Letter Reversals, Should You Be Concerned?

What are letter reversals?  Letter reversals simply means writing letters backward.

Letter Reversals are actually quite common in all children.  They typically resolve by the age of 7.  By third grade reversals may still be present, but only occasionally.   In typical development, it takes time for children to gain a solid picture in their mind of what each letter looks like.  Then they must come up with and carry out the motor plan required to mimic the visual image in their brain.  Believe it or not, there is still more to developing the skill of handwriting, but that is not the focus of this post.  Here I will focus on the topic of reversals.  

Although letter reversals can be typical up to third grade, the earlier you help the child to resolve the problem the better.  School-age children spend a great amount of time writing, up to 50% of their day.  Many bad habits can develop, reversals being one of them.  Try to stop the issue before it becomes habitual.

What causes letter reversals?

Reversals are a result of difficulties in visual processing skills and/or executive functioning skills.  

Visual Processing Difficulties Explained:

Visual Memory

Some children have a hard time remembering what letters look like.  So when they are attempting to write letters from recall or without a model, reversals occur because they simply can not remember what it looks like.  This is particularly confusing for those letters that are a mirror image of each other like b and d or letters that can be flipped like p and q.  These letters are most commonly reversed. Some children have trouble with w and m, n and u.  

Directional Awareness

Knowing left from right, and developing a dominance for the use of one hand over the other plays a large role in the development of handwriting skills.  If a child struggles with this, they may also struggle with the position of letters.  If unable to discriminate between left and right, how can a child discriminate between b and d?  

How can you tell if a child struggles in this area?  You will probably notice the following behaviors:

  • Switching hands when coloring, drawing, or writing
  • Using both hands when coloring, drawing, or writing
  • Putting shoes on the wrong feet
  • Starting in the middle of the paper or in random locations on the paper when writing sentences  
  • Failure to demonstrate left to right progression in reading and writing

Spatial Awareness

Some children have great difficulty figuring out where to start letters and/or how big or small to make letters.

Visual Discrimination

Being able to recognize how images are different is extremely important when learning letters and their sounds.  If subtle differences are hard to discern, it will be quite difficult to learn this skill.  

Visual-Motor Integration

Being able to copy shapes and write letters requires visual-motor integration.  This is the ability to look at a form (shape or letter) and process the visual information in your brain.  Then your brain must come up with a motor plan.  Meaning your brain must tell the muscles in your hand how to move to copy the shape or letter using a writing utensil.

How can you tell if a child struggles in this area?  You will probably notice the following behaviors:

  • Difficulty learning pre-writing strokes, the basic shapes that serve as the foundation for all letters and numbers
  • Unable to draw or write with fluid strokes meaning the child needs to pick up their utensil every time they change the direction of their stroke, like from horizontal to vertical.  This is also referred to as segmental drawing.
  • Unable to change the direction of the stroke without turning the paper.  This is a compensatory behavior where the child will help themselves by turning the paper instead of their hand to execute the stroke.
  • Children who write letters from the bottom up versus top to bottom.  This is another compensatory technique where the child feels more grounded by starting at the bottom of the line.
  • Difficulty crossing the midline or reaching an arm/leg across the body to the opposite side when playing, getting dressed, drawing, or anytime it makes sense to approach a task in this manner to be most efficient.  

Executive Functioning Difficulties Explained: 

What is executive functioning?  This brain function is responsible for many skills.  Here I will focus on the executive functioning skills that play a huge role in the acquisition and execution of handwriting skills.  Executive functioning provides working memory, allows us to pay attention and to self-monitor our actions.  

Working Memory

Working memory is the ability to retain information long enough to accomplish a task.  For example, remembering a telephone number long enough to enter the digits into your phone.  When children are learning to write letters, they must remember the stroke sequence.  This often requires several steps, some letters more complex than others.  Let’s emphasize letter b, the stroke sequence is “start at the top, make a vertical line, climb back up the vertical line, upon reaching the mid-point of the line, form a circle on the right side of the line that closes on the bottom of the line.  Sound complicated?  Of course, those of us who learn this skill readily don’t have to think about it that much, but those who struggle need to think about it too much!

Attention Span 

So I’ve just covered how complicated and complex learning the stroke sequence to letter formations can be.  Imagine if you also struggle with paying attention to the instruction when you are learning how to write.  No doubt, you will compensate by coming up with your own method which may or may not be a legible version of the letter.

