Dr. Robert S. Laubach, son of Frank Laubach, passed away on Friday, September 11 at the age of 96. Those of you who can read (presumably everyone who follows this blog) may never have heard of the Laubach father and son team. But millions of adult new readers around the world owe their literacy skills to these two men. Dr. Bob and his father, Dr. Frank C. Laubach were pioneers in adult literacy education. They are credited with teaching more than 100 million adults to read and write in more than 200 languages. Dr. Bob stayed true to the mission of adult literacy for all of his 96 years!
Dr. Bob was born in the Philippines and lived there through his high school years. He became involved in his father’s work early on. By the age of 13, he operated the printing press that produced the special materials his father used as part of his “Each One Teach One” literacy method. He credited getting printer’s ink under his fingernails at a young age for his lifelong love of journalism.
Dr. Bob completed his undergraduate studies at the College of Wooster, Wooster, OH. He then served as a conscientious objector during WW II. The following years were dedicated to international literacy work with his father. Dr. Bob developed literacy primers in local languages and organized literacy programs in more than 60 countries. When he came back to the U.S., he pursued graduate studies at Syracuse University, earning a master’s degree in journalism and Ph.D in education. He developed a new course, “Writing for New Literates,” and began teaching it at Syracuse University’s School of Journalism. He later founded the Syracuse University Literacy Journalism program, and taught hundreds of educators from 40 countries how to prepare literacy materials.
Dr. Bob’s Legacy
In 1959, Dr. Bob began publishing News for You, a weekly news source for adult new readers, still in publication today. Just a few years later, he founded New Readers Press, which develops and publishes instructional materials for adult learners and adult education teachers. Today, New Readers Press has over 400 educational titles that help adults learn how to read, write, and do basic math.
Frank Laubach had been one of my heroes since the early 70’s when I began using the format he developed for teaching adult new readers. So when his son, Dr. Bob, offered a writing workshop for people who wanted to write for new adult readers, I signed up. I had wonderful training in writing during my college and graduate school years, but Dr. Bob, who reminded me of Santa Claus even back then, taught me something I have used for 40 years, no matter what job I was in: how to write simply, clearly and directly – and below a 7th grade level so that nearly everyone could read it.
I learned to use readability formulas. I learned that short declarative sentences and short paragraphs were best, that multiple syllable words and proper nouns were difficult, and that a lot of “white space” was necessary so readers didn’t get lost in the print. I learned that all difficult writing can be re-written so that it can be understood by anyone with basic reading skills. I learned that simple writing can be elegant as well as readable. Dr. Bob changed my philosophy of writing forever.
Dr. Bob encouraged us to write for the students in our literacy programs. So I did. He intended for us to write practical materials for everyday life. However, I was convinced that new readers were interested in fiction, too (a debate I lost during the writing workshop!). So I wrote a novel on a first grade level about a bad marriage. I had a vocabulary list of 300 words available to me. Words with long vowel sounds were off-limits. The book was realistic and appropriate for adults, so I mailed it to Dr. Bob and asked what he thought of it. Two years (1977) later Pat King’s Family was published as one of those 400 New Readers Press titles – and its first fiction. It was reprinted in 1982.
Dr. Bob’s commitment to producing materials for adults who are challenged by words and sentences was life-changing for many. His legacy will live on through the thousands of literacy organizations, tutors, trainers, volunteers, and students who continue to work toward his dream (and his father’s) where everyone can read and write.