When learning to read, children may mistake certain letters for other similar ones, especially those that can be reversed or appear the same when seen in a mirror. The child may read “dog” as “bog” or look at the written word “was” and read it as “saw”. These sorts of errors are called “reversals” or “mirror writing.”
Learning lowercase letters can be really confusing for many children, especially the letters b, d, p, and q. When you think about it, it’s not surprising that kids often mix them up. After all, most objects don’t change what they are just because you flip them around or turn them upside down!
Letter reversals and mirror writing 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 2. This appears to be accepted as fact, but it does raise questions – if your child were 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 were practising a maths fact, “2+3 = 8,” would you correct him or not worry and wait until his seventh birthday? Are letter reversals different?
A common symptom but not the only one
While children with dyslexia may continue to reverse letters or words, either when reading or writing, this is not the only symptom of dyslexia. There are many other symptoms:
• Puts letters in the wrong order, reading felt as left, act as cat, reserve as reverse, expect as except.
• Misreads little words, such as a for and, the for a, from for for, then for there, were for with.
• Loses orientation on a line or page while reading, missing lines or reading previously-read lines again.
• Reads aloud hesitantly, word by word, monotonously.
• Tries to sound the letters of the word, but is then unable to say the correct word. For example, sounds the letters ‘c-a-t’ but then says cold.
• Mispronounces words, or puts stress on the wrong syllables.
• Foreshortens words, for example ‘portion’ for proportion.
• Omits prefixes, omits suffixes or adds suffixes.
• Reads with poor comprehension.
• Remembers little of what was read.
• Cannot match the appropriate letter when given the sound.
• Often ignores punctuation, omitting full stops or commas.
Causes of letter reversals and mirror writing
Reversals and mirror writing are usually the result of a visual perceptual deficit. Before one can learn anything, perception must take place, i.e. one has to become aware through one of the senses. Usually one must hear or see it; subsequently one has to interpret whatever one has seen or heard. Therefore, in essence, 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 in Critique of Pure Reason (1781): “We see things not as they are but as we are.”
The following situation illustrates how perception correlates with previous experience:
Suppose a person parks his car and walks away from it while continuing to look back at it. As he moves further and further away from his car, it will appear to him as if his car is gradually becoming smaller and smaller. However, in such a situation, none of us would gasp in horror and cry out, “My car is shrinking!”
Although the sensory image of 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’s interpretation would be 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 summarize, 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 — the learned perception that makes it possible to distinguish a b from a d — one must have had enough exposure to relevant experiences. Relevant experiences include the ability to distinguish left and right and the ability to cross the midline.
The human body consists of two halves: a left side and a right side. The human brain also has two halves, which are connected by the corpus callosum. Mindful of the wise words of Immanuel Kant that man does not see things as they are but as he is, it is inevitable that a person will interpret everything in terms of his own sidedness. A child or an adult, who has not yet learned to correctly interpret in terms of his sidedness, who has not learned to distinguish properly between left and right, will inevitably experience problems when he finds himself in a situation where he is expected to interpret sidedness.
One such situation in which sidedness plays a particularly important role, is when a person is expected to distinguish between a b and a d. It is clear that the only difference between the two letters is the position of the straight line. It is either left or right.
Reversals of b and d are occasionally caused by an auditory perceptual deficit, specifically an inability to discriminate between the two sounds, ‘buh’ and ‘duh’.
Auditory perception refers to the ability of the brain to interpret and create a clear impression of sounds.
Memory aids don’t work
It is important to note that people who are confused about left and right cannot use mnemonics or memory aids while reading, as is often advised. Children, for example, are often advised to remember that “left” is the side on which they wear their watch.
Another commonly used ‘trick’ to remember the direction of b and d is to show the child the word “bed” on a card.
Then ask him to hold his hands in front of the card, and, forming his first finger and thumb into a ring and pointing the other three fingers straight up, to mimic the shapes of the letters. Help him to sound out the word “bed” while noticing that b and his left hand starts the word, whilst d and his right hand finishes it.
This never works to improve reading ability. It can be compared to learning a language. One cannot speak a foreign language if one only has a dictionary in that language. One has to learn to speak it. In the same way one has to learn to interpret sidedness. As all the other skills foundational to reading, the ability to distinguish between left and right must be drummed in so securely that the person can apply it during reading and writing without having to think of it at all.
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Dworetzky, J.P. (1981). Introduction to child development. St. Paul: West Publishing Company.
Hornsby, B. (1984). Overcoming dyslexia. Johannesburg: Juta and Company Ltd.
Turnbull, C.M. (1961). Some observations regarding the experiences and behavior of the Bambuti Pygmies. American Journal of Psychology, 74.