With improved vigilance in schools regarding learning difficulties, and letter reversals strongly associated with dyslexia, that it’s no wonder parents become worried when their child mixes up their letters. Many parents become quite concerned when looking at their child’s writing and see that their child is confusing letters such as b/d, p/q or m/w.
Letters are symbols for sounds. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet (18 in Irish). They consist of a series of lines, circles and curves that when combined in different ways, make different letters. Each of the letters also has an uppercase and a lowercase version. Sometimes the upper- & lowercase letters are similar and sometimes they are completely different. A child learns that letters have sounds that make words when combined.
Certain lowercase letters – b/d/p/q – have the same lines, circles and curves, but if you switch the direction, they are different letters with different sounds. Up until this point, the child knows that an object is an object no matter if it’s upside down or turned about, but not so with letters. Direction now matters.
Think of a hurley – not matter what way you look at it, it is still a hurley! Now consider it to be a letter. Depending on how you hold it & the direction of the bos, it could be b, d, p or q.
Each letter has a sound, but just to confuse things more, sometimes letters have two sounds. In English, the letter “c” has the /k/ sound as in the word “cat” and a /s/ sound as in the word “circle”. In Irish, the “c” only has one sound – a hard c, same as a “k” in English. Sometimes letters are in a word, but they are silent (like the “t” in “mortgage”). Sometimes two letters are put together to make a whole different sound (“s” and “h” together make the /sh/ sound). Sometimes the same two letters together can have a completely different sound like “gh” in “rough” & “through”. In fairness, if you start to think about it, it’s a wonder that anyone learns to read relatively easily!
As babies, in order to learn, our brain must remain open to recognising objects from different directions & perspectives. It was an evolutionary necessity, but in evolutionary terms, reading & writing are relatively new concepts. Most children close off this opening around the time that they are learning to read. Some take longer than others to do so, & some, especially those with dyslexia, will never completely close it. This is why so many people with dyslexia have excellent spatial awareness.
Current research tells us that the root cause of dyslexia lies in the way the brain processes sounds. With most children, the issue is with language processing at the phoneme (sound) level and not a problem with visual processing. There is little evidence that children with dyslexia see letters and words backwards.
Backwards writing and letter reversals are very common in the early stages of writing. When children reverse letters, it is only a sign that orthographic representation (forming letters and spelling) is not fully developed yet.