Motivators Depend on Personality Type

Are you motivated by money? Fame? Shame? What motivates you depends on your personality type. Introverts tend to be motivated internally and extroverts tend to be motivated externally. By “tend to be,” I mean we’re not widgets, and it’s not just black or white. Many variables affect motivation, so what I am saying here does not apply to every single human being.

Are you an Introverted Ivy or an Extroverted Evy?

I am very introverted. I am not motivated by other people’s impressions of me. I am motivated by my own goals and what I think is right, just, or what I’m “supposed” to do. I go to work every day and do my job well, because that’s what I get paid to do. No one is harder on me than I am on myself if I’m not doing a good job. I’m not motivated by a boss who constantly tells me I’m wonderful or gives me awards. I’m not motivated by coworkers patting me on the back or nominating me for awards. I am, however, quite motivated by continued employment, annual pay raises, bonuses, and paid vacations!

How are we motivated differently?

Programmers and writers (I am a technical writer at a software company) tend to be introverted. We work better alone, without external distractions and noise, so that we can focus on our work. Coding and writing take uninterrupted focus. Interruptions mean starting over from the top or sloppy work. Stopping work for an hour or so to attend a meeting is an unwelcome interruption—unless the meeting is directly related to what we’re working on.

Sales and Marketing professional are typically extroverts. They need to talk to customers/potential customers, communicate with other people about trade shows, communicate with coworkers about what they are doing, and so on. Attending meetings IS the work; skipping a meeting to write a report is an unwelcome interruption. Extroverts are motivated by external forces: awards, bonuses, commissions, and the constant praise and admiration of their bosses and coworkers. “She’s so quiet!” is considered an insult to an extrovert, but admirable to an introvert.

Can introverts work on a team?

Managing a team of introverts and extroverts together requires more effort and thought than a team of only extroverts or only introverts. You can’t just say “Here, do this” if only half the team (or less) is motivated by the project’s success. Getting everyone to cooperate as a team requires that you know what motivates each person on the team so that you can offer them the proper reward(s) for successful completion of the task.

  • If the project requires each individual’s solitary contribution, the introverts on the team will be successful.
  • If the project requires that one individual lead the project, or requires a public spectacle of some kind, the extroverts will shine.

If there are multiple extroverted people on the team, they will compete to lead the group. The introverts on the team will follow whomever assumes that position. Assigning someone to be the lead can be a recipe for disaster if you don’t chose the most extroverted member of the team. (Even in a team of 100% introverts, you can be sure there is one who is the least introverted of all.)

With extroverts especially, you need to provide clear instructions as to the goal of the project and ensure that they understand. Without clear instructions, your extroverted team members will take that as a challenge to see how far “over the top” they can go and may misunderstand the goal of the project entirely.

What does it all mean, Basil?*

Most personalities fall somewhere between extrovert and introvert. Extreme introverts and extreme extroverts are not comfortable in the other’s realm, but usually as adults we learn to function (still uncomfortably) in the opposite world. Whether you are a manager trying to get your team to work together more effectively, or one of the employees on that team, pay attention to and use what motivates THEM, not what motivates you.

  • If you’re an extroverted manager, understand that your introverted employees might find your “fun team-building contest” a waste of time that could be used actually working.
  • If you’re an introverted manager, understand that your extroverted employees would probably enjoy a Friday evening, after-work  happy hour, but your introverted employees might consider it “working overtime.”

* From the movie “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.”

Which is “better,” extroverted or introverted?

Neither personality type is “better” than the other; we’re just different, with different needs and different motivators. Before you criticize the employee, coworker, spouse, sibling, child, friend, or neighbor who thinks, talks, or behaves differently than you do, consider why it bothers you so much. Forcing opposites to work together without the proper motivation does not bring good results. If you need your team’s or a person’s cooperation, think about what you can do to motivate them to want to cooperate. You might think of it as manipulation, which it is, but it is manipulation with positive results for everyone. If you can change your behavior or thoughts, the other person is more likely to cooperate with you. After all, the only person you can truly change is yourself.

