The Corner


Why Johnny (and Suzy) Can’t Write


Most colleges do a poor job of teaching students how to write decently. Sure, they pay lip service to writing instruction but that’s usually all. A freshman comp course taught by an adjunct who is more interested in shoving politics down students’ throats than teaching them to craft readable sentences, paragraphs, and essays.

This is not a recent problem and it could be solved. In today’s Martin Center article, John Maguire discusses the approach to writing that was advocated by Rudolf Flesch. Flesch, who fled from Nazi Germany and lived in the U.S. is best known for his book Why Johnny Can’t Read. As Maguire points out, he also developed a system for teaching and evaluating writing.

The business world, Maguire explains, liked Flesch’s ideas for readable prose, but the college world looked askance. If it took him seriously, what would composition courses be like? Maguire writes,

A comp course on readable prose from the Rudolf Flesch angle would be a great boon. Such a course would focus on the mastery of these skills:

  • writing only in complete sentences
  • writing with concrete nouns
  • writing with “people” words (that is, using names and direct quotations)
  • writing mainly with active verbs
  • controlling average sentence length
  • editing to remove flab

With sentence control mastered, the course could go on to cover the organization of short essays: writing a title, a beginning paragraph, a forecast sentence, a body organized with a set of verbal signposts, and a graceful ending.

Maguire himself has been using Flesch’s concepts to teach undergrads for 22 years and believes that his students have benefited greatly from them.

He concludes: “Flesch remains an intellectual pioneer, the man who investigated in detail what it means for a writer to help the reader. American colleges should circle back and make use of his insights.”

If any college leaders are looking for ways to gain competitive advantage over their rivals by making the case that they don’t graduate students who write as poorly as when they began, this would be one.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


The Latest