bill into law in 1982, the Capitol became home to hundreds of outlaws.

Kindy gives a few examples of the lawbreakers' work:

The role of the Driver Safety Branch is to promote traffic safety
by controlling the driving privilege and to provide timely due process and fair administrative hearings to drivers facing withdrawal of their driving privilege.—Dept. of Motor Vehicles
A comment must be in typewritten form and must be clear and permanently legible. A comment must identify the determination that is the subject of the comment by referencing the deadline for submitting comments.—Dept. of Water Resources
Develop incentive-based models to include consideration of reimbursement enhancements and other awards that encourage providers to achieve cultural and linguistic competency and such incentives shall include contract and reimbursement incentives. —Dept. of Consumer Affairs

Gov. Schwarzenneger:
weak on language

According to Kindy, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took office, he asked a team of experts for ways to streamline government. They told him it is time to do something about the bad language that continues to plague state government.

They recommended a task force to develop guidelines with the help of the all-volunteer, Web-based Plain Language Association International. They also recommended reinstating the Governor's Clarity Award, which only lasted for one year in 2002.

A year after receiving the recommendations, Schwarzenegger hasn't acted on the advice. Officials in the administration say they've had more pressing concerns.

In laying out a possible strategy the state, Kindy quotes Anneta Cheek, who teaches plain language to workers in the Federal Government. She says, "...the cost could be kept down by using a string of volunteers from the plain-language groups as consultants. From there, all that's needed is a team of committed state workers and support from top management."

Training Essentials

It is a serious mistake to underestimate the extent of the problem or the requirement for strong leadership. Like any other quality reform, plain language can be stymied by middle managers who have a vested interest in the status quo.

Plain language takes more than an executive fiat. It also requires training and method. As any teacher can tell you, learning how to write clearly is hard work. It requires writing a lot of papers and going over them with one's trainer, editor, or teacher.

Plain language requires a change in the way government does business with the public. It requires a new focus on the needs of citizens and a change in how documents are produced. Without systemic reform, plain-language initiatives will be short lived.

Without strong leadership from the top, California's government will continue to operate outside the law. It will also continue to waste millions in taxpayers' money.

The Force of Plain Language

Dr. Flesch: Taking English By Storm

Rudolf Flesch

IF WE were to nominate one person most responsible for the plain language movement, that would have to be Rudolf Flesch. Besides working as a readability consultant, lecturer, and teacher of writing, he published a number of studies and nearly 20 popular books on English usage and readability.

His best-selling books included The Art of Plain Talk (1946), The Art of Readable Writing (1949), The Art of Clear Thinking (1951),The ABC of Style: A Guide to Plain English (1964), How to Write in Plain English: A Book for Lawyers and Consumers (1979). If that were not enough, he lead the campaign to bring phonics back into reading instruction.

Rudolf Franz Flesch was born in Austria in 1911 and received a doctorate in law from the University of Vienna in 1933. He practiced law until 1938, when he came to the U.S. as a refugee from the Nazis. Since his law degree was not recognized, he worked several other jobs, one of them in the shipping department of a New York book manufacturer.

In 1939, he received a refugee's scholarship at Columbia University. In 1940, he received a bachelor's degree with honors in library science. That same year, he became an assistant to Lyman Bryson in the Teachers' College Readability Lab. In 1941, he married Elizabeth Terpenning, and they had six children.

In 1942, Flesch received a master's degree in adult education. Flesch began his educational research by calling attention to the limitations the readability formulas in use at the time. For one thing, they were not designed for predicting the difficulty of adult reading materials.

The next year, in 1943, he received a Ph.D. in educational research for his dissertation, Marks of a Readable Style: A Study in Adult Education. This paper set a course for his career and for readability. In 1944, Flesch became a U.S. citizen. After the war, he and his family settled in Dobbs Ferry, New York. From there he took on the nation's language.

The Art of Plain Talk

In his dissertation, Flesch published his first readability formula for measuring adult reading material. One of the variables it used was affixes and another was "personal references" such as personal pronouns and names. He advocated an unadorned style, with shorter paragraphs, shorter sentences, fewer prefixes and suffixes, and greater use of American English as it is spoken.

In 1946, Flesch published The Art of Plain Talk, which would revolutionize business communications and journalism in this country. Stepping out of his role as a scientist, he became an educator and teacher. He offered practical rules for more readable writing. His own writing was a peerless example of the skill he was trying to teach.

