Search Results for 'reversal'

Reversals plugged on NPR

After hearing Steve Inskeep of NPR’s Morning Edition perpetuate the myth that individuals with dyslexia suffer from reversals, I submitted the following comment via the NPR Web site.

Dear Mr. Inskeep,

I was sorry to learn that you have the mistaken idea that the Learning Disability called dyslexia is characterized by “seeing things backwards.” I was even sorrier to hear you communicate this misinformation during an interview about dyslexia and entrepreneurship on 26 December.

Even though it persists among people who have not examined the research about it, the idea of reversals has been shown to be false in multiple scientific studies. To be sure, individuals with dyslexia make more reversal errors (read “was” as “saw”; confuse b and d), but that is simply because they make more errors overall; the ratio of reversal errors to total errors is the same among individuals with and without dyslexia.

I hope you can correct the misinformation that you passed along to to the large listenship of Morning Edition.

John Wills Lloyd, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Division for Learning Disabilities

For those who didn’t know or have forgotten, this is not the first time I’ve fretted about the accuracy of NPR’s coverage. For previous posts on this subject, see here (and see an earlier post about NPR’s coverage of Mel Levine).

Not reversals

Despite the fact that I’ve plied this theme frequently, I found this humorous:

I realized I was dyslexic when I went to a toga party dressed as a goat.

Correcting Reversals

When learning to read and write letters and numerals, children mistake some letters and numerals for other similar ones, especially those that can be reversed or appear the same when seen in a mirror. These sorts of errors are sometimes called “reversals” or “mirror writing.” Sometimes children will even write entire sentences or passages starting from the right of a page.

Although reversals of some letters will make no difference (for example, the printed letters ‘t’ and ‘x’ look the same written either “frontwards” or “backwards”), reversals of other letters and numerals makes a difference. Here are some common examples of reversals:

  • A 3 can appear to be a capital E that’s rounded and reversed,
  • A lower-case b looks like a d or an upside-down p,
  • The word saw might be read as was,
  • The order of letters or numerals might be mixed so that and might be written adn or 973-3722 might be repeated as 937-7322.

Why does this happen? What’s to be done about it?

Mistaken Theory

Samuel Orton, an MD and a pioneer in Learning Disabilities (the Orton Dyslexia Society, which was named after him, has morphed into the International Dyslexia Society), promoted a theory that reversals were a result of incompletely established lateral dominance. According to this theory, the dominant hemisphere of the brain, which usually controls language, stores one version of an “engram” such as was or b while the non-dominant hemisphere stores a mirror image of the engram—saw or d. If an individual has incompletely establish dominance, then she or he will sometimes use the engram from the non-dominant hemisphere, and thus read or write the mirror image. This theory has been discounted, but the idea persists in popular thinking.

Although nearly all young learners make reversal errors as they learn to read and write, most gradually stop doing so during the primary and elementary grades. Also, if one considers the percentage of total errors that are reversal errors, students with reading problems make no more reversal errors than do their peers who read relatively well; students with reading problems simply make more errors of all types and, thus, we see them make more reversal errors than their peers who read without problems (Fischer, Liberman, & Shankweiler, 1978; Holmes & Peper, 1977).

What Can Be Done?

Perhaps more important than mistaken theories or factual explanations of the phenomenon, people would like to know what to do about reversals or mirror writing. Clearly, one thing that teachers and parents can do is simply explain that with letters and numerals, it matters which way they point. When a person is lying down or standing up, it’s still the same person. When a cup is right-side up or up-side down, it’s still a cup. But when a b is turned around, it’s not a b any more.

In the 1970s I remember Zig Engelmann suggesting printing b on a transparency and getting children to label it correctly as “b” or “not b” as the teacher flipped and twisted the transparency in orientation. (Engelmann also recommended exaggerating the differences between b and d in printed materials by using different typefaces for them in early reading materials.) Carnine (1976) showed that introducing similar stimuli—d and b—separately and only after one of them has been learned to a high criterion reduced the chances of learners confusing them.

In cases where the problem persists after the primary grades, it merits treatment or intervention. A simple teaching technique has repeatedly been shown to correct mirror writing (Fauke, Burnett, Powers, & Sulzer-Azaroff, 1973; Hasazi, & Hasazi, 1972; Lahey, Busemeyer, O’Hara, & Beggs, 1977; Stromer, 1975, 1977). Essentially all one has to do is differentially reinforce correct letter formation in writing. The adult can set up a situation in which the child is to write letters, numerals, and words from dictation—somewhat like an old-time spelling test, but kept light and fun—and provide copious amounts of consistent praise contingent on correctly written repsonses:

  1. “O.K., here we go. Write the letter for the sound /mmm/.”
  2. Child writes.
  3. [Check and reinforce or correct.]
    1. [If correct] “That’s it. Great!” [Put a smiley face next to it. Go to 4.]
    2. [If incorrect] “Not quite. Here’s how you write /___/.” [Demonstrate.] “Copy it here.”
  4. O.K., next one. Write the letter for the sound /___/.”
  5. [Check and reinforce or correct. Repeat presentation and check-or-correct steps with new items.]

The adult should use mostly very well known items, those that the child is likely to write correctly. Include difficult items, those on which a child makes mistakes, at a ratio of about 1 for every 7-9 known items. If some letters or numerals are particularly problemsome, the adult might pre-correct by showing a model just before the child is asked to write: “Oh boy, here comes that hard one. I’m going to ask you to write a 3 and you should make it look like this [show model, then remove it]. O.K., write a 3.” Only use the model a few times, gradually using it on fewer and fewer trials. The adult should keep records about the percentage of correct responses; count each trial rather than estimating.

For reading rather than writing, one can use the same system but substitute touching for writing. For example, show the child an array of two (later three) items—for example, written m and 3—and say, “Touch the one for the sound /mmm/.” The items should be readily discriminable in the early trials, but gradually the adult can mix in tough items such as n vs. m, b vs. d, or saw vs. was. Parallel this activity with another in which the child points to each letter and says its sound; increase the difficulty in a similar way. Remember that correction and reinforcement are critical for increasing the probability that child will respond correctly.

With either the reading or writing tasks, repeat the practice trials daily for multiple days. Gradually make them more challenging. Don’t expect these problems to be corrected in one or a few trials. This is not something where children develop sudden insight. It’s more like dribbling a ball than grasping a concept. Keep it fun and make sure that the tasks you give the child are selected so that he or she gets ~90-95% correct.


  • Carnine, D. W. (1976). Similar sound separation and cumulative introduction in learning letter-sound correspondences. Journal of Educational Research, 69, 368-372.
  • Fauke, J., Burnett, J., Powers, M. A., & Sulzer-Azaroff, B. (1973). Improvement of handwriting and letter recognition skills: A behavior modification procedure. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 6, 296-300.
  • Fischer, F. W., Liberman, I. Y., & Shankweiler, D. (1978). Reading reversals and developmental dyslexia: A further study. Cortex, 14, 496-510.
  • Hasazi, J. E., & Hasazi, S. E. (1972). Effects of teaching attention on digit-reversal behavior in an elementary school child. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 5, 157-162. [available here for free]
  • Holmes, D. L., & Peper, R. J. (1977). An evaluation of the use of spelling error analysis in the diagnosis of reading disabilities. Child Development, 48, 1708-1711.
  • Lahey, B. B., Busemeyer, M. K., O’Hara, C., & Beggs, V. E. (1977). Treatment of severe perceptual-motor disorders in children diagnosed a learning disabled. Behavior Modification, 1, 123-140.
  • Stromer, R. (1975). Modifying letter and number reversals in elementary school children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 8, 211. [available here for free]
  • Stromer, R. (1977). Remediating academic deficiencies in learning disabled children. Exceptional Children, 43, 432-440.

1st draft published 5 Mar 2007
Revised 15 Jan 2008.

Just another reversal

Rebecca Watson, whose blog Skepchick is one of my favorite skeptic reads, had a post earlier this week in which she made the common mistake of confusing reversal and dyslexia.

I’m slightly dyslexic and mix-up phrases and reverse numbers.

I’m dropping a comment on her blog entry.

Reversals campaign

As documented in earlier posts here, here, here and here, I’ve been campaigning to correct the misunderstanding about the relationship between reversals and Learning Disabilities. I’ve put a comment on the site asking for suggestions about how professionals in LD can help others to understand the non-relationship. You’re welcome to leave comments there and here.

The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia airs soon

Time bomb boy from the producers of 'The Big Picture'

The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia, a film by James Redford that portrays dyslexia as both a real problem with learning to read and also a force in individuals’ lives to develop alternative strengths, is scheduled to air on US national television 29 October 2012. Mr. Redford uses the life experiences of individuals, including children and well-known public figures, to dispel myths about dyslexia.

A dyslexic high school student pursues admission to a leading college—a challenge for a boy who didn’t learn to read until 4th grade. Additional accounts of the dyslexic experience from children, experts, and iconic leaders at the top of their fields, help us to understand that dyslexia, a persistent problem with learning to read, can be as great a gift as it sometimes is an obstacle.

In The Big Picture (also known as The D Word: Understanding Dyslexia when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival), Mr. Redford incorporated interviews with and content about many different people. As the faces of dyslexia, some of those involved in the production (Allison Schwartz, producer Karen Pritzker’s daughter, and Dylan Redford, Mr. Redford’s son) will be new to readers of LD Blog. Of course, some public figures who have remarkable achievement despite their dyslexia (e.g., businessman Charles Schwab, attorney David Boies) and some of the researchers (Sally and Bennett Shaywitz, naturally) will be familiar to readers of these pages.

Some themes (e.g., LD does not stand for “lazy and dumb”; reversals are not particularly meaningful) should be familiar. But familiarity with these themes and authorities are not reasons to miss this film. I’m looking for a place to see it and I hope you are, too.

Other’s views of the The Big Picture are encouraging: Duane Byrge, Hollywood Reporter; Jerry Penacoli, EXTRA; D. Schwartz, cine source; and Shelly Golderg, NY1.

LD opinion survey: good news, bad news

For the fourth time, the Roper Public Affairs &’ Corporate Communications group has reported a survey of US opinion about Learning Disabilities to the Tremaine Foundation. Although the report is entitled “Measuring Progress in Public & Parental Understanding of Learning Disabilities,” it also includes data about the views of the general public, teachers, and school administrators. It’s worth reading the entire document, but here are a few notes to whet the appetite.
Continue reading ‘LD opinion survey: good news, bad news’

Celebrities with dyslexia

In “11 Celebrities Who Overcame Dyslexia” on Mental Floss, Scott Allen posted a list of people who have dyslexia and whose names many people recognize. His lead tells the tale.

On Monday, molecular biologists Carol Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn became the first two women to share the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Greider also joined Pierre Curie and Archer Martin among the handful of individuals with dyslexia who have won a Nobel Prize. In honor of Greider’s accomplishment and National Dyslexic Awareness Month, here’s a brief background on dyslexia and 11 other dyslexic celebrities.

Dyslexia in Brief
Continue reading ‘Celebrities with dyslexia’

LD and chiropracty–NOT

Chiropractors are likely to complain about the treatment that their methods receive in posts on this blog. I’ve posted recently that I find wanting the bases for the the (currently-on-tour, see-’em-in-your-neighborhood-soon) Brain Balance Music program. This post will be even more alarming to supporters of those sorts of treatments for LD.

The fundamental problem with the therapies for Learning Disabilities recommended by some chiropractors is that those therapies are bogus. They may be advocated by people who honestly believe that they’re recommending helpful stuff. The hypothetical relations among the neurological and behavioral factors may sound sensible, but that is, in large part, because we’re listening to the words rather than the facts. The folks may have seen what they believe are legitimate improvements in children’s academic and social behavior after the children received the therapy. Parents may have told them how much better the children seem.

None of that counts as scientific (i.e., objective, generalizable, refutable) evidence of benefits. The advocates may be as seriously misled as they mislead their potential clients. They just don’t have the data. Their explanations are post hoc and untested, at best.

In addition to the probably benign Brain Balance Music methods, consider one of the other chiropractic therapies: Cranio-sacral therapy: The hypothesis is that something about the connection between the child’s head and tail causes learning problems (even mental retardation and autism!) and it can be corrected by chiropractic manipulations.

Continue reading ‘LD and chiropracty–NOT’

Myths noted

Sometimes here on LD Blog I’ve posted notes about myths about Learning Disabilities. For example, “LD does not stand for lazy and dumb.” I’m glad to note that an organization called “Specific Learning Disabilities Association of Queensland” has a list of similar myths. Although some of its sibling organizations perpetuate myths (e.g., reversals), it’s nice to see that others are publishing sensible information such as this. Link to the page.