Candice Miller Takes Action in Congress

Federal Plain-Language Bill


HOUSE Representative Candice Miller of Michigan has introduced legislation entitled "Plain Language in Regulation Act of 2006." You can read the bill, left, by going to http://thomas.loc.gov/ and searching on Bill Number HR 4809.

The bill is an amendment to chapter 35 of title 44, United States Code, commonly referred to as the Paperwork Reduction Act. Its purpose is to ensure usability and clarity of texts created by Federal agencies and to promote compliance with Federal paperwork requirements.

The new bill includes:

Rep. Miller introduced her new regulations during a hearing on 1 March 2006 of the Government Reform Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs. Testifying at that hearing were:

Leaving Skippers at Sea

In her opening statement, Rep. Miller said "using plain language (1) streamlines procedures and paperwork, and (2) reduces confusion, complaints, and claims, and improves customer satisfaction." Miller explained:

Before using plain language, a Department of Commerce rule said, “After notification of NMFS, this final rule requires all CA/OR DGN vessel operators to have attended one Skipper Education Workshop after all workshops have been convened by NMFS in September 1997. CA/OR DGN vessel operators are required to attend Skipper Education Workshops at annual intervals thereafter, unless that requirement is waived by NMFS. NMFS will provide sufficient advance notice to vessel operators by mail prior to convening workshops."

After revising the rule using plain language techniques, any vessel operator would know the requirements of that rule—"After notification from NMFS, vessel operators must attend a skipper education workshop before beginning to fish each fishing season."

Saving Government Dollars

Kimble: incredible savings.

In his testimony, Professor Kimble, referred to his paper, Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please, and said:

In Writing for Dollars, on page 9, you'll find a study done by the Department of Veterans Affairs. They revised one letter —just one form letter, mind you—and tested the results. In one year, in one regional VA call center, the number of calls received dropped from about 1,100 to about 200. This was one paper at one office of one government agency.

Multiply that one paper by every form, letter, notice, flyer, bulletin, booklet, manual, and other public document sent out in huge numbers by every office, division, department, and agency of the government. It's incredible. Plain language may not be a sexy subject, but I believe that the cost of poor communication is the great hidden waste in government. Untold millions and billions.

Language Taxpayers Deserve

Cheek: government has a higher responsibility.

Dr. Cheek said in her testimony:

While poor writing isn't restricted to the federal government, I believe the government has a higher responsibility to communicate clearly with citizens. American taxpayers bear the cost of the government, and they deserve to understand what the government is doing. When I read text like the following, I am stunned that we would expect citizens to understand our language:
"The amount of expenses reimbursed to a claimant under this subpart shall be reduced by any amount that the claimant receives from a collateral source. In cases in which a claimant receives reimbursement under this subpart for expenses that also will or may be reimbursed from another source, the claimant shall subrogate the United States to the claim for payment from the collateral source up to the amount for which the claimant was reimbursed under this subpart."
That's from a regulation of the Department of Justice. And what does it mean? Simply that:
  1. If you get a payment from another source, we will reduce our payment by the amount you get.
  2. If you already got payments from us and from another source for the same expenses, you must pay back what we paid you.

The Needs of Small Business

McCracken: language relief for small businesses.

In his testimony, Todd McCracken spoke of the burden that government regulations puts on small businesses. What they need is less paperwork and paperwork that is easier to understand. He said, "Making compliance easier is crucial to the success of small business. Office of Advocacy statistics show that it annually costs the smallest of businesses almost $7,000 per employee to comply with federal regulations.

That cost places a burden on small business that is 60 percent greater than costs incurred by large corporations." McKracken further explained:

Small businesses experience a hard time dealing with the complexity of ambiguous terms, intricate technical language and difficult sentences.
The increased burden causes them to have trouble understanding the requirements. This forces them to spend more time trying to interpret the rules and ensure they are completing the forms accurately thus avoiding being fined by the agency for noncompliance. The best thing for small businesses is simplicity: simplicity in instructions, in requirements, in consequences and an overall reduction in the size of the paperwork and the time necessary to complete the forms.

Support HR 4809

The bill, HR 4809, was referred to the Committee on Government Reform. You can contact your Representatives and ask them to support this bill. The best contact is a personal visit (doesn't need to be the member, staff is fine, so you can just stop in). After that, a phone call, and then a letter, in order of effectiveness. Email is so unimportant to them it's hardly worth the bother.

For another report on this hearing and legalese in government, go to OMB Watch:

George R. Klare 1922-2006

A Life in Language

Picture George Klare and wife Judy, 2003
George Klare and his wife Judy, May, 2004

READABILITY scholar George Klare passed away on 3 March 2006 at his home near Ohio University where he had taught for over 35 years and served as the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He was 84.

Klare was born April 17, 1922, in Minneapolis, Minn. After graduating from high school in 1940 in North Bend, Nebraska, he went to the University of Nebraska.

World War II Hero

In 1942, his studies were interrupted when he was called into the
service. He served as a navigator on B-17 bombers in the Eighth Air Force in England until he was shot down on Dec. 31, 1944, and was captured by the Germans.

He spent the remainder of World War II in German POW camps, and was liberated by advancing Soviet troops from Stalag Luft One on May 1, 1945. He was honorably separated as a first lieutenant in December, 1945, receiving the Air Medal, the Purple Heart, European-area ribbons and the Prisoner of War medal.

Here are some links related to his war experiences:

Klare returned to continue his studies at the University of Minnesota. In 1950, he received his Ph.D. in Psychology. For his dissertation, he did an evaluation of the Flesch Reading Ease and Dale-Chall readability formulas. It was in Minnesota he met and married his wife, Judy, who was studying for her M.A. in Psychology. She later worked as a teacher, and they would have three children, Roger, Deborah, and Barbara.

