Reversing Letters and Numbers when Writing.  When is it Normal?

There is a horrible cold feeling that comes over a parent when they see their child is writing their letters or numbers backwards.  The reason for this is simple: it has always been “out there” that letter reversals mean dyslexia, which is a “scary sounding thing that affects children’s learning.”  It can be comforting to know it is developmentally normal for children to write letters and numbers backwards.  We just don’t want it to persist for too long.  We explore when and if parents should be concerned about their child reversing letters and numbers when writing.  From there, we go on to look at letter reversal interventions and how you can help you child.

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When is it normal for my child to be reversing letters and numbers when writing?

It is normal for pre-schoolers to write some letters and numbers backwards.  That is not to say that they aren't going to go on to experience other difficulties but, for the most part, it is a normal developmental process.  They are busy learning and the foundations for correct orientation of letters and numbers are still developing.

It is also normal for a Grade 1 child to reverse certain letters and numbers.  b-d letter reversals are the most common.  But we don’t want to be seeing loads and loads of letter and number reversals that persist into Grade 2.  The occasional one is just fine, but we are concerned if there are many different ones that appear frequently throughout your child's written work.

Left handers may take longer than their right-handed peers to consolidate their directionality.  Some left-handed children will start in the top right-hand-side of the page and write their name from the top right corner.  In this instance, it can be normal for your child to write letters backwards.  Even though this is normal in a pre-schooler, you are still going to need to assist your child to write their name correctly.

While reversing letters and numbers while writing is something dyslexics battle with, it does not necessarily mean a child will go on to battle with dyslexia if they are reversing.  Dyslexia is a specific reading and writing difficulty.

Why is my child reversing letters and numbers while writing?

Let’s look at some reasons why children reverse letters and numbers while writing, and then go on to look at when it is time to worry.  Being a handwriting site, the focus of this post is on the written reversals of both letter and numbers.

Letter reversals have complex foundations but common causes include directional confusion, spatial perceptual difficulties, and visual concerns.  Today we are going to focus on how directional confusion can cause letter and number reversals.  But before we do this, let's address vision.

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Vision assessment

If your child is experiencing significant reversals, please do consider an evaluation with a developmental optometrist.  They are going to look not only at visual acuity, but at eye movements and how your child is tracking the letters as they read.  If your child has been referred to occupational therapy for letter reversals it would be a tragedy to spend time working on and addressing the foundations and output of letter reversals, only to find out way down the line that the problem was a visual one.  This really does need to be excluded early on.

Directional confusion

Directionality is the ability of the child to work from left-to-right across the page.  In English, our children start on the left-hand-side and progress across to the right before going back to the left-hand-side to start the next line.  Directionality develops from the foundations of midline crossing, hand preference and left-right discrimination, or the ability to distinguish left from right on a body level.

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Well-consolidated directionality means the child works consistently from left-to-right across the page on two levels. The first is the macro level where they are traveling from the left side of the page to the right.

The second is on a micro level.  By this, I mean the direction that their pencil is travelling as they form their letters.  Your child could, while moving across the page on a macro level, still move their pencil  from right to left.  They could start their number 7 from a starting point and travel to the left before slanting down to the right.  This would result in their number 7 being reversed.  And this holds true for the other numbers as well.

Teaching strategies to avoid reversing letters and numbers when writing

Letter reversals can also be rooted in incorrect letter formations.  It may not be that your child has any underlying difficulties or shaky foundations.  It can just be that in the busy classroom, your child missed out on the importance of starting positions which then went on to become a letter of number reversal problem.  Starting positions are critical!

Numbers in a boundary box

Teaching numbers in a boundary box with starting positions can be a useful teaching strategy. If the number is in a boundary box, with the exception of the 0 and 9, your child is going to have to leave the box to write their number backwards. The numbers like 6 and 4 may also have the possibility of being written backwards but less so.

Teaching correct number formation, number reversal interventions

Teach in letter groupings

While letter and number reversals may be normal, we don’t want to go there.  If a child practises their letters in the reversed pattern for a protracted period, the motor maps for letter formation will become hardwired.  Using letter groupings can help your child to learn the right way the first time®!  Rather ensure they can build their handwriting house on firm bilateral, midline, hand preference, left-right discrimination, directionality, visual and spatial foundations.

