Letter Reversals: Worry or Not a Worry?

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 was 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 was practicing a math “fact,” “2+3 = 8,” would you correct him or not worry and wait until his seventh birthday?  Are letter reversals different?  Let’s consider two points-

First, we know that the ability to quickly recognize letters is of course necessary for Johnny to fluently read, that he must be able to automatically write letters to achieve fluent writing;  and that both reading and writing skills are vital to his academic achievement.  Back to reversals, it is important to also know that students with delayed reading mastery are found to have a higher incidence of reversals, and that letter formation errors have been found to predict academic achievement. 9  Children who reverse letters in reading may read “dog” as “bog,” “dark” as “bark.”  Children who reverse letters in writing may write “good” as “qood.”

Secondly, we can all agree that “bad habits” (of any kind) are hard to break.  Reversals are no different.  Habitually repeating an error causes it to become well-established, and correcting a faulty memory is hard work and takes much time and effort.  Just imagine a faulty memory you struggle with – always confusing someone’s name, the spelling of a word, a math fact, or a street name.  Once you “learn” it wrong, it can be terribly difficult to erase and correct the faulty memory – you may always question yourself about a certain person’s name, thinking “I know I always confuse that!”  Some students who have reversals have the additional challenge of a weak memory – a fact that further complicates and delays correction.  Do you want your child to struggle with reversals of  b/d, p/q, and many other letters? (73% of upper case and 58% of lower case letters can be reversed)  Do you want your child to have the ongoing experience of this preventable and resolvable difficulty that may indeed hinder his academic success?

Consider students who do not reverse letters.  They show automatic, confident, immediate memory of letters, name letters quickly and easily, and their “practice” writing and reading letters is reliably accurate.  They write the full alphabet with ease and speed in the time expected of their grade level, and after learning all their letters, they can very easily write words – with their attention now directed to properly sequencing the letters to spell the word.  Soon they can skillfully learn to write sentences, with the focus of their attention where it should be – on developing their grammatically correct sentence, beginning with a capital letter, “sounding out” or spelling words, spacing between words, and using ending punctuation.  These children soon build the skill and confidence needed for later challenges in higher level writing involving sequencing events to tell a story, comparing and contrasting, writing descriptive essays or persuasive opinion and argument on a topic, or writing effective business letters.  Is this what you want for your child?

On the other hand, students who have reversals generally show slow, hesitant, confused or poor memory of letter forms and naming of letters, are slower to establish memory of new forms, and need additional practice.  They make more errors in practice, and are dependent upon models for a longer time.  When writing they are hesitant and inconsistent, they make many errors, erasures and strike-overs, and they often understandably become quite discouraged.  This is true of both normally developing students who have reversals as well as students with learning disabilities, though there may be a difference regarding the degree of the problem in the two groups.  When Johnny is asked to write the full alphabet, he is slow and takes more time than expected of his age.  When expected to write words and sentences, his attention is quite divided – not only does he have to attend to developing his sentence, spelling, spacing, capitalization, and punctuation, but he is still struggling with “simple” letter formation!  Despite his delay, instruction moves forward, and his repeated errors in his daily classwork further establishes the confused or incorrect letters in his memory.  The lack of easy, automatic letter formation makes composition work more difficult for Johnny than for the student sitting nearby.  Is this what you want for your child?

The author is not suggesting that every child who ever reverses a letter will do so persistently – some will do this on a rare occasion.  (Handwriting is complex, difficult, and hard work for students – though most adults have certainly forgotten this.)  However, when you first begin to see your child reversing letters, neither you nor any expert could say if your child is one who will rarely do so, or if he is one of those destined to struggle with reversals for a long time.  When a child begins to show reversals, should you ignore it, or immediately, gently and supportively offer correction?  Why allow a confused or incorrect memory to be established in the first place?  Just ask a child who experiences reversals – he will tell you he no longer wants to be confused!

Some have suggested that you should not worry about or correct students’ reversals in Kindergarten because the more that children write, the easier it becomes and their reversals will all disappear by the end of Grade 2.  These statements beg the question -  Really,  how will that happen?  Having worked for many years with children experiencing these difficulties, I can tell you that those proposing the notion that reversals “magically” disappear are sadly misinformed.  A Kindergarten teacher who told Johnny’s mother “Don’t worry, he’ll outgrow it” is likely completely unaware of how the reversal difficulty impacted Johnny in grades 1-3 and beyond.
Some also suggest that when students begin to write cursive that reversals will “disappear,” another erroneous statement.  Students who experience print reversals are very often similarly challenged in cursive, as shown in the following writing completed by a young child who reversed b/d in print.  He continues to repeat this error in cursive.
Looping confusion is a common cursive error exhibited by students who reversed in their manuscript writing. 

For over 30 years, the author has watched students with reversal problems write laboriously slow, constantly erasing or striking over as they attempt to write, pausing to think or ask “Is this a b?” and failing to learn the joy of writing with ease and fluency until after much work is done to resolve the reversal errors.  The fact that reversals interfere with students’ early ability to write and that greater writing expectations are now required in earlier grades makes it crucial to resolve reversals as quickly as possible, and do so in a logical, direct, and expeditious manner as soon as they are observed.

The author has identified  five factors that when achieved contribute to the development of proper letter formation.  An upcoming article will outline these five factors, how failure to master them can result in the  development of reversals, provide an analysis of commonly recommended methods to deal with reversals,  and outline successful techniques.  The optimum approach, of course, is to work during early handwriting instruction to prevent reversals from developing at all, by using a straightforward approach to ensure the development of these skills.

Handwriting is a necessary tool used in most subjects in school, and your child will need to use it to communicate his knowledge.  Is he prepared to do so with the needed ease, effortlessness and automaticity that will make it an effective tool for written work, or will he struggle to do so?  It is a choice you make.

Copyright 2012 Joan Scanlon-Dise, OTR


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10.  Spear-Swerling, L. (2006).  The importance of teaching handwriting.  Retrieved from:  LD Online.  WETA.

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