The President’s Reading Level?

Today had the potential to go south even before the sun was fully up.  That’s what happens when you schedule dental work for 8 a.m.  So after I got home and saw this article about the reading level of the State of the Union address, I had a good chuckle, and things started looking up for the day.  It seems that Mr. Harvard Law Review enthralled the nation with a speech that only managed an 8.5 grade level.  That places him nearly 2 full grade levels behind George W. Bush and Reagan.  He’s not even close to Kennedy (grade 12), Eisenhower (11.9), or Roosevelt (11.4).

The evaluation comes from the Flesch-Kincaide readability formula, which looks at number of words sentences contain and number of syllables in each word.  Here’s the formula:

FKRA = (0.39 x ASL) + (11.8 x ASW) – 15.59


FKRA = Flesch-Kincaid Reading Age

ASL = Average Sentence Length (i.e., the number of words divided by the number of sentences)

ASW = Average number of Syllable per Word (i.e., the number of syllables divided by the number of words)

Pretty cool, isn’t it?  Especially if you are word freak like me.  Now, according to the National Adult Literacy Survey, the average adult reading level is 8th grade, but about a quarter of American adults read at or below a 5th grade level.  So I guess the president was on a par with most of his audience that night.  Here’s a question, though.  If the president is going to give his speeches at a level of comprehension equal to the average American, why do we need all of the talking heads in the news media to interpret the speeches for us?  Why do these folks devote hours of air time telling us what we actually heard from the president?

I find all of this rather embarrassing.  The leader of the United States, the only Superpower, addresses the Congress and the nation once a year.  This is the Big One: THE speech.  The best he can come up with is, “We do big things”?  Whatever happened to something like this:

Let us so conduct ourselves that two centuries from now, another Congress and another President, meeting in this Chamber as we are meeting, will speak of us with pride, saying that we met the test and preserved for them in their day the sacred flame of liberty — this last, best hope of man on Earth. (Pres. Ronald Reagon, January 26, 1982, State of the Union Address)


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