Teaching cues

We can use cues but that does not deal with the underlying problem.  You can put a green dot on the top left-hand side of your child's desk, and a red one on the top right.  However, it is preferable to work on both the shaky foundations, alongside strategies to address the issues in the classroom setting.

Letter reversal interventions

Once you have developed the foundations for directionality – bilateral integration, midline crossing, hand preference and left-right discrimination; we can work on directionality.  Over the years I have come to see improving directionality as an end product training built on the bilateral foundations.

I have tended not to be a fan of reversal worksheets that display some correctly orientated letters alongside some reversed images and requiring the child to circle the correctly orientated ones.  If your child is reversing their letters and numbers, I really don’t see the point of confusing them further by somehow suggesting that the reversed image exists!  I would only do this for letters like b, d, p and q that actually exist.  Instead, I prefer to work on training the left-to-right progression through activity.

Letter reversal interventions | Directionality training

  1. Copy your download onto an A1 sheet. (594 x 841mm or 23.4 x 33.1in).  The download has been formatted for a large print.
  2. Laminate your sheet so you can re-use it.
  3. Download your cue cards.  These should be printed on an A4 sheet, cut up and laminated.
  4. You will need to download BOTH downloads separately as they formatted for different print sizes.
  5. Let your child choose two or three cue cards to start with.  You can increase the number of cue cards as your child becomes more proficient with the activity.  Stick the selected cue cards above the activity sheet.
  6. Your child is going to progress from left-to-right and circle the cue card images in the order they appear at the top.
  7. Start drawing with a dry erase marker below the top line of images.  When the first cue image is reached, circle the image without limiting the pen, and then start looking for the second image.
  8. When your child reaches the end of the first line, they must lift their pen, “fly back on the imaginary magic carpet” to the beginning of the second line and continue searching for the next image.
  9. When all the images have been circled, choose a new set of cards and repeat the activity with a different colour dry erase marker.
  10. This activity has traditionally been used for scanning but I have found it to work really well for developing directionality.  In addition, because of the size, your child will be required to cross the midline in order to reach across the sheet.

Why does my child still reverse letters and numbers after going to OT?

Sometimes when we have addressed all the foundations our children continue to reverse their letters and numbers.  We can assess the sub-skills and find them all to be intact.  So why do our children continue to reverse letters and numbers after letter reversal interventions?  The reason for this is, as we have mentioned so many times before, when our children practise a letter in the incorrect formation pattern, the motor map in the brain becomes hardwired.  So, even though we have improved the foundations, the output of the written letter is still reversed as the motor map is established in the reversed position.  So, what do we do?

We have two options:

  1. We can practise the letter in the correct pattern over and over again.  We can use a multisensory approach which will help to establish the new motor pattern.  But we need to do a lot of repetition before the previously learned motor pattern fades into the background and the new pattern takes is not sufficient that out children will automatically recruit the new correctly orientated pattern over the old reversed letter form when they are consciously thinking about it, it needs to happen on an automatic level as well.
  2. The second option is to look to a new handwriting style like cursive which allows the child to start over with a new set of motor maps which they can build on their newly established solid perceptual motor foundations.  In addition, the letters are joined so it certainly limits the ability to reverse the letters.  This is a sound strategy for letter reversal interventions.

Numbers are another issue.  We don't have cursive numbers!  We can’t use that strategy, so we need to use the multisensory approach and work on ensuring the new number form is established on the automatic level.

Colleen from the OT Toolbox has a guest post which explores the visual aspect of letter reversals.  Heather from Growning Hands-on Kids has some practical suggestions for addressing letter reversals.

In closing about reversing letters and numbers when writing

It is normal for your preschooler to write letters and numbers backwards.  They can even reverse whole words.  The odd reversal is also normal in Grade 1.  But it is a concern when these are prevalent and persist into Grade 2.  Directional confusion, amongst other things, can be responsible for causing reversals.  We don't want our children to practise their letters and numbers in the reversed pattern as these can become hardwired and are difficult to remediate.  Working on the foundations for directionality, along with directionality itself can assist in establishing solid foundations for correct orientation of letters and numbers and reduce reversing letters and numbers when writing.

©Bunty McDougall
Occupational Therapist

You need to download TWO printables for this activity - the big sheet AND the cue cards, so remember to get them both!

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