This web page provides, in a table format, a partly humorous, partly serious look at the differences between extroverts and introverts. Here are some examples:

WORD Extrovert’s Definition Introvert’s Definition
Extrovert, n. A nice, normal, sociable person. Never surprises you with anything weird. A boisterous person who may be very nice, but who is somewhat exhausting to spend time with. Usually not too deep, but fun.
Good manners, n. Making sure people aren’t left all by themselves. Filling in any silences in a conversation. Not bothering people, unless it’s necessary, or they approach you. (Sometimes you can bother people you know well, but make sure they aren’t busy first.)
Internet, n. Another medium for advertising. A place where geeks with no life hang out. A way to meet other introverts. You don’t have to go out, and writing allows you to think before just blurting something out.
Introvert, n. One of those who likes to read. Moody loners. One who shows a perfectly natural restraint and caution when meeting new people. One who appreciates solitude.
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Working with Programmers to Create Context-Sensitive Help

My main job, which I consider “real” technical writing, is creating the help that is installed with an application. Context-sensitive help (CSH) provides a better user experience than always opening an intro topic. That is, a user is trying to modify a site and isn’t sure what to type in a particular field, so he clicks Help. A help topic appears that describes exactly how to modify a site. That’s CSH; the topic appears based on the context in which the user clicked Help.

The developer/programmer can add “help hooks” and “help IDs” (code) into the code for the Help button. (He also has to add code to call the help—tell it which file to use for the help, what to display, blah, blah, blah, but I’m not a programmer.) So if the developer is creating a dialog box named New Site and adding a Help button, he might add a help hook named HIDD_NEW_SITE with an ID of 0x204FF*. When the developer is done coding, ready for QA to test the application, or the technical writer nags him that she needs the help hooks, he can export a file from his coding application with a .H, .HH, or .HM extension**. And with that, the developer’s contribution to the Help is complete–unless he made mistakes or forgot to add some help hooks. (Alternatively, the technical writer can define help hooks for each topic, create the .H, .HH, or .HM file, and send it to the developer to add to the code.)

When I’m writing new help topics or editing existing help topics, I install the latest build (in development) of the application on a virtual machine (VM) so I can write more intelligently about what it actually does when I click, right-click, and so on. In some ways, I’m doing “QA” on it and writing up bugs that I find, but I don’t do a formal QA. (We have smarter people than I to do that.) One of the things I do test for, however, is whether the help appears at all and, if so, if the topic is relevant (context-sensitive). I can tweak the CSH files to link a specific help hook to a different topic, if needed.

Often the name used for the help hook is not very intuitive (HIDD_AFTER_INSTALL7) , so I need to ask the developer which ID is assigned to which dialog box. First, I create a spreadsheet that lists the dialog box, the help hook, and the topic that I think should appear for that dialog box. (Remember, that the developer may not have ever seen the interface, just code and COM API interactions.) I then email the spreadsheet to the developer and ask him to fill in the blanks. Seems simple, right?

Sometimes a developer has no clue what I’m talking about, either because he’s never worked with CSH before, he didn’t read the email, or English is not his first language, and so he responds that the error is on my end. If this happens to you, use your “detail oriented” technical writing skills to verify that the following is true:

  • You have the correct help hooks file (.H, .HH, or .HM). On one project, we had 5 different HM files and I had no idea which one I was supposed to use, and neither did anyone else. (The most recent one? Not necessarily.) The fix for that is ask them to export a new one. If you already reference it in the help authoring tool, ask if they can name it the same, to make your life easier.
  • Each hook in the .H, .HH, or .HM file has “#define” and a space in front of it. Sometimes they don’t.
  • Your map file or alias file (the .ALI file) is formatted correctly and ALL of the correct hooks linked to relevant topics. (You don’t have to link every ID in the .H, .HH, or .HM file, just the ones that are assigned to Help buttons.)
  • The ALI and .H, .HH, or .HM file are properly referenced in the HHP file.

If you don’t edit the ALI file directly, but prefer to do it in RoboHelp, make sure RoboHelp still “sees” the hooks. When I copy and paste an updated version of the file into the project (overwriting the existing, same-named file), RoboHelp sometimes forgets it. I don’t know why. Of course, if this a new file, you have to import it–RoboHelp doesn’t know the file exists if you just paste it into the project. You must import it to add it to the project files.

