Letter Reversals: Should I Worry or Not?

Learning lowercase letters can be really confusing for many children, especially the letters b, d, p, and q. When you think about it, it’s not surprising that kids often mix them up. After all, most objects don’t change what they are just because you flip them around or turn them upside down!

Letter reversals experienced by young children are often said to be “totally normal” until after age seven, and their parents are told “don’t worry” unless they continue past grade two. This appears to be accepted as fact, but it does raise questions – if your child were saying “I eated my lunch” would you immediately model the correct grammar, or would you not worry about it until after age seven? If your child were practicing a math “fact,” “2+3 = 8,” would you correct him or not worry and wait until his seventh birthday? Are letter reversals different?

Reversals of b and d are one of the most common problems associated with reading and writing and if this problem persists could have one of two causes:

Cause 1: visual processing

Reversals of b and d might be caused by a visual processing problem, specifically an inability to interpret position in space.

Position in space is the ability to perceive an object’s position in space relative to oneself and the direction in which it is turned, for example up, down, in front, behind, between, left and right. With regards to discriminating between a b and a d the directions left and right are especially important.

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The human body consists of two halves, a left side and a right side. The human brain also has two halves, which are connected by the corpus callosum. It is thus unavoidable that a person will interpret everything in terms of his own sidedness. However, a child who has not learned to interpret correctly in terms of his sidedness yet, who has not learned to distinguish properly between left and right, will inevitably experience problems when he finds himself in a situation where he is expected to interpret sidedness. One such situation, where sidedness plays a particularly important role, is when a person is expected to distinguish between a b and a d. It is clear that the only difference between the two letters is the position of the straight line — it is either left or right.

Memory aids don’t work

It is important to note that people who are confused about left and right cannot use mnemonics or memory aids while reading, as is often advised. Children, for example, are often advised to remember that “left” is the side on which they wear their watch. This never works to improve reading ability. It can be compared to learning a language. One cannot speak a foreign language if one only has a dictionary in that language. One has to learn to speak it. In the same way one has to learn to interpret sidedness. As all the other skills foundational to reading, the ability to distinguish between left and right must be drummed in so securely that the person can apply it during reading and writing without having to think of it at all.

Cause 2: auditory processing

Reversals of b and d might also be caused by an auditory processing problem, specifically an inability to discriminate between the two sounds, ‘buh’ and ‘duh’.

Auditory processing refers to the ability of the brain to interpret and create a clear impression of sounds.

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