If you’ve watched a small child writing or seen their written work, you may notice that they mix up or reverse the letters b/d and p/q. Does this mean the child has dyslexia or a visual processing disorder? Why do children mix p and q?
Children mix up p and q when learning to read, write, and spell because the letters look similar, and they are still learning directionality. If letter reversals continue after age 8, consult a professional as the child may have a learning difference or a visual processing order.
Writing letters backward, mistaking p for q when reading, and spelling words with the wrong letter are all signs of letter reversals. Let’s look at why children reverse or mix up letters and what you can do about it.
Why Children Mix Up P And Q
Children mix up the letters b/d and p/q because they are still learning to read, write, and spell.
Letter reversals are typical of children in the first and second grades and often continue until children are around seven years old and even into the third grade.
Most children grow out of letter reversal as their reading and writing skills improve. You only need to become concerned when children continue making these errors as they reach ages 8, 9, or even 10.
Letter Reversals: Lower Case P And Q Look Similar
Children tend to mix up p and q because the lower case forms of the letters look the same to them.
Learning to read and to write is complex and starts with a child attaching a label or name to each letter of the alphabet. They also need to attach a sound to each letter. In turn, letters and thus sounds join together to form words and sentences.
To a small child, the alphabet looks like a series of shapes, lines, circles, and curves, and it takes time for them to separate these into distinct letters.
Part of the challenge is that young children understand the world as consisting of objects that don’t change shape – a chair is a chair whether you look at it from the back or front or turn it upside down. In other words, a chair is always a chair, no matter how it is orientated.
By this rationale, lower case b,d, p, and q could all be the same letter, just turned right, left, and upside down, so children tend to reverse these letters.
However, with letters, direction matters, and turning a letter upside down will change its meaning and sound. This understanding is a cognitive leap for a child that can take time to happen.
As children learn phonics, reading, and writing, they discover that directionality is essential and come to accept it, so letter reversals disappear.
Letter Reversals: Lack of understanding of directionality
For a child to analyze the differences in letter directionality, they must understand left and right directionality on their own bodies and where their own bodies are in space.
For instance, can a child identify the left and right sides of a piece of paper? Can they identify their left and right hands? Do they know that you read from left to right?
Until a child’s sense of directionality is fixed, they will struggle with letter reversals.
Letter Reversals: Handwriting Challenges
Children may also reverse p and q because they struggle to form the letters correctly, either because of the inability to hold a pencil correctly or issues with hand dominance.
Small children learn to draw before they learn to write but may not have the ideal grip for writing. It takes time for a child to learn the fine motor skills needed to hold a pencil for writing and how much pressure to exert to form the letters.
Teachers and parents should also check that they verbally and physically guide children to form letters based on their hand dominance. This process is simple if the adult and child are both right-handed, which is far more common.
However, teaching a left-handed child to form letters requires slightly different letter formation patterns. For example, a left-handed child will form the letter p by stroking from top to bottom, jumping to the top, pushing the pencil outward to the right, curving around, and pulling the pencil back inward to the downward stroke. A right-handed child reverses the pulling and pushing motions.
Some letter reversals can be caused by incorrect letter formation, so teachers must ensure that the child learns the correct letter formation for their hand dominance.
As children become comfortable with their fine motor skills and hand dominance, their writing skills improve. Most children can write without letter reversals by the second grade.
Why Older Children Mix P And Q
If a child continues mixing letters beyond the second grade and into third grade, teachers and parents need to discuss why and how to tackle the issue.
The child may improve with additional practice in reading and letter formation, and occupational therapy. Some children take longer to learn about letter reversals than others and need to develop self-confidence that they can read and write.
However, letter reversals in older children can also be caused by learning differences and processing disorders.
Letter Reversals: Dyslexia
Letter reversals in children beyond the third grade may indicate a learning difference, such as dyslexia. This language-based learning difference affects children’s reading, writing, and spelling skills.
The primary cause of dyslexia is difficulty in phonological processing and sound-letter mapping. Directionality and letter and number sequencing are also aspects of dyslexia. Dyslexic children are cognitively overloaded. As a result, they typically read slowly and spell poorly and inconsistently.
With the proper support and intervention, most dyslexic children learn to read and write proficiently and are successful at school.
Importantly, letter reversal on its own is not a sign of dyslexia, as most young children struggle with this. Many dyslexic children don’t reverse letters and will exhibit other challenges around reading and writing.
If you think that a child may have dyslexia, consult a professional for a diagnosis.
Letter Reversals: Dysgraphia And Dyspraxia
Apart from dyslexia, two other learning difficulties can influence a child’s ability to distinguish between p and q.
Dysgraphia is a learning difficulty associated with writing, as children have challenges with motor skills and information processing. As a result, their handwriting is slow, untidy, and inconsistent.
Dyspraxia is a learning difficulty that affects children’s gross and fine motor skills. Writing combines several fine motor skills, so the process is physically challenging, and letter reversals are common.
With technical support and therapy, children with either learning difference can develop and thrive at school.
These learning differences have several other indicators. Letter reversal is not a sign of either. Consult a professional if you are concerned about a child’s writing skills.
Letter Reversals: Visual Processing Disorders
Other causes of letter reversals in older children are a visual processing disorder (VPD).
At least eight kinds of VPDs affect different aspects of a child’s visual processing skills. With VPD, the brain struggles to interpret visual information, such as spatial, shape, and background/foreground discrimination. Many children with VPD confuse letters with similar shapes and can’t always distinguish how the different parts make up a letter.
Although VPD is a lifelong condition, children can learn coping strategies. With the proper support, children with VPD can learn to read and write successfully and thrive at school and beyond.
If you think your child has a VPD, consult a professional for a diagnosis.
Letter Reversals: Visual Impairments
In contrast to VPD, visual impairments disrupt a child’s sight – the child may be partially sighted to various degrees.
Children with visual impairments will reverse and mix up letters because they cannot see the letters clearly when reading or writing.
Consult a specialist if you have a concern about your child’s sight.
What To Do If Your Child Mixes Up P And Q
Most children outgrow letter reversals as they become confident readers and writers. However, it is important to intervene if you notice your child struggling and you cannot help at home.
If your child continues with letter reversals beyond third grade, you should find out why. Even if there is no severe learning difficulty, your child’s continued errors, letter reversals, and confusion can lead to self-esteem and self-confidence issues, especially if they fall behind their peers.
A lack of confidence and fluency can further impact learning, creating a problem where there shouldn’t be one – a child can become reluctant to participate in the classroom, refuse to answer questions or write on the board, and even avoid school altogether.
Consult your child’s teacher first for advice. A child may simply need remedial intervention or additional support at home to stop letter reversals.
Your second port of call would be a medical doctor, who can refer you to an occupational therapist, speech and language therapist, academic support, therapist or other professional. If your child has a learning difference, it is best to identify it early on, so that learning is not disrupted entirely.
There are interventions and strategies to support most learning differences, and letter reversal is almost always sorted out.
When children are learning the alphabet, and to read, write, and spell, they may mix p and q because they are still learning to distinguish between the shapes of the letters. They may lack understanding of directionality and have challenges with writing. Most children grow out of letter confusion and reversal by the end of the second grade, so if an older child still struggles, you need to consult a professional if there is a learning difference or processing disorder present.