After you’ve fixed your mistakes (or you’re positive you haven’t made any mistakes), generate the CHM again and paste into your VM with the latest build installed. (When you generate the help, you can view the log file to see if there are any errors that you can fix.) Test every Help button, using your spreadsheet as a reminder of which dialog boxes have Help buttons. You should test every button every time, because sometimes you break things unintentionally when you’re fixing other things! If you’ve decided everything is working on your end, ask/email the developer again, ask him to review your worksheet, and point out the exact help hook(s) that you believe are broken. (Developers are busy people and usually get paid a lot more than you do, so make it easy for him to scan the email to see what you’re asking him to do.)

Microsoft HTML Help Workshop (HHW.exe) is a utility to test that you have valid files. It’s an old app that Microsoft no longer updates, but it still does the job. In HHW, specify the CHM you want to test, then click Tools > HTMLHelp API. In the dialog box that appears, select HH_HELP_CONTEXT and then type in a map ID (decimal or hex works).  When you click OK, the topic that you want to appear for that map ID should appear. If the wrong one opens or nothing opens, you need to fix the .ALI file. If a message appears that says something like “HH_HELP_CONTEXT called without a [MAP] section” that means something is broken. (Duh.) You can decompile the CHM (in HTML Help Workshop) and see that there is, indeed, a [MAP] section, yet it doesn’t “see” it. Why not??

If you get that message, ensure that the .ALI and .H, .HH, or .HM are properly referenced in the .HHP file. Computers aren’t very smart—you make one mistake and they get confused! (One time I had to generate WebHelp, before the HHP file would update. I wasn’t about to manually add a bunch of files! I do merged helpsets, so I need a valid HHP for that.)

This is important to understand: if your CHM works in HTML Help Workshop, that does NOT mean that it works in the application! All it means is that the .ALI file and CHM are properly formatted and a topic opens when you provide the hook. Period. For example, you could have two of the help hooks reversed or wrong topics referenced, but the CHM will still “work” in HHW. The only way to be sure your CHM works in the application is to paste it into the installation folder (or wherever the existing CHM is stored), and then try it in the application. Your application will have to be closed to do this; otherwise, you’re trying to overwrite a file that is in use.  In my last experience with “broken” CSH, the developer had forgotten to add hooks to the dialog boxes that didn’t open the correct help. He kept insisting that the CHM worked for him. After three emails asking him to please test it in the application, not in HHW, he finally accepted that it was broken in his code.

Usually the application is coded such that if a user clicks a Help button and there is no help ID assigned to it, the default help topic (e.g., Intro) will appear. So when that happens in my testing, that’s a pretty good clue that either there is no help hook or I didn’t add it to the ALI file. Don’t let the developer intimidate you. You might be doing something wrong, but if all he tells you is that the problem isn’t in his code (rather then telling you specifically what is wrong with yours), ask for more information. He should be able to tell you, “When I click the Help button on the New Site dialog box, this ID is triggered, but the CHM is opening the Intro topic.” You can then verify that the ID is in your ALI file and linked to the topic that you want to open. (If he had looked at your spreadsheet, he would have seen which IDs you were using for each Help button.) Of course, if release is happening soon, opening the Intro topic is better than having no help at all!

*Help hooks in the app are in hexadecimal (0x204FF). Help authoring apps like RoboHelp list them in decimal. If you want to convert the hex number to decimal, open Windows Calculator (click Start, then type calc.exe), click View >Programmer, type the hex number, then click Decimal. The number is converted to decimal.

**In this article, I’m talking about Microsoft HTML Help (CHM). The basic process is similar, but in JavaHelp (JH), the map file is simply called a “map file”–imagine that!–and it’s formatted slightly differently. This is how I learned how to write JH: http://shop.oreilly.com/product/9781565927193.do. I highly recommend buying the book (because knowing how JH works will help you fix it when it doesn’t work!), but this page  gives you the general idea if you just need a refresher: http://oreilly.com/catalog/creatingjavahelp/chapter/ch05.html

“This product is awful” usually means you can’t figure out how to use it

Documentation not only needs to educate your customers and provide on-the-spot troubleshooting assistance, but also can be used as a sales tool and a revenue generator. I’ve never been a fan of putting marketing-speak in technical documentation—that’s not what I mean by “sales tool.” What I’m saying is that providing good documentation allows prospective customers to more accurately ascertain whether your product meets their needs. With up-to-date online documentation, a prospective customer can quickly find the information he needs on his own. If your documentation doesn’t provide enough information, potential customers will find a vendor who does. A thoroughly documented product also gives the impression that the product is easier to use than your competitor’s, whose product documentation was written one Sunday morning by a developer needing to meet a release date. Good documentation before the sale gives the customer faith that the documentation after the sale will be as good. Companies that are consistently the winners in their industry care about educating their customers and prospective customers. Failure to properly document your product creates an opening for your competitor to capture that customer.

