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Reading, writing and readability—appreciating Rudolph Flesch

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This October marks the thirty-third anniversary of the passing of Rudolph Flesch, the patron saint of brevity. Born in 1911, Flesch was an Austrian lawyer who fled the Nazis in 1938, finding his way to New York City. There he completed a PhD in library science at Columbia University, studying the factors that make a text easy or difficult to read. His 1943 PhD dissertation, Marks of a Readable Style, provided a mathematical formula to predict the difficulty of adult reading material. The formula included such variables as the number of names and personal pronouns, which enhanced readability, and the number of prefixes and suffixes, which did the opposite. A later article proposed a somewhat simplified formula based on average sentence length and average word length. Flesch’s Reading Ease formula, still in use today, assigned a number from 0 to 100 to a text. (This paragraph has a score of 45.7, about high school level.) Publishers soon applied the research of Flesh and other readability experts to books, magazines and newspapers. Flesch also turned his attention to freelance writing, following up his academic studies with lively, user-friendly books like The Way to Write, a co-authored volume published in 1947, and The Art of Readable Writing, published in 1949. He took particular aim at inflated, wordy exposition and the use of high-falutin’ words, favoring spare, simple prose. In 1955, Flesch approached readability from another direction. He wrote the bestselling Why Johnny Can’t Read, and What You Can Do About It. Known simply as Why Johnny Can’t Read, the book created the why-Johnny-can’t meme borrowed endlessly by later writers.  Why Johnny Can’t Read was a critique of the look-say method of teaching reading used in the Dick and Jane books. Flesch called the look-say method “totally wrong,” because it required children to memorize each word. According to Flesch, that method was like teaching Chinese characters. The better way to teach reading, Flesch said, was. . .

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News source: Linguistics – OUPblog

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