Johnny Can’t Read — Overcoming the Many Types of Learning Disabilities

Johnny Can't Read: Einstein in 1921. He was one of the smartest people in history. You can't say this "Johnny" can't read.
Johnny Can't Read: Boy reading. If a Johnny can't read, they need help.
Not every Johnny can read. How do we help them? Photo: Julia Spranger (CC BY 3.0), via

Rudolf Flesch wrote in 1955 his most famous book, Why Johnny Can’t Read. He spent the better part of his life preaching the pragmatic approaches to education and communication. It seems he was a proponent, amongst other things, of lawyers using plain English. Imagine that. Right on!

I can relate to this pragmatic approach to education. I’ve seen my share of obfuscation (the concealment of meaning in communication, making it confusing). Some education is like this. Some textbooks are written using obfuscation. Was it intentional? Were the authors attempting to impress their peers? Or torture their students?

An Example of Why Johnny Can’t Read Mathematics

Johnny Can't Read: Einstein in 1921. He was one of the smartest people in history. You can't say this "Johnny" can't read.
Einstein in 1921. He was one of the smartest people in history. You can’t say this “Johnny” can’t read. Photo: Ferdinand Schmutzer (PD), via

Case in point: calculus. In 1975, I was working on a short story that involved another world. I wanted to make the story as realistic as possible, including the nature of its atmosphere. I soon found out that the mathematics used to describe the properties of atmospheres involved calculus. Okay, I thought. Math was easy for me in high school. I took advanced algebra and trigonometry, and aced it. Calculus should be easy. I ran down to the local college bookstore and bought two calculus textbooks and then dug in on one of them. I soon found myself wading through dense and cryptic prose that had my head throbbing.

I looked at the other textbook and found it equally cryptic. Yet there were differences. I found the same subject area in the second textbook and found that the differences aided me in understanding what the first textbook had been trying to say.

“Oh, is that it?” I asked myself. “That’s simple! But why did they have to make it so difficult?” If the authors had been more competent on writing, perhaps we could’ve eliminated one of the hurdles why Johnny can’t read such subjects.

It seems that calculus is all about the study of rates of change — everything you ever wanted to know. However, no textbook I ever saw stated this simple description. I suppose, to those who wrote the textbooks such an idea was obvious. Thanks for not cluing us in on it.

Knowing the context of a subject makes a world of difference in studying a subject. If you don’t know the context, you can’t hook the details to anything. A mass of floating details equals confusion. I wanted to know more about this subject that had been made unreachable for so many.

Later, I also picked up a couple of comic books on calculus, published by one of the universities. It did nothing for me. The concepts were there, but the cartoons were merely dressed up symbols. The art did nothing to contribute to the understanding of the concepts. What a big waste.

Johnny Can't Read: Silvanus P. Thompson knew how to get around "Johnny can't read," especially on calculus.
Silvanus P. Thompson knew how to get around “Johnny can’t read,” especially on calculus.

Months later, I was at one of my favorite bookstores — Pickwick (later, B. Dalton Pickwick) on Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, California. I found a book on calculus that changed everything. It was Calculus Made Easy, by Sylvanus P. Thompson. Okay, I thought, this is one of those trendy “made easy” books I’ve been seeing so much of lately. I was wrong. This book had first been published in 1910! It had enjoyed dozens of reprints. Mr. Thompson was an outsider who couldn’t understand why mathematicians were making a simple subject so difficult. Tell me about it!

Do mathematicians think it not dignified if the writing is clear enough for anyone to understand? Are they aiming for exclusivity in their “club for higher learning?” Only those with a PhD in mathematics can take this entry-level course? Yikes!

What is the purpose of education? Cut it to the bone. Let’s get simple. What is education really about? And what is the responsibility of the educators? Why are they letting Johnny fail to read?

If the answer is to help students understand, appreciate, and gain the ability to use a subject, then I would be happy to see education live up to this promise. If an educator or textbook writer creates a mile-high hurdle for students in understanding their subject, they’re at odds with the purpose they should be supporting. What a betrayal! I suspect that it’s not intentional. Let’s see, what else could it be? Incompetence?

If Johnny Can’t Read, Give Him an Unreasonable Teacher

Johnny Can't Read: Jaime Escalante teaching calculus.
Jaime Escalante teaching calculus. These Johnnies and Janes learned to “read” advanced mathematics. Photo courtesy

East Los Angeles must be full of Johnnies. “Johnny can’t read” must be their anthem.