From The Art of Plain Talk, "How to Read the Federal Register"

"If we analyze the Federal Register prose with our yardstick, we find that it is obviously designed to make reading as difficult as possible. The sentences never stop, colloquial root words are carefully avoided, and there is never a hint of who is talking to whom....

"Slowly we begin to understand. The Federal Register is not supposed to be read at all. It simply prints things so that some day, somewhere, some government official can say: "Yes, but it says in the Federal Register..." All this government stuff, in other words is not reading matter, but prefabricated parts of quarrels."

Literary critics argued that Flesch's plain style was not elegant and too scientific. Others, like E. B. White, complained that plainness would make the meaning obscure. Subsequent research, however, confirmed that matching the style of writing with the reading level of the audience improves comprehension, retention, reading speed, and perseverance.

Flesch showed us how to make language both simple and persuasive. He caught the public's attention with his own snappy, forceful style. It was in the debate over phonics that he demonstrated the full force of plain language.

A Navy training class.

In 1949, Flesch published his Reading Ease formula, which became the most popular of all readability formulas. It produces a score from 1 to 100, with 1 being the least and 100 the most readable.

Flesch's early work aimed at teachers, librarians, and book publishers interested in adults with limited reading skills. Those he affected the most, however, were journalists, novelists, advertising copywriters, politicians, and business people interested in communicating with a mass audience.

In 1975, researchers working for the U.S. Navy recalculated Flesch's formula to produce a grade score. The Navy found the grade score useful for matching training materials with the reading grade level of its trainees. Known as the Flesch-Kincaid or Flesch Grade-Score formula, it is now an industry standard.

For Flesch's own explanation on how to use his formula, go to:

Phonics Freedom

While his early career focused on helping adult readers and writers, his later career took up the cause of younger ones. In fact, none of Flesch's work had as much impact as his bestselling 1955 work, Why Johnny Can't Read: And What You Can Do about It.

This book "took the nation by storm," according to Jeanne Chall. "Flesch challenged--strongly, clearly, and polemically--the prevailing views on beginning reading instruction, which emphasized teaching children by a sight method." Flesch blamed the "look and say" method of reading instruction for the nation's reading problems.

He urged that the nation adopt a phonics approach and teach early readers to recognize the relation between letters and sounds.

The giants of the textbook industry and much of the reading establishment lashed out against Flesch and Jeanne Chall's Learning to Read: The Great Debate (1967). In his 1981 sequel, Why Johnny Still Can't Read: A new look at the scandal of our schools, Flesch wrote:

In 1955 my book Why Johnny Can't Read became a best seller. The educational journals answered in full cry, attacking me as an ignoramus, a propagandist—they never said for whom or what—a menace to the cause of good education. In December 1955, half a year after the publication of my book, The Reading Teacher came out with a special issue on phonics. It was filled with anti-Flesch outbursts, including a lengthy piece elaborately analyzing the propaganda techniques I had supposedly used in my book.

Reading experts today agree on the place that phonics have in reading instruction. But they never forgave Flesch for taking his case to the public in language it could understand. The experts all admit, however, that Flesch was a force to be reckoned with. His plain talk raised public awareness of reading methods and the importance of parents' reading to their children.

To the end of his life, Flesch worked vigorously to promote clarity in business and government documents. He specially targeted bureaucratic jargon and any confusing, meaningless language. He was a tireless advocate of a more efficient, more democratic prose style and more effective reading instruction.

He had the ability to inspire and impart a mastery of clear English prose. His ability to focus much-needed public attention on schools was extraordinary.

The day after he died at Dobbs Ferry in 1985 at the age of 74, the New York Times published Flesch's last letter about the reading crisis in American schools.

Download It Now—Free!
The Principles of Readability
By William H. DuBay

A brief introduction to the research on the readability formulas.
70 pages, bibliography

"Thanks for the report on readability. It is really a very impressive work. You have pulled together a lot of information that ranges over a long period of time. A genuine work of classic scholarship—of which there is way too little that comes my way."
—Thomas Sticht, International Consultant on Adult Literacy

Plain Language in the News

Liberty, freedom, and literacy:

Readability of Medicaid notices challenged in court:

Agency leads language cleanup:

Financial services have shoddy Web sites:

The value of light-weight reading:

Yorkshire Council working on Plain English:

Know the risks before surgery:

The new work-place illiteracy:

The prison of illiteracy:

Job-based literacy program:

Content of Web pages: