This week, I am going to tell you about the early signs of dyslexia, and what are normal letter reversals in written kindergarten work as opposed to reversals that indicate a problem such as dyslexia.
Below, I have also posted some examples of my students’ writing from last week, and I specifically chose writing that included what I consider to be “normal” reversals in them as examples. I will explain more about that below, but just in case you were wondering about the writing project itself, I decided to have the children make a sticker book to try to motivate some of my reluctant writers. The idea was that everyone would title their book, “What is it?” and then write a “This is a _____,” sentence with a sticker above it. I told the children that they would receive the sticker of their choice for their next page AFTER they wrote the sentence for the first page! Children that finished the “What Is It?” book in a timely manner had enough time to do a “What Are They?” book as well! In this book, the children were allowed to choose more than one sticker for each page, but then had to write a “They are _____,” sentence about each set of stickers before they could get another set of stickers for the following page. As you can imagine, the stickers were very popular with my students! It was just a little hard to control the distribution of the stickers in general. Next time I do this, I am going to only get out a FEW stickers and keep them in my LAP! Then they will have to SHOW ME that they have written their sentences before I am going to give them a sticker! My students started this project while I had a sub and when I returned, many of them had already decorated their whole book, but had written very little- and that was certainly not supposed to be the point! It was supposed to be a trade off: I’ll trade you a sticker for each sentence that you write about the sticker. Unfortunately, it was a sticker explosion for some of the kids, and it was pretty hard to get it back under control, once the pattern was set, unfortunately!
So what are the early signs of dyslexia in Kindergarten? And how many letter, word, or number reversals are too many? How do you know if your child is dyslexic? Only a qualified reading specialist can tell you for sure, but this is a commonly asked question by concerned parents regarding their children in their journey to become readers and writers.
When parents see children writing or reading reversals, they often ask me if their child could be dyslexic. First, let me define reversals, just so we all know what I am talking about. A reversal is when a child either reads or writes a letter backwards from the way it ought to be. For example, a child that reads a “b” as a “d” or a “p” as a “q” just reversed both of those letters. A child that writes “deb” instead of “bed” just wrote a reversal, in that he or she turned the direction of the d and the b around when writing them. A child that writes “der” instead of “red” reversed the entire word, and is struggling with left to right progression. This may be in addition to reversing the direction of the printed letters within the word! Children often write a number twelve as a twenty-one without realizing it as well, etc. These are things that happen normally in Pre-K, Kindergarten, and First Grade.
Most adults don’t struggle with reversals, but many children do. Reversals are usually thought of as a progression of the development of visual perception rather than of fine motor skills. A nice, strong, coloring and printing stroke indicates good fine motor skills. A “shaky” or wavy line, (made when a child is trying to draw a straight one,) is indicative of undeveloped fine motor skills. A child that cannot color inside the lines when asked to do so, and who cannot cut along a straight or curved line has undeveloped fine motor skills and needs to work on that. But then, I think that we all know that some children simply choose not to make neat work their priority, so you have to figure out what exactly is going on before making that judgement call!
As children mature, their visual perception matures right along with everything else, and those reversals usually start to disappear in a normally developing child. In a child with dyslexia, those reversals persist and continue take over the page of the child’s writing on into second grade and beyond.
In my kindergarten class, I typically see children start off the year with only a few reversals, and then as fluency in writing picks up and the children write more and more, I start seeing even more reversals in their writing than before! This often concerns parents who are concerned that their child may be dyslexic. Usually, what is happening is that the children are writing more frequently, and writing the letters completely from memory, rather than copying them from another source. As they continue to experiment with pulling the letters from memory, they often remember them “a little off” and write them down backwards or upside down.
In a normally developing child (at least in my 25 years of experience, this phase quickly passes (like in a few months) and the child only reverses a few letters on the page. Naturally, the most commonly reversed letters are the ones that look the most alike: the b, d, p, and q. So, if the child has written two short sentences, we might see two or three reversed letters. As a general rule, in a sentence like “I can ride a horse,” you might expect to see one or two reversed letters, and this is normal in Preschool, Kindergarten and first grade. I have not taught second grade, so I cannot comment on that, but I would assume that a few normally developing children probably still have some of these issues on into second grade. Certainly, one or two reversed letters on an entire page of writing is not a reason to panic, even in the higher grades, in my opinion!
