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.
In order to read letters like “b” and “d,” children have to selectively unlearn this evolutionary advantage.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- 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).
- The student then covers up the number and writes the number from memory. She can subvocalize the directions as necessary.
- The student then uncovers the target number and determines if her number looks like the target.
- Repeat three times. Cover up the target number, write the number, reveal the covered target number, and compare.
- 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.
If you find this workbook helpful, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
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.