The 6 Reading-Habit Initiator Personalities (Hint: Only 1 Transforms Boys into Readers)

There was a time early in my 20+ year teaching career when I didn’t plan ahead or think about what aliterate preteen/early teen boys needed from me to become self-directed readers. I truly believed that if I provided quality reading instruction and time to read, plus access to and choice in what books they wanted to read and where they wanted to sit, boys would be so happy and appreciative, they’d just hunker down and do it.

Yeah, well not so much. Here’s a peek of what 15 minutes of pleasure reading looked like instead:

Girls—reading a book of their choice, cozy and happy in their self-selected spot.

Boys—roaming around the classroom, scanning the bookshelves for a book to read. This was something I expected they did on their own, ahead of time, but boys always waited until reading time to find a book. Eventually, I’d become frustrated and send them back to their seats (not their self-selected reading spots), with books I selected for them to read. Back at their desks, they reluctantly opened the books, but mostly they stared at the clock, their hands, their shoes, their friends’ shoes, or the ceiling. When I would see them not reading, I’d go into high gear and yap at them about the importance of reading during reading time. They’d just stare at me with blank faces until I finished yapping and reading time was over. Another day of missed reading for my boys.

So many things are wrong with this snapshot, especially since my goal was for both boys and girls to develop the daily reading habit, and with that, to gain all its benefits and become the best versions of themselves. For most girls, providing access, choice and consistent time to read did the trick without much direction or intervention.

For most boys, on the other hand, my approach was the first step, but not enough to transform them into self-directed readers. It missed the mark in fundamental ways that I couldn’t see from where I stood.

Let Me Explain

I didn’t understand what wasn’t working for my boys until they started inviting me to their weekend soccer and basketball games. Week after week, I watched them come to life on the field and court. At every game I attended, those same boys who searched aimlessly for a book during reading time were prepared and ready to play the game as soon as they showed up.

When asked why that was so, they could articulate for me exactly what their coaches expected and why. If someone asked them those same questions during reading time in my class, they’d say, “Huh? What?”

What mesmerized me the most was watching the boys interact with their coaches on and off the field and court. The same boys who stared at me blankly met their coach’s instructions, demands, and feedback with rapt attention, respect, and responsiveness. It was clear they felt their coaches cared and that they were all working together towards a common goal, they all had skin in the game.

I wanted that, too—for reading!

To figure out what was going on behind the scenes, I questioned their coaches on why they thought this might be happening and how I might fix it. What they shared, and what the boys confirmed, messed with my head at first, but then it made all the sense in the world.

In a nutshell, they told me:

“Good coaches know boys need routines, structures, and practice if they want them to succeed. Boys just don’t do well when things are all loosey-goosey. That’s when they fall apart. Boys need to know exactly what is expected of them, down to the smallest detail: show them, correct them, have them practice, give them specific feedback. And then, if they don’t follow through, call them out on it by explaining why you believe in them and expect them to step up. If you don’t, they stop believing that you mean what you say and say what you mean. They stop believing that you care.”

Ouch. No wonder my boys weren’t reading. The environment I created lacked the routine, structure, expectations, and consistency they needed to succeed. There was no time for practice. There was no “skin in the game.” There was no belief that I cared.

I had missed the mark. Instead of initiating the reading habit like a good coach, I realized I behaved more like a cheerleader, referee, and commentator all rolled into one. Not a good combination for boys if the goal was for them to become self-directed readers and the best version of themselves.

Here’s Why

Think of a football game. There are six different roles people play, each with a specific personality, to support the players on the team—coach, cheerleader, referee, commentator, mascot, and spectator—but only one of those roles (the coach) is directly responsible for being the primary source of substantial support/expectations/strategy/and feedback for both the individual players and the team as a whole to ensure success on the field.

The other roles are what I call “superficial support.” They only show up on game day, hoping for a win, and their roles and personalities only interact with the individual players on the field indirectly and peripherally.

