Letter Reversals and What They Mean

A common misconception is that every child that reverses letters when writing has dyslexia. True, it can be an indicator, but it is not the case that every child who reverses letters is dyslexic.

There are several possible reasons for letter reversals in writing:

  • Age: Young children may reverse letters during the early stages of learning purely due to a weak memory or the lack of enough previous experience. Really, b, d, p and q are just the same letter but turned in different directions. This would apply also to word reversals such as was/saw and number confusions 2/s, 9/p. Up until around 7 years old (or after two years of writing teaching/being in school), these reversals are considered to be developmentally appropriate. It may just take a little help and practice of writing letters and words in the right direction. Little memory aids like ‘the bat comes before the ball’ (the upright part of the b comes before the loop) can help, or dot-to-dot letters/words. It is worth noting that research has found that children make more reversal errors on the left-facing letters and numbers, i.e. d, j, 9, than the right-facing ones as fewer letters face this way and children will use the orientation they know to be most common when they are unsure.

  • Visual issues: Some types of vision problems cause difficulties with the visual processing system and can result in letter reversals. Children can have issues with bilateral integration (being aware of both sides of the body and being able to use them separately as well as together); laterality (knowledge of left and right) and directionality (understanding of other people or things’ right, left, up and down). A directionality difficulty can mean that letters and words are confused because they look the same but are different according to their orientation.

  • Dyslexia: Interestingly, studies have found that dyslexic students do not reverse letters early on any more often than non-dyslexic pupils, they just continue to do it for longer; mainly due to delayed literacy development than anything else.

  • ADHD: The impulsivity of ADHD can lead to letter reversals where a child is rushing to write and doesn’t then proofread their work.

  • Dyspraxia: Letter reversals can occur when the children becomes so tired from the physical effort of handwriting that they are not able to hold the other aspects of writing together.

It is important to work out the correct cause of letter reversals as the methods used to help, say, a dyslexic child will be different to those that will help a child with vision problems.

Below are some general ideas for helping young children who are reversing their letters and numbers no matter what the underlying reason:

1) Make posters, collages, sticky notes for the letters/numbers that are causing a problem. Illustrate them with objects or photos of friends and family whose names begin with that letter. Turn tricky letters into a picture giving a clue of its shape, as with the ‘bat before ball’ clue mentioned earlier.

2) Teach cursive letters from the start and give them to the child in groups of similar formation, i.e. learn c, d, o, q and g at the same time.

3) Try to involve the other senses in learning the letter or number – use skywriting (eyes closed, writing the letter in the air), write them in sand or make them out of clay.