Should I worry about a 5th grader reversing b and d?

dyslexia occupational therapists reversals writing instruction Oct 31, 2023

Lit Bits is where I provide brief responses to literacy instruction questions. Teachers submit their questions anonymously, and in response, I create a short video accompanied by a blog post. You can fill out this form and submit any question about any element of literacy, and I might answer it here on the Lit Bits blog and in my video segments on the Elm Tree Education YouTube channel.

Question: For 5th graders who were 1st graders during the pandemic, I'm noticing kids who still reverse b and d, but is it something to worry about?

First, let's start by addressing a myth about reversals. There is still a misconception that individuals who reverse their letters when writing are dyslexic. However, dyslexia is a specific learning disability linked to a phonological component of language. A dyslexia diagnosis involves various assessments, and there is no evidence that dyslexic minds see or read letters or words backward. Reversals are much more likely to be indicative of other factors. Experts suggest that it is related to working memory and visual processing. 

Visit the Occupational Therapist

If you have an older student who is still struggling with letter or number reversals, I strongly recommend contacting the occupational therapist (OT) in your school. A child who is likely around 10 or 11 in 5th grade raises some concerns. OTs possess far greater expertise in this area than I do and can provide valuable guidance.

The teacher acknowledged a disruption in their learning when they should have been acquiring essential emergent literacy skills. If they were experiencing visual processing delays or working memory delays, especially during that time, it could explain why reversals are still occurring. It would be beneficial to have a second opinion on this matter, and occupational therapists are usually more than willing to provide a quick informal observation. They will offer their assessment before suggesting a formal evaluation.

In the meantime, I do have some familiarity with supporting students with reversals, so I will provide some tips on things that I do know about.

Why are students struggling with reversals?

Our brains are inherently wired for speech, vision, and thinking, not for reading. Therefore, when learning to read and write, we adapt these skills to our brains, which were not naturally designed for such purposes.

While a triangle, regardless of its position, will always be a triangle, the significance of positioning becomes apparent when we start exploring numbers and letters. Students must understand that directionality is essential in reading and writing numbers and letters.

Provide visual reminders

Before you can get the OT to observe, consider providing the student with some visual reminders. In my experience during second grade, I found it helpful to use a "bed" model as support to address B and D reversals. I would put my two hands into a thumbs-up position and turn them so the fingers would touch. My left hand would look like a lowercase b, and the right hand would look like a lowercase d. Then I'd ask the student, "Which one's the B? Which one's the D? Which way is it going?" Later on, the child would use that hand model to help themselves figure out if they were writing the letter they intended to write or not. 

I've seen some teachers put a little laminated picture of a bed with the letters b and d drawn over the picture and tape it to a student's desk. Then, the visual is always there without having the child have to put the pencil down to make a hand model.

If the child is doing a lot of reversals, do not overwhelm them with cues. Focus on one set at a time, or if you're going to combo them - make sure they are letters with something similar about them. For example, lowercase B, D, P, and Q work because they are all the same shapes oriented in different directions. 

Multi-sensory "play" and games

In early childhood classrooms, the children are provided with many multi-sensory opportunities. They might draw letters in shaving cream or trace a finger over sandpaper letters. You can still do these activities with older students–as much as they like to act like big kids now, they will love the chance to have some play-based learning.

If you believe the executive functioning skill of working memory could use support, play memory games. You might use the actual Memory card game, or maybe it's one of those games where you add on to what someone has said before you. For example, somebody says something that starts with A, and then the next person has to say that thing that begins with A and then something that starts with B. And then the next person has to tell the A word, the B one, and then add on a C word. Then it keeps going, going, going until it becomes too complex for a student to keep it all in their working memory and can't continue the "chain." 

Final words

As I started this post, above all else, please go to your OT and talk to them. Usually, reversals tend to work themselves out and go away by age seven or eight. So, since we are talking about a 5th grader, it's time for you to get a knowledgeable set of eyes on this student. They will likely have other supports besides visual cues, multi-sensory practice, and playing memory games.

What other thoughts do you have about students publishing their writing? Share them with me through the contact page, or find me on social media and comment on the thread regarding this post!

Have any other questions about writing (or reading)? Submit them for the chance to have them answered by me in a future Lit Bits blog post and video segment. 

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