Have you noticed kids writing letters backward in your class? Called letter reversal or mirror writing, reversing letters or even words is common for younger kids as they make the move from drawing pictures and objects to writing letters and words. So how do you tell when it’s a sign of dysgraphia? When do students need additional support?
The teachers of Teach Starter sat down to answer primary grade teachers’ most pressing questions about mirror writing. Find out why it happens, how to help students who reverse letters and when mirror writing is a sign that a child may need additional assessment.
What Is Mirror Writing?
The name may sound self-explanatory. Then again, maybe not. The term mirror writing specifically refers to the act of writing letters and words in reverse, something commonly seen in kids from age 3 to about 7. If you were to attempt to read what’s written, the letters are formed from right to left, rather than the left-to-right orientation of the English language.
Why Do Kids Reverse Letters?
So why does mirror writing happen? When kids start learning their letters, they tend to lack meaning Chaya Gottesman, a pediatric occupational therapist and founder of Sensation New York told Teach Starter.
“Letters are just ‘shapes’ with no meaning attached to it until it is learned,” Gottesman explains. “Without visual-motor, memory, or visual processing maturity, it can be a challenge to recognize subtle differences between the shapes.”
Common letter reversals for young children include:
- Writing a lowercase “b” as a “d” or vice versa
- Writing a “p” as a “q” and the reverse
The reason? “All four of these are the exact same shape (a circle/curve with a stick attached to it), the only difference is the positioning or orientation of the stick,” Gottesman explains.
But they’re not the only letters that get mixed up, and it doesn’t stop at letters — words and numbers can be subject to mirror writing too. In a study of French schoolchildren, researchers found that letters and numbers often reversed by kids include “3” or “J” in which the correct form “faces” leftwards. Their conclusion was that kids who are learning to write notice that most characters face to the right and over-apply the rule.
What Are Signs of Mirror Writing?
While getting papers back from your students with reversed “b”s or “q”s where their “p”s should be is a pretty darn obvious sign of mirror writing, there are other more subtle clues to look out for!
Some behaviors that you may notice in students:
- Students who struggle to work out the difference between lowercase b and d may resort to writing capital letters for a B and a D.
- When you observe how they form letters, some students may begin their letter from the bottom for letters such as F or J as they are not sure which way to create the curve.
- In letters that have a circle in them such as a d, students may write a few circles over and over while they try to work out which side the “stick” goes on.
Download a free “writing the alphabet” worksheet for students to practice letter formation!
How Do You Help Students Who Reverse Letters?
So you know your students are reversing their letters. Now what?
Some of it will simply disappear as they read more and write more, says Beth McCarter, a certified teacher in Texas with a special certification in dyslexia.
“[Young children] haven’t been exposed to the alphabet for very long — so it’s easy to confuse symbols that look very similar,” she points out. “It’s not intuitive to read in a certain direction; it’s explicitly taught!
“They may not have stored the letters’ appearances in their long-term memory yet,” she adds.
Noting letters have been transposed and asking a student what they notice about the letter can sometimes be enough to help your students in some cases, McMaster advises. Studying their work, the mistake may well jump out at them. Visual reminders around the classroom can help kids too.
Teach Starter Teacher Tip: Do you display the alphabet in the classroom? Try updating your decor with alphabet posters that display a guide to forming your letters!
Other tips, Gottesman suggests include:
Explicit handwriting instruction starting at age 5.
Teaching directionality from the start is key. Teach the concepts of “forward” and “backward,” but make it simple and fun. For example, the d is drawn starting with a backward moving curve (or “super/magic C”) while b begins with a downward moving straight line.
Teach the letters in groups based on the shapes used to form them, as well as where the strokes begin.
When teaching lowercase letters, the d is taught first along with coag then other formation groups are introduced. The group that includes the lowercase b should come last. By then, the d has already been habituated and will less likely become confused with the b formation.
Use visual memory tricks
Although she says these don’t work for every child, they can be helpful for some.
Some popular methods for kids who mix up b and d especially include:
- Making a “bed” with the two hands by forming circles using the thumbs and pointer fingers, with the remainder of the fingers pointing straight up. The left hand looks like a lowercase “b,” and the right hand looks like a lowercase “d.” Placed together, they form a bed-like structure, and the sounds of the word can help the students keep them straight.
- Tip: Hanging this “bed-like” b and d hand poster in your classroom can help kids keep them straight!
- Teaching kids that “b” has a big belly, and d has a dirty diaper!
Is Reversing Letters a Sign of Dyslexia or Dysgraphia?
Often the concept of reversing letters is immediately associated with a dyslexia diagnosis, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. In fact, dyslexia is a condition that affects how people read letters and words, while dysgraphia is the condition in which kids reverse their letters while writing — they’re quite different.
It’s estimated that as many as 30% of kids will grapple with dysgraphia at some point, but it’s not until second grade after a child has been given a solid foundation in letter formation that writing letters backward should be a warning sign, Gottesman says.
It’s important, however, not to diagnose a child right off the bat, instead making a referral for assessment. Other possible presentations of a development delay to share with the assessment team include:
- Does the child bump into objects or people regularly?
- Are they much slower to respond to demands than their peers?
- Can they put together the craft and art projects in an organized way?
All this information can help determine what’s going on, but again it may simply be part of the student’s typical development.
If you have concerns about younger kids, McCarter suggests saving the student’s work and taking that to your district’s early intervention or committee on special education experts as this will give them a starting point as they evaluate how to help the child.
Aside from a possibility of dysgraphia, McCarter said there may be other issues going on.
“Poor eyesight may be preventing them from seeing things close to them,” she notes. “Trouble tracking what they’re reading may be causing a delay as well. Attention span is another factor; remember it’s hard to concentrate with 20-ish other noisy people in the same room! If the child is hungry, sick, or tired they may not have the capability to write neatly or accurately.”
Getting support for any of these concerns may help your student learn to write their letters, numbers, and words correctly.