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Are letter and number reversals a sign of dyslexia? How are speech/language difficulties related when the child is still only 6 or 7 years of age?

The complete question

I know that it is common for students to reverse letters (b, d, j, g, c) and some numbers (5, 2, 4) in first grade. Is this ever considered a sign for dyslexia, and at what age? This same child has some difficulty reading. What are your thoughts on this? How are speech/language difficulties related when the child is still only 6 or 7 years of age?

Expert answer

You are asking two very important — and relatent — questions. There are many myths about dyslexia; one is that reversing letters and numbers is a sure sign of dyslexia. Reversing letters and numbers often occurs in young children and is not a sure sign of dyslexia. School systems and others often also think that if a child does not show reversals that child is not dyslexia. This is clearly not true. As I note in my book, Overcoming Dyslexia, “There is no evidence that dyslexic children actually see letters and words backwards.” So, to answer your first question, reversals are not a sign of dyslexia.

On the other hand, speech and language difficulties are often found in children and adults who are dyslexic. The primary difficulty in dyslexia is in getting to the basic sounds of spoken words; that is, for example, in appreciating that the spoken word mat has three sounds — /m/ /a/ /t/ or that if you take the /t/ sound away from the spoken work steak, the word sake remains.

So, a fundamental difficulty in children and adults who are dyslexic is a great difficulty in appreciating and in noticing or manipulating the basic sounds of spoken language. A child needs to be able to isolate these individual sounds if he or she is to take the next important step in reading — learning to attach specific sounds to each letter or letter group. Once a child has developed the appreciation that the written word has the same number and sequence of sounds as the spoken word, that child has mastered what is referred to as the alphabetic principle and is ready to read.

Knowledge that spoken language problems also characterize struggling readers is very important because it can help identify potential reading problems in children even before they are expected to read and can help identify struggling readers at any age. See this excerpted article from the book Overcoming Dyslexia: Clues to Dyslexia in Early Childhood

— Dr. Sally Shaywitz

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