Archive for December, 2008

Understanding Smart Language

December 8, 2008

By Nirmaldasan



2007 marked a milestone in readability research with the publication of William Dubay’s Smart Language in January and Unlocking Language in March. In Smart Language subtitled ‘readers, readability and the grading of text’, DuBay defines readability as the ‘ease of reading created by a literary style that fits the reading level of the audience’. The book discusses ‘reading ease’ and ‘reading level’ but leaves out ‘literary style’ — may be because it is governed by aesthetic principles which is beyond the scope of this book. It describes the course of readability research and explains the quantitative approaches to the creation of smart text which, according to Dubay, is that language adjusted to the reading level of an audience. “Language can be very well written — and very plain — and yet written at the wrong reading level,” he writes, obviously to drive home the point that plain English must also be smart language.


Smart Language is an instructive and useful book. Divided into two parts, the first gives a brief introduction to the adult literacy surveys and reading habits. The second part deals with the grading of texts and what science has learned about ‘making reading easy for different classes of readers’. DuBay passionately advocates the use of readability formulas as a first step — and not the only one — in assessing readability levels. However, he reiterates the old caution: “Never write to a formula.”


A very useful feature of Smart Language is the description of a number of readability formulas, including the Fry graph and the Dale-Chall formula. George Klare’s normed passages, presented in the appendix, may be used in the classroom to demonstrate the difficulty of grading texts.


The classic readability studies, which constituted just a chapter in Smart Language, is the subtitle of the second book Unlocking Language, in which Dubay has edited 10 landmark studies in readability. The first by Edward L. Thorndike titled ‘Word Knowledge in the Elementary School’ appeared in Teachers College Record (November 1921); and the last by Rudolph Flesch titled ‘A New Readability Yardstick’ appeared in Journal of Applied Psychology (3 June 1948). This book is chiefly for the scholar. DuBay introduces each of these writers and places each article in its historical context. He also discusses the contributions of other key researchers whose articles are not in the public domain: L.A. Sherman’s ‘The Analytics Of Literature’ (1893), Harry D. Kitson’s ‘The Mind Of The Buyer’ (1921), Gray and Leary’s ‘What Makes A Book Readable’ (1935), among others.


In the preface, Dubay writes: “The purpose of this book is to bring students of reading into contact with this introductory sample of the original articles, methods, and thinking of these educators. In all of them, we see the urgency and pragmatism of the times. I hope that reading them in context will highlight their special place in the story of our remarkable language.” Yes, it does. Both the books deserve to be read, studied and preserved. Purchase details are available online: