What Tigers Can Teach Us About Letter Reversals

What Tigers Can Teach Us About Letter Reversals (BayTreeBlog.com)

I know you’re probably wondering about this tiger thing, but first, a story…

Several months ago, I received this email from the teacher of one of my 4th-grade students:

Emma has been reversing the letters “b” and “d” in her writing. For the most part, I am able to decipher what word she is trying to spell, but it’s often difficult for her peers to read her words. I understand that this is part of her dyslexia, but is there anything I can do to help her in this area?

Emma is a creative writer whose stories brim with voice and vim, but it can get confusing when dad is spelled b-a-d. With her energy and creativity, I can see her working as a successful television writer someday.

In order to help students like Emma avoid letter and number reversals, it’s important to first understand why some students make this common mistake. Let’s dive into the research.

Why Some Students Transpose Letters

Based on overwhelming evidence, we know that dyslexia is primarily a language-based learning disability. However, a small subsection of children with dyslexia also appear to have additional visual impairments (Daheane, 2010). These visual processing deficits may lead to persistent difficulties with reversing letters. Some researchers have argued that a percentage of children with dyslexia may have left occipital-temporal deficits that lead to both phonological and visual processing deficits.

Another explanation why our brains transpose objects has to do with evolution. This is where the tiger comes in. Our brains have evolved to recognize that objects are the same, whether we’re looking at them from the right or left side. This is a good thing.

Think about it — if you’re tramping through the rainforest and spot a tiger crossing the jungle path ahead of you, it’s important that you recognize that it’s a tiger, whether it’s a right-facing tiger or left-facing tiger.

tigers

In order to read letters like “b” and “d,” children have to selectively unlearn this evolutionary advantage.

Adhesive notes with pin, clip

Five Things You Can Do to Help Stop Letter and Number Reversals

Now that we understand why letter reversals happen, the next question should be obvious — what do we do about it? Here are a few of the suggestions I made to Emma’s teacher:

  1. Don’t worry too much. Letter reversals are not a big deal for younger kids. Most kids will grow out of making letter reversals by the end of first grade. If your student is older than 1st or 2nd grade and still reversing letters, you can worry a little bit (just kidding), and then follow steps 2 through 5.
  2. Normalize the experience. I like to tell kids how wise their brain is when they reverse letters. I explain that their brain is just doing its job (read: scanning for tigers). These kids are going to know that a tiger is a tiger, regardless of the orientation. Good for you, kid, you won’t get eaten by a tiger. Our brains evolved to help us survive, not to learn how to read.
  3. Use multi-sensory instruction. According to Dehaene, reading requires collaboration between the ventral visual pathway, which recognizes the identity of letters and words, and the dorsal pathway, which codes for their location in space and programs eye movement and attention. Emphasizing motor gestures may help these two pathways coordinate (Dahaene, 2010). Using the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic sensory channels at the same time may help reinforce the weak channel (Berninger, 2000).

    Some well-known examples of multi-sensory instruction include:

    • Montessori sandpaper letters
    • Orton-Gillingham sand writing
    • Lindamood-Bell air writing
    Montessori Sandpaper Letters

    Montessori Sandpaper Letters

    Letter-writing in sand or shaving cream is a fun, tactile way for students to practice drawing challenging letters and numbers. In my office, students practice tracing letters using Montessori letter cards to help minimize the shaving cream disasters.

  4. SandTracing2.400

  5. Teach handwriting I know curricular time is limited, but explicit and frequent handwriting instruction pays off. Kids with fluent, automatic handwriting have more working memory available for other writing tasks like ideation, word choice, spelling, and organization (Berninger, 1999).

    The Handwriting Without Tears program is an affordable and effective solution. It gives kids a consistent, accessible vocabulary to use as they practice writing letters

    For older students, consider teaching cursive. Teaching cursive can eliminate reversals because the continuous strokes help keep the left-right orientation in place. It’s a good way to get a fresh start for students who have spent years reversing letters.

  6. Encode -and- Decode. Help the student write the letter and read the letter. Here’s what I did for a student who kept reversing the number 5. She mastered the number in less than a month.

    Adhesive notes with pin, clip

    Read the number. Create a double-sided card with a huge number five written correctly on one side and reversed on the other side. Show the card to the student and ask her to determine whether she sees a five or a reversed five. Practice 4-5 times for about 30 seconds.

    Here is a video we created teaching a similar game for b/d reversals:

    Write the number. This is a modified activity from Virginia Berninger’s PALS Intervention:

    1. The student looks at the number. She identifies the pencil strokes. (e.g. for the number five: starting corner, short line down, make a curve around, put a line on top).
    2. The student then covers up the number and writes the number from memory. She can subvocalize the directions as necessary.
    3. The student then uncovers the target number and determines if her number looks like the target.
    4. Repeat three times. Cover up the target number, write the number, reveal the covered target number, and compare.
    5. After the student has created several numbers, she can circle her favorite reproduction.

Today, Emma’s number reversals have all but disappeared, but we’re still working on the letters b and d. I’ve created a workbook for students like Emma who struggle with b/d reversals, which you can download below for free. If you have students who struggle with these letters, I hope you enjoy using this resource. Feel free to share with friends and colleagues using the share buttons below.

DOWNLOAD HERE

If you find this workbook helpful, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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Badian, N. A. (2005). Does a visual-orthographic deficit contribute to reading disability?. Annals of Dylexia, 55(1), 28-52.

Berninger, V. W., & Wolf, B. J. (2009). Teaching students with dyslexia and dysgraphia: Lessons from teaching and science. Baltimore, ME: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Dehaene, D. (2010). Reading in the brain: The new science of how we read. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Williams, J. A., & Lynch, S. A. (2010). Dyslexia: What teachers need to know. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 46(2), 66-70.