Using football game roles and personalities, below I explain the six different ways adults typically initiate and support the reading habit with preteen/early teen boys. I call them the 6 Reading Habit Initiator Personalities. Like it had been with me, adults may even end up with multiple-initiator personality syndrome.

  • The Coach: has “skin in the reading habit game,” plans ahead, strategizes, adjusts and provides routines, structures, expectations, practice and specific feedback that will ensure reading success for boys.
  • The Cheerleader: motivates boys from a distance with enthusiasm for reading and cheering them on, saying things like, “Here are some great books I got you!” or “Look at all these books you can choose from!” hoping they’ll want to read.
  • The Referee: enforces certain reading rules and calls “Foul!” for non-compliance when boys don’t follow the rules (even if they were never explained and/or practiced).
  • The Commentator: comments critically about what’s happening and publicly expresses their opinions about boys and their reading, but doesn’t help them make changes.
  • The Mascot: distracts boys away from reading by allowing them to engage in activities that provide fun and relief from doing something that they don’t enjoy or is uncomfortable.
  • The Spectator: pays a currency (school taxes/money for a tutor/tutoring center) for boys’ reading to happen and expects success without their direct involvement.

It’s easy to see why boys respond best to the Coach personality (just think what they’re capable of achieving on a sports field with a good one) compared to the superficial support roles.

In the snapshot above, I shared how I tried to motivate boys to read as a cheerleader – hoping access, choice and time would do the trick – and a referee/commentator when that didn’t work.

If I Was A Coach

Imagine what that would have looked like if I had taken the time to put routines, structures, and expectations in place for the boys, prior to reading time.

A coach would have:

  • Planned ahead their reading habit strategy,
  • Shared their reading expectations with the boys,
  • Modeled reading and explained its purpose,
  • Provided support finding books prior to reading time,
  • Explicitly showed them what reading time looked like,
  • And then watched as they practiced/read so they could provide specific feedback to help them become better at what they were doing.

Once I learned how to successfully initiate the reading habit like a coach in my classroom, I also figured out how to help parents and show them what to do at home. This shift changed everything and transformed 350+ boys into self-directed readers and the best versions of themselves.

It all starts by realizing that everybody has a reading habit initiator personality but that only one will work so boys read. Next, it’s critical to determine how you currently initiate the reading habit (as a cheerleader, referee, commentator, mascot or spectator) and become aware how it differs from that of Coach.

Below is a scenario to help you out. Take a moment to read the bold sentence and then, as you read through the different responses, think which reading habit initiator personality(ies) resonates the most with you.

A friend asks you if your son would like to be part of a book club with her son.

You say:

Coach: What a great idea! I’ll share the invitation with my son and get back to you with his response. It’s nice to know other people are on the same page about getting their sons to read. The more support we can give to each other and come up with ideas to make reading fun and cool, the more our sons will want to read.

Cheerleader: What a great idea! I’ll try my best to get my son to participate because I think it would be such a good thing for him. He doesn’t really like to do read, so I hope I can get him to join.

Referee: He’ll be there whether he wants to be or not! I’ll take away his favorite shows and make sure he reads for the book club instead.

Commentator: What kinds of books will they be reading? I only want my son to read appropriate books. I tell him all the time that comic books don’t count as reading in my house.

Mascot: Does it have to be a book club? My son hates reading and won’t join anything that has to do with books. How about a video game club instead?

Spectator: Aren’t book clubs the teacher’s responsibility? I don’t understand why it’s our job to do reading things after school.

Whatever resonates with you is what I call your default initiator personality. It’s the one you fall back on because it’s what you know. However, once you’re aware of how your personality shifts when you initiate reading with boys without a plan in place, you’re ready to make the leap to being his substantial support—his reading habit coach.

Here’s to boys reading!

This is a modified excerpt from my book, Boys and Books: What You Need to Know and Do So Your 9- to 14-Year-Old Son Will Read. My upcoming book, Cool Boys Read, breaks down step-by-step how parents can initiate the reading habit with their son as his reading habit coach.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, demandaj.

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