Is there a link between reversals and dyslexia?


While we want to be alert for the early indicators of dyslexia, there continues to be some misunderstandings surrounding reversals and dyslexia. One of the most frequent questions I receive from parents and educators alike is, "Is there a link between reversals and dyslexia?" 

While many people identify reversals as a dyslexic trait, this is not a characteristic associated with dyslexia. There is no evidence that dyslexic minds see or read letters or words backward. In addition, dyslexia is not caused by a problem with vision but is linked to a phonological processing deficit. See the International Dyslexia Association definition on dyslexia below ⬇️. 

Reversals and Handwriting Development

Many children reverse letters as they begin to learn to read and write. As students learn letters and handwriting skills, we may see letter reversals until age 7 to 8. This is a normal age range for children to still have some reversals in their handwriting. Backward writing and reversals are common at the early stages of writing development for both dyslexic and non-dyslexic learners. It takes our brains time to integrate all of the skills needed to form letters correctly and automatically. 

When we write or copy a line or shape, we need to have effective visual perceptual skills, a part of visual motor integration, which involves the effective communication between what you see and what your hands do. Children who struggle to integrate their motor and visual systems may struggle with handwriting and copying lines and shapes, such as pre-writing strokes. Pre-writing strokes tend to develop on a continuum and follow a predictable development pattern.

This chart shows typical developmental stages based on age. While children typically develop these pre-writing strokes by the age of 5, those with dysgraphia or motor delays may benefit from practicing these strokes before moving to letter formations or as a warm-up for handwriting practice. 

Grab this FREEBIE poster ⬆️ in the Library. If you're not part of The Dyslexia Classroom community, join HERE for access to helpful resources all found in the Library. 

When I have a student struggling with letter formation, I take them back through these pre-writing strokes using a sand tray, chalk, and other multi-sensory opportunities to develop their fine motor control and visual motor integration. You can grab the full resource HERE.

Why do some children struggle with reversals?

First, we need to understand that our brains were designed for speech, vision, and thinking. They were not built for reading, rather, we have fit reading into our brains. See this blog for more information about the brain.

What does this have to do with reversals? 

When we see a pair of scissors, it remains scissors no matter the positioning. Orientation has no impact. However, with letters, a specific symbol orientation represents a sound or sounds within our language. 

When students are introduced to the written symbols in our language system, the letters, they have to unlearn this mirror imaging ability built into our brains. When young readers misread "saw" for "was" and "b" for "d", they are still in the process of unlearning this. 

Handwriting should be an important part of the early literacy curriculum. Children should have ample opportunities to practice letter strokes in multi-sensory ways to build automaticity.  

"Of all the knowledge and skills that are required to write, handwriting is the one that places the earliest constraints on writing development. If children cannot form letters - or cannot form them with reasonable legibility and speed - they cannot translate the language in their minds into written text. Struggling with handwriting can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which students avoid writing, come to think of themselves as not being able to write, and fall further and further behind their peers." (Graham, S., 2009-2010, p. 20)

 If reversals continue beyond the mid-second grade, we need to provide interventions explicitly targeting letter reversals. But we don't need to wait to give some preventative strategies!

What can we do with our instruction to assist students?

Some things that we can do to help students gain automaticity in handwriting: 

  • Help students identify and notice the differences in letters and their form/shape. This letter perception involves the visual analysis of letters. This form consistency knowledge helps students discriminate between b/d, was/saw, and other similar forms. 
  • Provide explicit instruction in letter formation.
  • Group letters by approach strokes. For example, in print: c, o, a, d, g, q all begins with the same stroke of the letter c; in cursive you can group by the 4 approach strokes. See this blog for all the details and a freebie!
  • Use explicit letter formation verbal cues. Remember, automaticity is the goal!
  • Link letter sound to the letter formation. 
  • Teach upper- and lower-case letters explicitly.
  • Link speech to print. 
  • Bring the mouth formation image into the letter. 
  • Multi-sensory practice is key!

See this blog for more details about these suggestions!

Watch the video at the beginning of this post to hear a more in-depth explanation. I created this resource ⬆️ to provide my students with targeted practice surrounding the common reversals. 

As parents and educators working with dyslexic learners, we need to:

  • be mindful of the developmental stages for handwriting instruction and reversals.
  • dispel myths about reversals and dyslexia.
  • provide explicit handwriting instruction. 
  • provide ample multi-sensory practice.
  • help students gain automaticity and fluency in letter writing.

Check out these other blog posts about handwriting and reversals:

Using Sand Trays for Multisensory Handwriting Practice
Quick Guide for Cursive Instruction
Assisting Students Who Struggle With Reversals

I hope this post helps you understand a little more about reversals. Do you have a question you would like me to address in a future blog post? Email me and let me know.

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