By Rachel Sakofs, M.S. CCC-SLP
When parents call me looking for help for their child with reading challenges, they often share that the child continues to display letter reversals (i.e., mirrored writing) into first or even second grade. Many times the child continues to write specific letters, or sometimes even whole words, backwards. While these mistakes can be very concerning for a parent, they are common behaviors that children display when learning to read, and don’t necessarily indicate an underlying diagnosis of dyslexia or a learning disability.
Why do Letter Reversals Happen?
When children view the world, the position of something doesn’t change what it is. Generally speaking, we encounter all kinds of objects, such as trees or desks. Whether we see the item as it is or a mirror image of it, it is still the same item. As children, we all have the ability to interpret the item and its mirror image as the same item–this is a wonderful facet of mental flexibility and allows us to learn generalizations about what we see in the world! However, when it comes to certain letters, such as “b,” the letter magically changes into a different letter when it flips to a “d”, “p” or “q.” This change is also the case for “s” and “z” and the numbers “2” and “5.”
To understand this more deeply, think back to your early childhood. What were the first things you had to encode (i.e., “draw”)--these items probably didn’t include orientation–only shape, and sometimes, color. Like, the balloon you won at the fair.
How do children figure out the orientation of each letter?
With writing letters, there is an added layer of complexity: the process of writing initially requires copying a mental image of a letter. The child has to think about what the letter looks like and then copy that image from their mind until it has been mastered in their motor memory. For this reason, a child needs to learn both the correct orientation of all the letters, as well as master the fact that each orientation is connected to a different label (i.e., “letter name”), a different sound, and is used in different contexts depending on the word they need to encode. Are you still surprised that this process is hard?
When should I be concerned about an underlying reading disorder?
Many children outgrow letter reversals with time and practice. Nevertheless, if a child continues to display letter reversals into the elementary years, and also shows other learning deficits, such as phonological processing challenges or difficulties with their oral language skills, it may signify a deeper learning problem that needs further evaluation and remediation.