After teaching a spell at the University of Illinois, Klare became a specialist in readability (reading ease) for the Psychological Corporation in New York City. While there, he met Byron Buck, a text-book editor for Macmillan. They collaborated on Know Your Reader: The Scientific Approach to Readability, published in 1954.

The U.S. Military Readability Studies

In 1952, Klare took a teaching position at Ohio University, where he taught psychological statistics and testing. During the 50s, the military had noted a large discrepancy between the reading skills of trainees and the difficulty of the technical manuals. Klare joined a team of investigators brought in to solve that problem.

At Sampson Air Force Base in New York and Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois, they studied the effects on the trainees of using readability formulas to rewrite the manuals. They found the more readable texts resulted in:

Taking Command

In 1963, Klare published The Measurement of Readabilty, which reviewed the research on the readability formulas up to that time. In 1967, with Paul Games he published what would become a standard college textbook, Elementary Statistics: Data Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences.

Klare later wrote two more books on readability:

The readability formulas were always controversial. Klare and his colleagues brought research into the discussion. They pointed out that, like other useful tools, the formulas have their limitations and must be used with caution. But, as an aid for predicting the difficulty of a text, they have no substitute. They give a "good rough estimate" of a text's difficulty. Properly used, they are as reliable as other psychological mesures such as reading tests.

Among the more than 80 papers and book chapters that Klare wrote were these landmark studies:

Much of Klare's research drew attention to the role that the readers' reading skill, prior knowledge, and interest had on the readability of a text. He retired from Ohio University in 1987as a Distinguished Professor of Psychology. In 2005, he published a graphic account of his WWII experiences in a chapter entitled, "Questions," in Interrogations, Confessions, and Entrapment.

Klare survived the war, not only to tell the tale but also to marry, raise a family, and take a leading role in reading research. Readers the world over have benefitted greatly from his work. He will not be forgotten.

George Klare Publications:

Always Worth the Effort

"In this business of checking readability, rewriting, checking again, then rewriting again, seems time-consuming or difficult — it is, at first. After some experience, however, you usually get a feel for the appropriate level for a given body of readers, and the process becomes much faster and easier.

"Readers are likely to be turned off by writing that seems unnecessarily difficult. Your extra time will not only save time for them, perhaps thousands of hours; it will also encourage them to read more of what you have written. And that is what readable writing is all about."

— George Klare, in How to Write Readable English

A First Look at College Literacy Skills

2003 College Reading Survey

Reading skill: key to academic success

AT least 20 percent of college graduates lack the ability to perform fundamental computations, according to a study released in January by the American Institutes for Research.

The study, The National Survey of America's College Students (NSACS) came on the heels of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) released in December 2005.

The college survey used the same tests and compared college students to adults at large.

The survey tested 1,827 graduating college students from 80 randomly selected two- and four-year public and private colleges and universities from across the nation. The skills tested included balancing a checkbook, reading graphs, performing complex literacy tasks and comparing credit card offers.

Among the findings:

A Crisis in Campus Reading?

Left: Comparison of college and general U.S. adult reading levels.

In all areas, college students performed better than national adult averages.

Where college students struggle the most is in quantitative literacy.

Source: 2003 National Survey of America's College Students and 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

One report described the college survey as "not surprising, but sobering." For one thing, this was the first national survey ever done on college reading. There are no previous benchmarks to use for comparison.

For another thing, teachers and educators have long been aware of the many reading and writing problems that students bring to college. According to a 2005 national study by the American Diploma Project, two of five college students are not adequately prepared to meet college expectations. And 40 percent of public high school graduates say they are unprepared for college or work.

Because reading skills are the key to academic success, many colleges have invested in remedial reading programs, along with teaching English as a Second Language and Writing Across the Curriculum. In spite of remedial programs, reading problems cause large numbers of students to fail or drop out each year.

The Readability of College Textbooks

A typical college textbook: a 16th-grade level of difficulty for 10th-grade readers.

Studies also show that there is a problem with textbooks being too difficult for college classes.

A few states now require an exit exam to receive a high school diploma. While the California exit exam requires graduates to have an 8th-grade math and a 10th-grade reading ability, many common college textbooks are written at the 16th-grade level and higher.

This literacy gap between the actual reading skills of students and the reading levels of textbooks causes many to fail unnecessarily.

Teachers in elementary and intermediate schools have traditionally tried to match textbooks with the reading level of students. It has been long known that reading success requires a close match between the text and the reader. This knowledge, however, is often not applied to college textbooks. Research also shows that what works for those with learning disabilities also works for average students—matching texts with readers, structured overviews, organizers, chapter summaries, and the use of video and computer programs.

For more on the 2003 college reading survey, see:
The Literacy of Americas College Students: Final Report

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, Ph.D., International Consultant on Adult Literacy

"I finally got around to reading your article. It is very good, scholarly, and complete. Even though readability formulas have been around for years, I think that the biggest current problem is that they are not widely used. Much education of writers, editors, and general population is needed."
—Edward Fry, Ph.D. Reading Consultant.

"I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated the level of scholarship in your amazing work, The Principles of Readability.
—Eldon McMurray, Ph.D. Candidate, Utah Valley State College.

Plain Language in the News

TV and health news:

Branding language:

Eurobabble confuses the public:

Flawed tests jeopardize Illinois schools:

Use fonts to add style:

No more gobbledygook:

Pensions in English:

The plain truth about English:

Classroom clarity law:

Kitchen illiteracy a national shame:

Illiteracy puts health at risk: