Letter Reversals are common. Every child, at some point, reverses letters. Beginning readers reverse letters often in both reading and spelling, saying “d” for “b” or writing a backwards “p.” Letter reversals are a step in the learning how to read process and, contrary to popular belief, do not indicate dyslexia.
Why do beginning readers reverse letters? The answer is fascinating. (Info in this post comes from neuroscience, particularly neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehaene http://www.unicog.org/biblio/Author/DEHAENE-S.html ).
Since there is no reading area in the brain, we pull from many areas to read. A child’s brain already contains the architecture to read, but the areas are distinct entities used for other purposes. The areas include “real estate” in memory, vision, speech, object recognition and facial recognition. We create a new neuronal network and link these areas when we learn how to read, but we also change these areas, we “recycle” them.
When we recognize letters, we are in fact using the area of our brain originally designed for facial recognition.
LEARNING TO READ CHANGES THE BRAIN
Since humans are incredibly social—we rely on each other, enjoy each other’s company and love friends and family—the facial recognition area is crucial and sophisticated enough so we rarely mistake “Brenda” for “Amy.” We recognize Brenda. Quickly.
The facial recognition area is in our left hemisphere, but when we learn to read we push this ability to recognize human faces over to our right hemisphere. Throughout the learning how to read process the facial recognition area becomes the letterbox area, or the area we use to recognize letters.
FACIAL RECOGNITION AREA BECOMES LETTERBOX AREA
Despite the miracle of brain plasticity, the “real estate” in our brain is somewhat finite. Since a reader uses the original facial recognition area as the letterbox area, facial recognition is kicked out of its home, moves next door, and creates a new home (in the right hemisphere, a home that’s also sophisticated).
The illiterate adult still recognizes human faces with the original facial recognition area, in the left hemisphere. The literate adult recognizes human faces with a new facial recognition area, in the right hemisphere.
WHY DOES MY CHILD REVERSE LETTERS?
We use the original facial recognition area to recognize letters. How does this relate to letter reversals?
Well, “Brenda” is Brenda upside down, turned left, turned right and with a head tilt. No matter her faces orientation—she is still Brenda. We recognize her from all angles.
But, m upside down is w. d backwards is b. c with a tilt is u. All this is confusing to early readers. Their facial recognition area is telling them that orientation doesn’t matter. But in reading, orientation does matter, hugely: b and d are not the same.
An early reader is undergoing significant brain changes in the facial recognition area: “No Brenda with a head tilt is not Brenda!” –this is the message we send beginning readers. “No c with a head tilt is not c!”
Letter sounds are the foundation of early literacy. If we are to be patient with struggling readers, we must imagine the frustration:
Our dear childhood friend Nina knocks at our door. Her head is straight: she is Nina. Then, in an effort to get something out of her purse, she tilts her head slightly downward. She is not Nina. But your brain still thinks she’s Nina.
“Nina’s here!” you tell your husband. He looks at you with confusion. “Honey, that’s not Nina! Her head is tilted. That’s Vanessa!”
IS MY CHILD DYSLEXIC?
If you are interested in the signs of Dyslexia, I will write a post on this next week. Yes, if you’re child is in second grade and still reverses letters, it might be a sign of dyslexia. However, if your Kindergartener is reversing letters, she is simply still transforming the facial recognition area into the letterbox area. Letter reversals are common and not considered a sign of dyslexia.