When someone says “this product is awful,” what they usually mean is that they can’t figure out how to use it. If they attempt to use poorly written documentation to figure it out, they are even more convinced that the product is bad. Good documentation results in happier, loyal customers and reduced customer support costs; customer support can spend more time providing higher value service and less time “hand holding” capable customers. Sure, good documentation can be expensive; but according to Forrester, the average call center call can cost a business as much as $50 per call. For technical issues, costs per support call can be as much as $150 per call. If customers can use the documentation or an online forum to solve their problems, the average cost is usually less than a dollar. In fact, Forrester’s research indicates that the average is about 10 cents per customer.

Most companies gather statistics on how many support calls are generated in a day. Based on the high volume of calls, they assume that the documentation is not being used. They fail to note how much customer support uses the documentation to help the customer. A large percentage of customers would rather call support, ask a specific question, and be told exactly what to do to fix their problem. This type of customer will never use the documentation unless they have to pay for phone support. Online help that allows the customer to provide feedback can provide statistics regarding not only how many people actually read that particular help topic, but also can tell you whether customers think the information is useful or a waste of their time. (Microsoft Support is a good example of this.) Product managers can use that feedback to improve the product and the documentation.

Some help documentation tools and formats allow for user feedback forms (“Web 2.0”), but having the ability to type comments into a form on a help topic is not enough. You also need a connection to a server that can store the feedback. With the right software, you can also view and print reports of which topics are used most often and what the comments are, which can tell product managers which areas of their application might need improvement to make it easier for users to understand.

Even though the products that I document use in-application help, I also provide online, web-based help. In that help, I could easily create a web form in which anyone who visits the topic could rate the topic and add comments that could improve the topic. Their comments would be visible to other users of the topic and, most importantly, to me. I could use their comments to improve the topic and the product manager could use their comments to improve the product. However, I don’t have the application that I need to manage the comments, store the comments, or report on the comments. Many companies won’t allow you to use a product that has a user feedback system or want to spend time creating their own automated user feedback system. So the best you can hope for is a user forum or a knowledgebase tool that allows user feedback, but that’s a manual system, doesn’t provide for reporting, and doesn’t tell you whether your help documentation is helpful or confusing.

One day, “Web 2.0” help with be the norm. For now, just keep plugging away at your help and hope that the feedback you do receive helps you improve your documentation.

 


How a Technical Writer is Different than a “Normal” Writer

How is a technical writer different from a “regular” writer or an administrative assistant? I’m rarely asked this question, but I know people think it by how they act toward what I do and how they treat non-technical writers and assistants, whom they assume can also do what I do. So I thought an explanation might be necessary. “Technical Writer” is not in the career path of an administrative assistant. They are two completely different careers. (However, I did work briefly as a “Technical Assistant” while in college. I taught a professor how to upload and maintain her online journal. She paid me with her grant money.)

There are numerous resources on the web that explain what a technical writer does. This one will give you a general idea of what I do: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technical_writer. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook also has a detailed description of what technical writers do, but doesn’t really explain the “technical” part of the job title very well. The general description is “technical writers must be able to understand complex information and communicate the information to people with diverse professional backgrounds.” If that was all you read or knew about technical writing, you might think that anyone who can write can be a technical writer. You would be wrong. If you are talking about “secretaries” documenting complex software and hardware equipment, you would be very wrong.

I’ve worked in many different technical industries as both a technical writer and as an electronic technician. Therefore, I take offense when a company hires someone as a technical writer who, while perfectly capable of writing well, has no skill whatsoever that could be considered technical. I’ve worked with many a “technical writer” who was not at all technical—and some who could barely write. Fortunately, most people who actually want to be writers have a desire to learn the rules of writing formal documentation. However, many of them learned to write academic papers, and that is often a very different audience than those who read technical papers.

