Letter Reversals and What It Means in Children

How Teachers Can Help

dyslexia written on chalkboard
(Michael Klippfeld/Getty Images)

Parents and teachers often raise concern when a child reverses letters or words—b's instead of d's, tac instead of cat and so on. The truth of the matter is that most beginner readers/writers will make letter reversals. It's not all that uncommon. 

What the Research Says

Very little research has been done regarding the matter of reversals and it is not uncommon or unusual to see young children of 4, 5, 6, or even 7 years of age making word and/or letter reversals.

 Among the lay public and educators, the impression persists that the key characteristic of dyslexia is visual reversal errors (e.g., was for saw; b for d). Apparently, such errors are not unusual for beginning readers whether or not they have more serious reading difficulties. 

It is important to note that letter and/or word reversals are, for the most part, due to a weak memory or the lack of enough previous experiences. There may be a need for some concern if a child continues with letter reversals or mirror reading/writing into and beyond the 3rd grade. 

Many myths surround letter reversals, such as the ones listed above and lead to parents and teachers wondering whether the child is learning disabled, the child has some type of neurological dysfunction, or the child will become dyslexic. Dyslexics often have many reading/writing errors including reversals, so this condition is difficult to prove in children.

Some Current Research Findings

Early theories suggested poor visual pattern discrimination or recognition, but were not supported by careful research, which suggests that many poor readers are impaired because of phonological deficits—where the areas of the brain associated with processing the sounds of language cannot connect the sounds of language to letters.

However, a 2016 study published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience studied and rejected the claim that reversals of letters and letter sequences are caused by phonological deficits. Instead, the study found that visual movement can detect dyslexia early on and be used in successful treatment to prevent children from not being able to readily learn.

What Can You Do?

Most teachers have discovered that there's no magic cure for children who display reversals in their reading or writing. Some of the best strategies to use include:

  • Help the child develop a habit. For instance, the word dog begins with a d and they have tails. Therefore the 'stick' is his tail and comes after his body.
  • Use some connect-the-dot letters to help the child. There should be pictures to accommodate the dot letters.
  • When working on the dot letter for the letter d, make sure the picture of a dog accompanies the dot letters.
  • If the child has a freckle or mole on one hand or the other, use that freckle to remind him/her that it always points to the stick/circle part of the letter. The good news is that most of the letter reversals will go away once the child starts using cursive writing.

Sources:

Vellutino F. R., Fletcher J. M., Snowling M. J., Scanlon D. M. (2004). Specific reading disability (dyslexia): what have we learned in the past four decades? J. Child Psychol. Psychiatry 45, 2–40. 

Lawton, T. (2016). Improving Dorsal Stream Function in Dyslexics by Training Figure/Ground Motion Discrimination Improves Attention, Reading Fluency, and Working Memory. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience10, 397.

Liberman, I. Y., D. P. Shankweiler, C. Orlando, K. Harris, and F. Bell-Berti (1971). Letter confusions and reversals of sequence in the beginning reader: Implications for Orton's theory of developmental dyslexia. Cortex 7: 127-42.

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Watson, Sue. "Letter Reversals and What It Means in Children." ThoughtCo, Jul. 24, 2017, thoughtco.com/students-letter-reversals-3111350. Watson, Sue. (2017, July 24). Letter Reversals and What It Means in Children. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/students-letter-reversals-3111350 Watson, Sue. "Letter Reversals and What It Means in Children." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/students-letter-reversals-3111350 (accessed May 25, 2018).