Directional Confusion May Be a Sign of Dyslexia

directional-confusionMost children look forward to learning to read and, in fact, do so quickly. For dyslexic children, however, the experience is very different: For them, reading, which seems to come effortlessly for everyone else, appears to be beyond their grasp. The process whereby they learn to transform what are essentially abstract squiggles on a page into meaningful letters, then sounds, then words, and then entire sentences and paragraphs, seems to be an impossible task.

They grow frustrated and disappointed. Teachers wonder what they or the child might be doing wrong, often misdiagnosing the problem or getting bad advice. Parents question themselves, feeling alternately guilty and angry.

According to author Sally Shaywitz, dyslexia affects one out of every five children ― ten million in America alone. In every neighbourhood and in every classroom worldwide there are children struggling to read. For many affected children dyslexia has extinguished the joys of childhood.

Directional confusion – a common symptom

Directional confusion is a common symptom of dyslexia, and may take a number of forms, from being uncertain of which is left and right to being unable to read a map accurately, says Dr. Beve Hornsby in her book Overcoming Dyslexia. Directional confusion affects other concepts such as up and down, top and bottom, compass directions, keeping one’s place when playing games, being able to copy the gym teacher’s movements when he is facing you, and so on.

As many as eight out of ten severely dyslexic children have directional confusion. The percentage is lower for those with a mild condition, says Hornsby.

Directional confusion comes in the following forms:

  • Left–right confusion:
    •  A child should know his left and right by the age of five, and be able to distinguish someone else’s by the age of seven.
    • Dyslexics often have to use whatever tricks their mother or teacher taught them to tell left from right, even into adulthood.
    • A common saying in households with dyslexic people is, “It’s on the left. The other left.”
    • That’s why they reverse b and d. One points to the left and one points to the right.
    • They may read or write words like no for on, rat for tar, won for now, saw for was.
    • They may mirror write letters and perhaps numbers, ‘’ for ‘y’, ‘ε’ for ‘3’.
    • They may mirror write words, like ‘’ for Susan.
    • They will often start maths problems on the wrong side, or want to carry a number the wrong way, or read or write 17 for 71.
      .
  • Up–down confusion:
    • Some children with dyslexia are also up-down confused. They confuse b–p or d–q, n–u, m–w, t–f.
      .
  • Confusion about directionality words:
    • First–last, before–after, next–previous, over–under
    • Yesterday–tomorrow (directionality in time)
      .
  • North, south, east, west confusion:
    • Adults with dyslexia get lost a lot when driving around, even in cities where they’ve lived for many years
    • Often have difficulty reading or understanding maps.
      .

Directional confusion also explains a lot of the difficulties some dyslexics have in learning to tie their shoe-laces. Most children can tie their shoe-laces at the age of five. Over 90 percent of dyslexics are later than average in acquiring this skill, and without intervention around half do not pick this up until the age of ten or later, and even then are not 100 percent successful.

Overcome the problem by addressing the cause

The inability to discriminate between a ‘b’ and a ‘d’ is a usually caused by a visual perceptual problem, specifically a problem with processing position in space.

Before one can read or learn anything, one has to become aware of it through one of the senses. Usually one has to hear or see it. In other words, perception must take place. Subsequently one has to interpret whatever one has seen or heard. In essence then, perception means interpretation. Of course, lack of experience may cause a person to misinterpret what he has seen or heard. In other words, perception represents our apprehension of a present situation in terms of our past experiences, or, as stated by the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): “We see things not as they are but as we are.”

The following situation will illustrate how perception correlates with previous experience:

cars-parked-on-street

Suppose a person parked his car and walked away from it while continuing to look back at it. As he went further and further away from his car, it would appear to him as if his car was gradually getting smaller and smaller. In such a situation none of us, however, would gasp in horror and cry out, “My car is shrinking!” Although the sensory perception is that the car is shrinking rapidly, we do not interpret that the car is changing size. Through past experiences we have learned that objects do not grow or shrink as we walk toward or away from them. We have learned that their actual size remains constant, despite the illusion. Even when one is five blocks away from one’s car and it seems no larger than one’s fingernail, one would interpret it as that it is still one’s car and that it hasn’t actually changed size. This learned perception is known as size constancy.

Pygmies, however, who used to live deep in the rain forests of tropical Africa, were not often exposed to wide vistas and distant horizons, and therefore did not have sufficient opportunities to learn size constancy. Colin Macmillan Turnbull, an anthropologist and author of The Forest People, wrote about one pygmy who, when removed from his usual environment, was convinced he was seeing a swarm of insects when he was actually looking at a herd of buffalo at a great distance. When driven toward the animals he was frightened to see the insects “grow” into buffalo and was sure witchcraft had been responsible.

To summarise, in order to be able to interpret size constancy, one must have had enough exposure to wide vistas and distant horizons. In the same way, in order to be able to interpret position in space, one must have had enough exposure to relevant experiences.


Edublox programmes are effective in overcoming reading and other learning difficulties by addressing the underlying shortcomings that interfere with academic performance. Underlying shortcomings may include position in space.
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