In the opening weeks of my first-year writing seminar, I introduce students to reading like writers (here and here), emphasizing that we are not reading to write literary analysis (as many of them have done for Advanced Placement Literature) but reading to explore and acquire moves and approaches for effective writing.

Since the first essay assignment is a personal narrative, I provide them with several essay examples and highlight “Peculiar Benefits” by Roxane Gay as a powerful model of what we are trying to accomplish—engaging the reader with personal narrative in order to ask the reader to consider or reconsider some larger idea or argument.

Today I read aloud, as I typically do, the first three paragraphs of the essay from the original online version of Gay’s essay at The Rumpus (many students read Gay’s Bad Feminist, which includes a slightly revised version). We had a robust discussion, and many students were interested in the essay and excited by the writing strategies we highlighted, centered around purposeful writing instead of templates or rules.

Once we ended that discussion, I noted that the three paragraphs included two places that were copyedited for the published essay in Bad Feminist. I asked if any students noticed those examples of what many English teachers and editors would mark as “non-standard” or “errors.”

No student had noticed so I read aloud the two sentences, prompting them to look closely again:

For my brothers and I it was an adventure, sometimes, a chore, and always a necessary education on privilege and the grace of an American passport….

It was hard for a child who grew up on cul-de-sacs, to begin to grasp the contrast between such inescapable poverty alongside almost repulsive luxury and then, the United States, a mere eight hundred miles away, with it’s gleaming cities rising out of the landscape, and the well-maintained interstates stretching across the country, the running water and the electricity.

“Peculiar Benefits,” Roxane Gay

One student noticed that “for my brothers and I” would be edited to “for my brothers and me”; I discussed with the class the common problem of case switching when there are two people versus one. Most people would always choose “for me” and not “for I,” but will choose “for my brothers and I” based on a weird urge to overcorrect likely grounded in being chastised as children for “Me and him went to the store.”

It took a bit more nudging, but eventually they saw the “it’s” that would be edited to “its.” Here I noted that people have an urge to insert the apostrophe with “its” although it is the same form as “his” (which never has an apostrophe added) and “hers”/”theirs” (which occasionally gets the added apostrophe).

The apostrophe works in both possession and contraction, causing people problems in written text never present in spoken language. People never confuse the constructions of “Bob’s car” and “there are two Bobs in our family” when heard aloud—even without the aid of the apostrophe.

My point here was to help students begin to move away from the paralyzing effect of being perfect (avoiding surface “errors”) and to recognize what people are doing when they read.

I shared with them a recent story about my granddaughter, Skylar, who is six and eagerly reads aloud throughout her day whenever she sees text.

A couple weeks ago, I had picked up my granddaughter and grandson (Brees, who is four). While we were driving to my apartment, stopped at a red light, Skylar asked, “Papa, what is L E O S?”

I turned back toward her and noticed a business sign directly out her window. “It’s ‘Leo’s,'” I said. “A name.”

She immediately announced, “Leo’s TV.”

First, I think it is interesting that she seems to have paid no attention to the apostrophe (and there is ample evidence that almost all modern readers of English find little to no value in the apostrophe; hence, it is likely dying as a marker for possession and contractions).

But with the recent phonics-mania and revived advocacy for the “simple view” of reading, it is also a valuable cautionary tale, this experience with a sign.

Of the six letters Skylar was reading, four of them are just saying the letter; if she had tried to decode those two words in any simple way, she would have mangled them greatly.

And imagine if the owner were “Zoe” or “Joe.”

Both the moment with my granddaughter and my first-year writing students demonstrates the holistic nature of literacy—of reading. And frankly, there is nothing simple about it.

For a six-year-old, there is a maze of fonts as well as the use of capitol or lower case lettering all mixed in with dozens of arcane phonics “rules” and exceptions; but for more advanced readers such as my students, even when they have been prompted to use close reading in their literary analysis, they simply do not see many microlevel, isolated elements of text.

Certainly phonemic awareness and patterns are valuable aspects of creating meaning from text. But Skylar often uses a much better technique; ask what you don’t know and blend it with what you do.

So-called standard spelling, punctuation, and grammar have some value for sharing meaning among users of a language, but my students have become nearly immobile as writers because they try to be perfect even as they are discovering and creating meaning with text.

And I have watched Skylar laboriously try to sound out a word, grinding all meaning to a halt. But when I say the word aloud for her, she recognizes it and flies ahead. She often already knows it by sight the next time we come across it.

In the span between being a beginning reader to an independent and expert reader, there is much any person needs to acquire—and little we can predict that “all students” must do along the way. Let’s not fall for the allure of “simple” and certainly let’s not continue leading our students down a path toward paralysis, where meaning goes to die.

Like “Leo,” another three-letter word needs to be always at the forefront of anyone growing as a reader, “joy.”