One of the most highly acclaimed educators was the subject of a feel-good movie named, “Stand and Deliver.” This was the story of Jaime Escalante, an educated man, from La Paz, Bolivia, who wanted to give something back. He took on the thankless, underpaying job of a teacher in East Los Angeles, an area famous for Latino gangs and high school dropouts. He is most famous for teaching calculus to the kids at Garfield High School and having them successfully pass the Advanced Placement exam for calculus. Wow! It is unbelievable that he received so much grief from some of his fellow educators. Jealousy, politics and ego should not be included amongst the barriers our kids face in their education.

Mr. Escalante is noted as saying, “Students will rise to the level of expectations.” So, if Johnny can’t read, what do you expect of him?

I had read a few years earlier that a teacher had discovered this the hard way. They had been given a classroom full of ordinary, inner city youths, but were told that they were exceptional students. The teacher was also informed that the students would try to weasel out of hard work. The teacher’s expectations had resulted in grades far greater than the students had ever known. Again, wow!

I Was Johnny

In 1956, I started my first year of grade school. I had high expectations and had them dashed when I found out we had to take a nap in the afternoon. Huh? I was expecting the space academy — not to be treated like a kid at a babysitter. Right from the start, I had a hard time learning to read. Somehow, the alphabet seemed unnatural to me. I don’t know what I was expecting. Chinese characters? Despite this difficulty, even then I was a storyteller. My tales of other worlds and aliens had gotten me in trouble on more than one occasion with my Texas teacher. For my creativity, I was given a paddling and sent home with a note pinned to my chest. My mother had strong words with the teacher the next day. I’m glad corporal punishment has been thrown out, but hey, guys and gals: let’s not throw out all measure of discipline.

Johnny Can't Read: Oregon coast not far from where I learned to read.
The lovely Oregon coast, not far from where my education got a boost. My teacher didn’t want it said that this Johnny can’t read. Photo: Cacophony (CC BY-SA 3.0), via

In late 1956, my family moved from West Texas to Southern Oregon. What a change! This was in the middle of the school year. When we moved to Oregon, I continued to have trouble with reading. My new teacher, though, saw that my math scores were at the top of the class. She talked to my parents and suggested one-on-one tutoring after school. Arrgh-h-h! I thought I was being punished. It took me awhile to appreciate the time the teacher took. Years later, I sent her a copy of my first published novel, autographed with a “thank you.”

With all that I’ve experienced concerning my own education, learning of education methods, and the successes of others, I’ve become convinced that each child has their own genius. Frequently this genius is left untapped. There need not be any more statements that Johnny can’t read or any other such defeatist attitudes.

How Do We Fix the “Johnny Can’t Read” Syndrome?

It distresses me when a young mind is told that they have failed an entire year. What cruelty! Do you realize how big a portion of a young person’s life that is? If a student isn’t making it in the first week, put on the brakes! Stop! Find out what went wrong and then fix it! For heaven’s sake! That’s such a simple solution, but why aren’t we doing it? Is it because the “old way” is the way we’ve always done it? That’s a lame excuse. Our children deserve a lot better than that from us.

The way the classes are built now, some students are bored to tears because the class is too slow for them. Some are overwhelmed because they have no idea what the subject is about and can’t connect to its details. Why not let students go at their own pace? What would it take to make that work?

Why not let everyone get top grades? No it’s not what you’re probably thinking. The students still have to work for their grades, but everyone gets top marks, or they have to restudy the material they have not yet mastered. And no multiple choice! Students need to demonstrate their understanding, not throw darts in hopes they get a right answer. Multiple choice is a lazy way to test. Teachers need to be trained how to elicit those demonstrations from their students that they do indeed understand the material.

Education should be tough. Okay, that’s probably the wrong word. It should be challenging — not the mysterious and bewildering kind, but the fun and exciting kind. Is it not dignified making education fun? Who says getting your PhD needs to be solemn and deadly serious? There’s enough stress in the world. Add more fun to education, but challenge the students to fly.

Before my father died, he dreamed of creating an interdisciplinary foundation called, “Infinity Dynamics,” or “InDyn,” for short. This foundation has now been started. It is a meager beginning, but with big heart, and big dreams. Education is one of its key areas of interest. As more develops on this, the details will be available at this website.

It bears repeating: our children deserve far better. Let’s give it to them. Let’s not ever hear again that “Johnny can’t read” or think for himself. And Jane, too!

What would you like to see in our educational system and why?

This article was published 2013:0616 on, and originally published 2008:0923 on


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