Originally published on TodaysParent.com October 07, 2004
When I pointed this out, Matthew seemed unperturbed. “Oh,” he said. “You wanted it written the other way.”
Matthew’s casualness about which way his letters faced is not unusual in young children, explains Catherine Penney, professor of psychology at Memorial University in St. John’s. “When very young children, say at four years old, start to write their names, they’ll write the first letter in one place, and the second letter might be on the bottom of the page, and the third letter might be over to the left. They know the letters, but they don’t necessarily put them in sequence,” she says.
As they get a bit older, they catch on to the concept of keeping the letters together in a line to form a word. That doesn’t mean they get all the letters going the right way. “It’s very common for letters like S and E and the lower case B and D to be written backwards,” Penney points out, adding that while the kind of complete mirror writing Matthew did is less common, she’s certainly seen it with other children.
Printing letters feels like a type of drawing to young children. When they draw a picture of a dog, it doesn’t matter if he’s facing left or right. He’s still a dog. With letters, however, it matters a lot — but it can take some time for this concept to sink in.
Backwards writing or reversing letters worries some parents because they’ve heard it can be a sign of dyslexia and future reading and writing difficulties. Backwards writing is probably not a concern, says Penney, without other warning signs, including:
• Your child is still writing letters backwards after grade one.
• He also has difficulty memorizing sequences, such as her home phone number, her postal code or the alphabet.
• Your child writes letters or numbers in an unusual way: for example, writing an eight as two circles on top of each other rather than in a continuous line. This might be normal for a younger child, but if it continues after age seven or so, you might want to investigate further.
• He often calls objects by the wrong name — for example, when shown a picture of a volcano, he calls it a tornado.
Penney says while some experts estimate that fewer than 10 percent of children have dyslexia, she feels the true number may be as high as 33 percent, although many of these children will have a mild version. “It’s the upper end of the continuum,” she says. “The children will be able to read and have very good comprehension, but have trouble sounding out big technical words. Their reading problems start to show up by grade four or so.”
Can parents help a child who sometimes writes backwards learn to print more conventionally? “It’s a developmental sequence,” Penney explains, “so some will go through it faster and some will take longer.” She suggests that parents can use fun activities to help this learning process — and these will help with reading and writing in general. Some suggestions:
• For children who do mirror writing, as Matthew did, a sticker at the top left corner of the page can help remind them where to start.
• If it is just a particular letter or two that are troublesome, help them with a reminder (like “b” has a big belly).
• Encourage your child to trace words you’ve printed for him, or use inexpensive stencils to give practice in printing the letters correctly. Make it fun by turning it into a craft such as making birthday cards or party invitations.
• Build a pattern with tiles or blocks and have your child duplicate it. Make asymmetrical designs that help her focus on matching the different sides.
In most cases, your child will eventually figure out that words in English are printed from left to right, and it does matter which way the letter E faces. If your child is still finding this a struggle as he gets older, and you see some of the other concerns Penney mentions, it might be time to consider additional help. TP
Canadian Dyslexia Association, dyslexiaassociation.ca
Dyslexia Solutions Canada, dyslexia.ca
International Dyslexia Association British Columbia Branch, idabc.com