People who have resorted to reading the “help” available with the software or hardware product that they’re using are already frustrated with the product, have a specific task or question in mind, and want to “get in and get out” of the help and move on. They don’t want to read your flowery prose full of descriptive adjectives and they don’t want to parse your 20-word sentences full of multisyllabic words to figure out what the heck you’re trying to say. (Your professor isn’t reading your essays anymore, so there is no need to impress her.) All the user wants to know is “click here to do that,” and sometimes, “why should I click there?”

When I document a software product, in addition to reading the requirements and the functional description (written by a product manager or engineer), I have to actually use the product the way a user would. That means I have to install it. I also have to install, update, and maintain virtual images—sort of an operating system within an operating system. For example, before I install my company’s software that is being developed, I need to install an “image” of Windows 2008 on my desktop, and it has to be updated, patched, configured, and so on. That way, if the software product I’m installing messes something up, I can reset the image rather than rebuild my whole computer. If I had to ask an engineer to install the software for me every time they released a new build, I wouldn’t have the job for long. If I were documenting how to install a piece of hardware, how to align a circuit board, how to cable up a bunch of cabinets, and so on, it’s much easier to write about it—and more accurate—if I’ve actually done it.

The software that I document at my current job is used to transfer files all around the world, so I also need to know about networking, LANs, WANs, TCP/IP, SFTP, which ports are the defaults, what is “localhost,” etc. I’ve taken classes in Windows administration and network administration, and I have an A+ Certification for both hardware and software. I didn’t “need” that to do my job, but it certainly makes it easier and lowers the learning curve when new features come out. Technical aptitude, if not the specific knowledge, is one of the important traits a technical writer must have.

One thing I love about my job is that I’m always learning new things. As new features are added to the product (e.g., support of IPv6, CAC cards, AS2), I have to read what the product manager has documented, and do my own research so that I can understand it. You *can* try to edit what the subject matter experts (SME) give you by identifying the nouns, verbs, and so on, but unless you really understand the subject, you could make it more confusing to the user. You can always send it back to the SME for review after your edits, but you can save yourself and the SME time if you make an effort to research and understand the subject matter.

When I worked at a bank, my job was to provide procedures to the telephone bankers for how to use their software—software to which the writers were not provided access! So based on the reckoning of my fellow technical writers who used to be telephone bankers (not writers, technical or otherwise) or current telephone bankers, or managers (who may or may not have used the product at some time in the past), I was supposed to write procedures for the telephone bankers to use when on the phone with customers. Does that make sense? The telephone bankers for whom we were writing the procedures were supposed to be my SMEs! It would have been super easy for the IT folks to install a virtual image on our computers or in a networked location, install Siebel and other banker tools on it with dummy data, and let us click and double-click our brains out so we could understand what we were writing about. But that was considered 1) a security risk (even with dummy data) and 2) over our heads. So they considered us too stupid to understand the software that we were supposed to document!

Why would they think that? Not only because they didn’t understand how technical writing works, but also because most of the people they hired as technical writers were neither technical nor writers—they got a job at the bank in high school, had worked there ever since, and got the technical writing job because they had banking experience and seniority. A few of them could write, but none were tested in any way to determine if they could write before they got the job. One of the managers told me that these former bankers had “tribal knowledge” that was important to understanding the procedures. I can teach you proper banking procedures, which are pretty black and white. I can teach you rules of grammar, sentence structure, and how to write a proper procedure. I can’t teach you all of the little nuances of applying those rules that become instinctive after writing in your job for a long time. I can’t teach you how to think critically, how to troubleshoot software issues, and all of the little nuances of technical work that I’ve learned by doing it over and over again in my career.

Some people have a technical mindset and some just don’t, just as some people are good at customer service, which I’m not. Before hiring a technical writer, give them a basic writing/grammar test AND a test of their technical skills. There are many, many writing and grammar tests available online for free. If you already have a technical writer in house, I’m sure she’d love to write a test for you! The technical skills test doesn’t have to be complex. There are many resources online, both free and not so free. I’ve taken tests that are directly related to what I would need to know on the job for which I was applying. Any of your engineers can come up with one—but please let your technical writer edit it!