So when should the alarm bells go off? When your child has finished Kindergarten and is STILL writing sentences with MANY reversals, and is doing this time and time again, consistently, then it’s time to first get your child’s vision checked. Make an appointment to see your pediatrician and/or optometrist and express your concerns. Let the professionals direct you the right specialist. Talk to your child’s teacher as well. If you ask your child’s teacher for an evaluation, and you don’t get one, then put it in writing and submit it to the school principal or the district office. Make sure that you date the paper, too. Most districts respond very well to requests such as these that are submitted in writing, and are required by law to respond in 60 days. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they MUST test your child for a learning disability, but my basic understanding is that they must respond officially somehow (at least in CA). Just remember that funding now for all special services is very tight, so you will have to be your child’s advocate and educate yourself on your child’s rights by searching online and reading up on it. Some parents seek and pay for outside testing by professionals, and then submit this testing to the school and ask for services to be provided by the school based on the results of these tests. I am not sure exactly how this works, but I have heard that this can be done. You’ll want to research it yourself, of course, before investing a lot of money in hopes that the school will then provide the educational services based on the results of the tests.
In the past, I have encountered only a few students that I thought were probably dyslexic, but it can be very hard to spot in Kindergarten because the children’s visual perception is simply not done developing at that point in time. In Kindergarten, it’s really too early to diagnose that particular learning disability, in my opinion. But the ones that I thought had dyslexia, and who went on to receive special education services, were simply unable to copy nearly anything! I could put a letter down in front of them on the table, and the child could not copy it correctly, even though he or she was five years old. Some copied it backwards over and over and over again, even though I pointed it out many times. We would trace it with our fingers, draw it in sand, form it with play dough, and still the child would just “see it differently” in their heads. When the child drew the letter, it came out differently. I remember a few years ago, showing one little boy how to make a lower case h five times in a row, and having him write it backwards for me- five times in a row! And this was with me sitting right there with him, telling him, “No! It’s the other way! Go on the other side!” And then I would trace it for him on the page, and he would STILL draw it backwards! And unfortunately, there seems to be a very good chance that the parents of these children will vigorously deny that there is any problem whatsoever when you suggest that there may be an issue. These types of learning disabilities tend to run in families, and also seem to, for some reason, bring a sense of shame upon the parents, even though it is really an accident of birth and not their fault at all. After that, the teacher is simply “out to get their child,” or “had it in for him from the very beginning.” This is unfortunate for the child, because without parent support, the child cannot get any extra help, and could very well grow up barely literate. And unfortunately, our correctional system is filled with adults who are barely literate and who have learning disabilities, so if they gave this some thought, they would probably go a different direction.
My advice to any parent is that, if your child’s teacher is telling you that there may be a problem, then check it out- even if you are offended and “absolutely sure” that there is nothing wrong. It is not easy for teachers to give this news to parents because we know that we risk alienating the parents and that they may very well turn on us. No teacher wants to give bad news to parents, because most parents would prefer to blame the teacher or school if the child is not successful. Few parents accept responsibility for these problems as their own; placing blame on the teacher and schools is far easier. The fact of the matter is that a learning disability is usually NOBODY’S fault! It is an accident of birth and a malfunction of the neurons in the brain, and it does not indicate that the child is not intelligent. In fact, in order to receive services at school, we must first show that your child does have at least normal intelligence, if not above average or beyond! So my best advice to anyone that is facing problems like this is to put your aside your own pride and feelings about your child’s teacher, and remind yourself that early intervention is the key to your child’s success. Waiting to see if it will get better next year or the next is really not the best course to take, for the sake of your child. If the teacher thinks that your child has a problem, or if you suspect a problem, then check it out! (Don’t kill the messenger!)
As a footnote to this post, a reader left a comment below regarding her own child’s diagnosis with dyslexia, and early warning signs that they missed. Be sure to check the comment left by “Caught in the Middle” for more information.
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