Self-Monitoring

Executive functioning allows one to pace oneself.  Early writers or those learning to write, need to think about how to form every letter before writing it.  This is a meticulous effort that requires self-control.  Those who struggle in this area will write without forethought, often resulting in poor formations and reversals.

Other factors may also play a role.  Often times children who are learning to write are also learning letter sounds, phonetics, and other components of language. Sometimes problems learning these concepts may lead to trouble learning to write.  Sometimes problems learning to write may lead to trouble learning language components.  The bottom line, every child is different and may have their own unique struggles.     

Do children who write letters backward have dyslexia?  

Dyslexia is a learning disability that impacts reading.  Letter reversals are not necessarily a sign of dyslexia. Some kids with dyslexia have trouble with it, but many don’t. In fact, most kids who reverse letters before age 7 end up not having dyslexia. Source: www.understood.org

Letter Reversals Explained At A Glance:

Letter Reversals, Should You Be Concerned?
Infographic: Letter Reversals, Should You Be Concerned?

What Can You Do?

Teach children letters following developmental guidelines

An OT’s dream would be for schools/parents to teach letters following developmental guidelines.  Meaning, pre-writing strokes first, then uppercase letters, and finally lowercase letters.  It is also ideal to teach letters that have a similar stroke sequence in groups.  My favorite handwriting program is Handwriting Without Tears.  It was created by an occupational therapist.  Handwriting Without Tears follows the developmental progression of skills and group letters according to stroke sequence.  For example “magic c letters”.  All letters that begin with c are taught as a group.  Those letters are c, a, o, d, g, q.  Some schools use the Handwriting Without Tears program as part of their curriculum.  I strongly believe that it helps to prevent letter reversals and helps to correct letter reversals.  Unfortunately, many schools choose to utilize other handwriting curriculums.

Kindergarten Workbook

First grade workbook

Check out the Handwritng Without Tears Program by clicking the images above.

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Use a multi-sensory approach

  • Use visuals:  color contrast, varying colors for each stroke and visual aids like the one presented on the right can be very helpful. Download the PDF on the right and place it on the child’s desk or on the wall in your classroom.
  • Provide tactile input which will give more feedback to the child when learning the motor sequence to form letters:  use textures like writing on sandpaper, or make letters in sand, shaving cream, pudding, rice, etc.
  • Provide kinesthetic input:  air writing (form letters with pointer finger in the air). Use hands as visual aids.
  • Provide auditory input:  have the child state the stroke sequence while writing the letter.  Make up a song to accompany the stroke sequence to the letter. Sing it to a familiar tune like…Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.

Build Visual Processing Skills:

  • Mazes
  • Games (Connect 4, Trouble, Perfection)
  • Hidden Picture Exercises
  • Word Searches
  • Color By Number

For some children, teaching cursive handwriting may help.  Cursive handwriting naturally lends itself to correct reversals as letters are connected and words are formed as one continuous stroke.  This method may not work with children who struggle with motor planning however as cursive requires more complex stroke sequences with many directional changes.  It requires higher level visual-motor integration skills.

I’ve developed the Fun Strokes Letter Reversal Toolkit to help children combat letter reversals.  The Letter Reversal Toolkit addresses visual processing skills, which is often the culprit behind letter reversals.  It utilizes a multisensory approach to learning correct letter identification and formation.  This fun activity is jam-packed with activities that are designed to build visual memory, visual discrimination, motor planning, stroke sequence, eye tracking, directionality, and left and right discrimination.  The worksheets were intentionally made without a lot of visual distractions. This allows children to focus on the main point, correct letter identification and formation. The activities tap into visual, tactile, kinesthetic, and auditory learning strengths. This 59-page packet is loaded with activities that will help children learn how to discern the difference between these confusing letters and write them correctly. It is available at the Fun Strokes Store on TpT.  Click on this link to preview and purchase:  Fun Strokes TpT Store

Letter Reversal Toolkit available @ Fun Strokes Store Teachers Pay Teachers TpT

Do you have a go-to strategy to combat letter reversals? I’d love to hear about it. Please share in the comments section below.

Published by Linda Craig Dennis

Pediatric Occupational Therapist, Author and Creator of Fun Strokes Pre-writing Program

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