Different Words have Different Meanings

For most of you, the title of this article does not come as a shock. I could have said, “Words that Look Like They Mean the Same Thing Often Don’t” but that’s probably unclear. In the words of Inigo Montoya, “Let me ‘splain.” Then I’ll “sum up.”

Recently, I was was standing at the bathroom sink in my bedroom (weird, right? My bathroom sink really is in my bedroom) when my husband, Bill, walked in. As he was about to say something, the light in the ceiling fan flickered and I looked up at it.

Bill: Yeah, I know. It’s going bad.
Me: Good, then I’m not having a stroke.
Bill: No, you’re not having a stroke. We need to get a new light for it.
Me: We have lots of fluorescents in the garage.
Bill: No, it needs a round one.
Me: We have lots of round fluorescents in the garage.
Bill: Not like this one.

He takes the cover off and I see that it is CIRCULAR, not round. (Which I should have known, because I installed the darn thing.)

See what I mean about words and meanings? When you describe a ball, do you call it circular or round? Probably round, but circular would not be wrong, just not as descriptive as round. If you really wanted to nail it, you would call a ball spherical, but only if your audience had successfully navigated elementary school (which I assure you, I have).

To sum up: If you needed to differentiate between a round globe-shaped light bulb and a circular, tube-shaped light bulb, which word would you use? Probably circular.

Lay, Lie, and Objects

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

My Aunt Irene taught me that prayer when I was still young enough to think of God as a super hero who always vanquished the bad guy (Satan). Now I use it as a reminder of whether to use lie or lay in a sentence. I’ve been writing for a long time, but I still have to think about whether I should lie, lay, lain, or laid. So here are some tips that help me and perhaps will help you use the correct form in your speaking and writing.

Lie

  • to recline
  • intransitive verb (one that does not take an object)
  • lay (past tense)
  • lain (past participle)
  • lying (present participle)

Lay:

  • to place
  • transitive verb (one that takes an object)
  • laid (past tense)
  • laid (past participle)
  • laying (present participle)

Most people don’t think about participles and tenses, we just say or write what we think “sounds” right. But  most people do (or should) know what it means when a verb “takes an object” or doesn’t. If you take a college-level course in French or Spanish, you can’t pass the course without learning about objects and direct objects.

As it says above, lie does not take an object. I am going to lie down on the table. I is the subject, the noun that is going and the thing that is going to lie. In contrast, lay does take an object. I am going to lay the book down on the table. I is still the subject, the noun that is going, but now the book is the object–the thing being laid.

Now I lay me down to sleep may be what has caused all the confusion: In that case, I is still the subject, and me is the object, the thing being lay down.

Another way you might remember the difference is to think about the meaning of the words lie and laylie is to recline and lay is to place. So in the examples above, you could say I am going to recline (lie down) on the table, and I am going to place (lay) the book on the table. (lie has an i and so does recline; lay has an a and so does place.)

How about lain and laid? One way to remember it is the n in lainno object: I had lain in the bed for hours or I had laid the book on the table.

If you just take a nanosecond to think about what is doing the laying or lying, you’ll be able to choose the right word.

Literacy

“The idea that we have undergraduates who don’t read books distresses me. Of course, I know that they do read. …  They read in print and electronically. They read articles. They read blog posts. They exchange these items on Facebook and elsewhere. But reading a book, even a popular novel, requires some measure of sustained attention, and reading a serious book requires concentration and intellectual effort to comprehend and absorb the material.”  from http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/2012/01/send_me_a_man_who_reads.html

We aren’t born knowing how to read, but we are born knowing how to speak. Babies learn their local language, including grammar, syntax, and even word choice by listening to people around them talk. If you “goo-goo” and “gaa-gaa” to your baby, that’s the language he’ll learn. If you speak to him in proper sentences using “grown up” words, those are the words he’ll learn to use. But that doesn’t mean he’s literate. Literacy requires the ability to read.

It wasn’t until mass-produced books became available that literacy became important. Gutenberg starting printing on his press in 1436, but printing didn’t really go mainstream until the 1800s when iron presses were operated with steam power. At first, illustrations were a large part of the book (because the average person was not literate), and group reading out loud was the norm. You didn’t read a Bible passage and interpret it using your own view of the world; a priest told you what you should believe.

