‘Why Johnny Can’t Read’ Author Flesch Dies

Times Staff Writer

Rudolf Flesch, a lifelong proponent of lucid expression who maintained 30 years ago that “Johnny” couldn’t read because he didn’t know phonics, is dead of congestive heart failure.

Dr. Flesch, author of dozens of books complaining of a semi-literate America--the best known of which remains “Why Johnny Can’t Read”--was 75 when he died Sunday at a hospital in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. where he had lived for many years.

The subject of scorn and abuse from teachers, textbook publishers and many parents when “Johnny” first was published in 1955, Flesch said in a 1981 interview with The Times that he initially “sort of turned my back” on that “frustrating and unpleasant” experience and instead devoted his time to essays and books urging clarity of language or researching colloquialisms.


But his frustrations mounted over the years and Flesch returned to the education fray in the late l970s.

In 1981 he published “Why Johnny Still Can’t Read,” accompanied by what he called alarming statistics.

“The literacy rate of the United States is on a par with Burma and Albania,” he said that year in a series of interviews that accompanied release of his book. “The only worse country is Zambia and we’re getting to there pretty fast.”

Flesch traced what he saw as a startling decline in literacy to the abandonment of phonics in the schools during the so-called progressive education movement of the 1930s in favor of “look and say.”

“They (educators) believed a child could learn by osmosis. He sees a word over and over again until he learns it. No drill. No alphabet. That’s just too hard, too unpleasant. Well it (the theory) just isn’t so.”

He said his primary critics were textbook publishers. The industry born of the educational reforms Flesch faulted became “extremely lucrative,” he said. “They (publishers) really pounced on me. . . . There’s less money in phonic publishing (fewer books are required, he explained) and if there is less money the children will be sacrificed so that income can increase.”


Flesch argued that all other alphabetic languages are taught by teaching the sounds of the letters. “Why do we do it differently?”

Born in Vienna, Flesch earned a doctorate in law from the University of Vienna and came to the United States in 1938 where he earned a second doctorate--in library science--at Columbia University.

His first book, “The Art of Plain Talk,” published in 1946 was a plea for “readable” English not just in textbooks but in writing in general.

He followed that with “The Way to Write,” “The Art of Readable Writing,” “The Art of Clear Thinking,” “How to Make Sense,” “The Book of Unusual Quotations,” and then “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” which turned him from a mere authority on lucidity into a controversial national figure.

Besides the “Johnny” sequel, he also was the author of “How to Write, Speak and Think More Effectively,” “The New Book of Unusual Quotations,” “Say What You Mean,” “How to Write Plain English: A Book for Lawyers and Consumers” and in 1984 “Lite English: Popular Words That Are OK to Use (No Matter What William Safire, John Simon, Edwin Newman and the Other Purists Say).”

In that volume he applauded the introduction of new words into the language, saying “English is a living thing that changes.”

His favorite new word, he said, was “humongous,” which he surmised was coined by someone who had consumed one too many beers trying to describe something very big.