The Science of Letter Reversals (and How to Fix Them)

One of the hallmark signs of a student with dyslexia is letter reversals. Some common letter reversals are lowercase b and d, m and w, and p and q. It’s true that this is a common obstacle for students with dyslexia. However, not all students with dyslexia reverse letters and not all students who reverse letters have dyslexia. So what exactly is going on with these letter reversals and how can we fix them? First of all, letter reversals are a normal phase in a neurotypical learner’s writing development. While not all children display letter reversals, it is common and not necessarily a sign that there is a processing issue.

Why Do Kids Reverse Letters at All?

When children first learn about the world around them, objects are not fixed in space. A triangle is always a triangle no matter which way it is facing or its orientation. Children confirm and reconfirm this hypothesis for the first several years of their life. And then suddenly, they begin to learn the very first concept in which directionality matters: letters and numbers.

Some students are able to make sense of this cognitive shift more or less right away. For others, it can take a lot to wrap their brains around it. Of course, they aren’t conscious of their confusion, but it exists nonetheless. This is why many students will mix up letters when reading or writing. They forget that the direction of the letters matter or they have trouble remembering which direction goes with which letter/sound.

Tips for Addressing Letter Reversal

There are a number of strategies for helping students overcome their letter reversal confusion. Some will work for all, some may only work for a few. And if the letter reversal is indeed due to dyslexia, those students will benefit from these strategies as well as whatever supports are in place on their IEP to address their reading and writing needs.

  • Focus on teaching one letter at a time. Help students build mastery of just one of the letters in a reversed pair at a time so that students can better differentiate between the two. When two letters that are commonly confused are taught together, this can exacerbate the confusion.

  • Create visual reminders. A popular visual for b and d consists of a picture of a bed frame with the word “bed” written in the shape of the bed itself. It is a clever visual because it helps students connect the sounds in the word with where the letters go. If they can remember the visual, or reference it easily, they’ll immediately remember what the ‘b’ sound in the beginning of the word looks like. Providing students with visuals like this helps their brains retain the information much longer.

  • Provide as much multisensory learning as possible. Learning is always more meaningful and sticks longer when students experience it using more than one sense. Writing a letter at the same time that one is saying the sound that letter makes can help reinforce that letter/sound relationship. And if there is a visual (like the one above) available for the student to use in her practice, even better.

  • Give students creative auditory cues as they practice correct letter formation. Auditory cues are any verbal directions you give students. Instead of explaining the formation of a letter as the shapes and lines in the letter, turn the letter or parts of the letter into objects. For the letter b, you can instruct students to draw a bat next to a ball, reminding them that the ball comes at the bottom of the bat, and the bat comes first. For students to understand the concept of “first,” they’ll need to remember that reading and writing take place from left to right!

  • Play games identifying and/or writing sounds. Classic games like bingo and memory match are fun and motivational ways to reinforce letters and sounds with your students.

  • Teach them left from right. If your students know their left from their right, it will save you and them a lot of headache, since reading and writing in English always take place from left to right. This will be much easier to communicate if they know what it means. Try to incorporate this into instruction so they know what you mean when you use these terms.

  • Group letters together that begin with similar strokes. The order in which you teach letters can be determined by how the letters are formed. Letters that are formed from top to bottom, like l, i, t, f, and j can be taught in one sequential group. Similarly, letters that are rounded, like c, o, a, g, d, and q all begin with a ‘c’ shape. These should be taught in another group. Teaching letters this way can help students develop a stronger grasp of how the letters are formed by relating them to similar letters.

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