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  1. Meghan Goldman

    I love your tiger analogy for explaining why letter reversals happen. It’s so simple and eloquent. Could visual processing deficits help explain why some people with dyslexia are slow but accurate readers?

    • Anne-Marie Morey

      Thanks, Meghan! I find that students love the tiger analogy too. Some of the older students I work with feel like reversing their letters is a “babyish” mistake. They walk with a bit of a swagger when they find out the have “jungle skills!”

      Your question is really interesting, and I don’t know the answer. In most of the studies I’ve read about visual processing and dyslexia, the researchers typically measured reading accuracy, not fluency. Personally, I think it follows that if processing of letters or letter clusters isn’t automatic, it’s certainly going to slow down fluency.

      Shaywitz’ data from the fMRI studies have shown that slow and accurate readers rely more on Broca’s area and auxiliary systems on the right side of the brain. In contrast, fast and accurate readers rely heavily on the occipito-temporal (word-form) area. In order for this region of the brain to work effectively, it has to have an accurate representation of the spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of the word. If you’re missing the visual, phonological, or semantic component of the word, the brain will use slower, more analytic neural pathways. Excitingly, some of her studies have shown that early and effective intervention can increase neural activation in the left side of the brain and specifically the word-form area. Here’s more on the Shawywitz’ research

  2. Taryn Clarke

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge of number and letter reversals. I have been trying to find helpful strategies for quite some time.

  3. Shayla Hulgan

    I love the tiger story!

    With b and d reversals, I find that letter formation is key. Many kids start both letters by drawing the vertical line. Then it’s a 50/50 shot to figure out which way to do the circle.

    I have studets practice writing and tracing while also doing a verbalization to differentiate the formation.

    For b: “We draw a bat and then a ball”
    For d: “We draw a doughnut and then a door”

    I draw pictures of a bat/ball and doughnut/door to pair for the more visual learner. Once they get the starting points of each letter down, they’re chances of choosing the correct letter are much higher. Plus, they have a verbalization to cue them rather than feeling self-conscious about holding up their hands to check.

    • Anne-Marie Morey

      Shayla — I absolutely love how you support your students in sub-vocalizing. I think the alliteration is powerful and so visual too. Plus, who doesn’t love donuts? Starting with letter formation before moving to visual recognition makes a world of sense! It’s great to continue the conversation online. Thank you so much for jumping in to the comments.

  4. Your tiger theory is awesome! Vision therapy changed my life…. I was over 50 when I learned that my dyslexia and clumsiness were related to other visual deficits, lack of 3-d vision, poor visual tracking, blind spots, the types of focus you are training help to rehabilitate the optic nerve, which is more like brain tissue than any other nerve. Vision therapy has changed my life, thanks for starting early
    Keep up the good work!

    • Anne-Marie Morey

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Jeanine. I’m glad you’ve had so much success!

      I’m usually reluctant to recommend vision therapy right off the bat, but I think there’s still a lot we don’t understand about some reading challenges related to visual deficits.

  5. Marie Engelbrect

    Thanks for lovely tools/ steps/ideas to support my learners with reversals

  6. Dani Boyd

    I am a special education teacher and love to use this strategy: have students make a fist with each hand with thumbs pointed up and palms facing them. Their left hand should look like the letter “b” and their right hand should look like the letter “d.” They can remember that b comes before d in the alphabet so their left hand is the “b” and their right is the “d.” I love it because they can use it anytime, since they always have their hands with them. This works better for some than others, just like any strategy, but it works like a charm for some!

    • Anne-Marie Morey

      Dani — thanks so much for sharing this strategy that works with your students. B-and-D hands is such a great tip!

  7. Stephanie

    Hello! I am a school psychology student who is using your detective game and the finding letters worksheet that came in your booklet for a child who is struggling with b and d reversals. I love your website by the way!!! In the project I am working on, I have to cite where the research-based intervention comes from and I was wondering if you got these specific interventions from somewhere? Thanks so much!

    • Anne-Marie Morey

      Hi Stephanie — That’s great that your program focuses on research-based interventions. The only b/d research intervention I’ve been able to find are these.

      Berninger, V. W., Rutberg, J. E., Abbott, R. D., Garcia, N., Anderson-Youngstrom, M., Brooks, A., & Fulton, C. (2006). Tier 1 and Tier 2 Early Intervention for Handwriting and Composing. Journal Of School Psychology, 44(1), 3-30.

      Brooks, A. D. (2003). Neuropsychological processes related to persisting reversal errors in dyslexia and dysgraphia. Dissertation Abstracts International, 63(11-A), p. 3850.

  8. Julie Richardson

    Thanks for the info and the package! I’m a spec ed teacher for grade 7 and 8 students and have one boy who still reverses his b’s and d’s. I’m going to start this with him this afternoon! I just started following you yesterday and have already read and learned so much!!!! I also loved the tiger analogy – what a great way to strengthen a child’s confidence!!

    • Anne-Marie Morey

      Julie — thank you so much for commenting! I hope you find these tools helpful with your student.

  9. Anne-Marie, I was so glad to stumble upon a pin that lead me here. I am a resource specialist and my work with kids is similar to yours as is my passion to help kids. I just wanted to chime in to other readers, the information Anne-Marie has shared is accurate! Many pander to the quick fix and lump very different struggles of children into one lump. Dyslexia in particular is a word that encompasses many specific difficulties and not all strategies work for all student who struggle to read. Thanks for the wonderful article. The children who find you are very lucky. Kimberly

    • Anne-Marie Morey

      Kimberly, thank you so much for taking the time to comment. We should make a bumper sticker, “Not all strategies work for all students who struggle to read!”

  10. Julie

    Thank you for sharing your resources and knowledge. I am going to try it in my targeted group lesson.

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