Unfortunately, many people in the US today, still, are only functionally literate. That means they can read just enough to get by. For example, immigrants and children of immigrants in the US are often considered functionally illiterate because of language barriers. They speak their native language at home, and then are expected to speak English in school and at work. My father quit school after the 8th grade so that he could work to help take care of his family. He was a hard worker and a talented artist, but I rarely saw him reading anything, not even the newspaper. Most parents expect the public school system to teach their children to read. I’m shocked when I hear people say, for example, their child is in first grade and still can’t read! Reading to your children early and often, and letting them “catch” you reading, is the best way to teach your child to read.

Give your kids a good reason to learn how to read, and they will. When my oldest son, Alex, was between 2 and 3 years old, my husband worked as a field service rep. He was home about 1 week out of every 4. He liked to play a computer game called “King’s Quest” that required the player to read something on the screen, then type a response or make his avatar do what the text said to do. Alex loved to play that game with his dad, and when his dad was out of town, he wanted me to play. I was working full time, going to school part time, and raising a 2 year old basically on my own, so I often told him he would have to play by himself. (Besides, I had no idea how to play the game.) He would cry and beg me to play, and I would often read to him what the screen said, but then I would tell him, “If you want to play that game when Daddy isn’t here, you’ll have to learn how to read.” And that’s exactly what he did! Before Alex was 4, he could read on his own. One night we were at the airport waiting for his dad and there was a newspaper on the seat next to me. Alex stood facing the seat, leaning on it with his arms folded, reading the paper. A man nearby chuckled and said, “That’s so cute; it looks like he’s actually reading it.” I was so offended that he would think my child couldn’t read! I didn’t realize at the time that reading at such a young age was not the norm.

But why is it not the norm? My youngest son, Jake, didn’t learn to read nearly as early, but certainly was reading by Kindergarten. He had three people helping him, so he never had a reason to learn to read (or walk) as early as Alex did. There is a term in psychology called “Learned Helplessness,” which is a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation. If someone is always doing things for you, you never learn to do it on your own. For example, suppose you ask your son to put away his toys, but he takes longer than you want or doesn’t do it as well as you want, so you do it yourself. Or you see that he’s struggling to read the cereal box before pouring himself a bowl, so you grab the box out of his hand and pour the cereal for him, because you’re in a hurry. Eventually he learns that no matter what he does, it’s not good enough for you, so why should he even try? And that carries over to his school work and, eventually, his adult life—unless he figures out that it’s not his problem, it’s yours. (The problem is that you’re not patient.)

Patience can be very difficult, especially when you’re watching your child struggle to learn something. When I would read to my kids at bedtime, I would point to a word and they would read the word instead of me. At first, it was words like “and” “if” “cat” and so on, eventually working up to the entire sentence, and then the whole story. You have to be patient, though, and let your child struggle with sounding it out and making mistakes, waiting for them to figure it out. (Meanwhile, you want to rush through the story and put him to bed, so you can have “me” time.) Of course, you have to also provide him with the tools to figure things out on his own, but if you always take over, he’ll never figure it out. Give him small achievements, eventually building up to bigger achievements, so that he knows he can do it without your help.

Knowing how to do a thing and wanting to do it don’t always go hand in hand. If your child hates to read, find out why that is. Maybe the problem isn’t that he can’t read, but that he’d rather be outside playing soccer than inside reading. Perhaps if he reads a chapter of a book on soccer skills tonight, he can go outside and practice those skills tomorrow. Maybe there is a movie that he wants to go see. Give him the book of that movie to read. Maybe what he’s reading is way too easy or way too hard for his skill level. Don’t just hand him a book to read. Sit with him and have him read it to you—you’ll see then if it’s too hard or too easy. And ask questions about the book to strengthen his reading comprehension skills.

Whatever the reason, work together to find the solution. Reading is not instinctive, it’s a skill. Like any skill your children learn, it takes time (yours and theirs!) and lots of practice and patience. Don’t just expect the public school system to raise your child for you—you might not like the results!

‎We also have a problem of technical illiteracy in the US, for which technology itself is partially to blame. (More of that “learned helplessness” I mentioned earlier.) But that’s a topic for another article.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” — Alvin Toffler. (Alvin didn’t consider the part of learning that requires you to be able to read.)