Mirror-Image Writing in Young Children

A couple years ago, my oldest son went to preschool. He was a bright kid, and also my first, so I spent a lot of time with him before hand, teaching him the letters, numbers, shapes, etc. By the time he started preschool, he knew all the letters, and of course he knew how to write his name beautifully. I was so proud of him, and was excited for him to go to school and continue his learning.

Of course, at preschool, they (re)taught all the letters and numbers. And at home I continued teaching him about letters, and then also about words, how they are composed of letters, and how each letter represents a sound, etc. By the end of preschool, he was able to read some words, especially phonetically.

Then, he went to kindergarten. Since he went to French school, the emphasis was on teaching oral French as opposed to written language. He still had me on his back with the writing and reading, and in Polish School (on Saturdays) he learned to write and even handwrite words. But at his daily school he wasn't even expected to write his name on his artwork. Later in that kindergarten year, the teacher finally started teaching the alphabet, and again, he learned his letters...

This time however, it was different. My son, having already known all his letters (uppercase and lower) for at least two years, started writing his letters and numbers backwards... I even saw some of his artwork with his name written right to left instead of left to right. Left and right didn't seem to matter anymore! Check out the Sudoku (above) he did at the end of Kindergarten: some 5's are right, others are flipped, same with the sixes. I asked some of the moms of my son's friends, and they too noticed that they were writing some letters backwards. So, I looked it up, of course, and found that this is a normal stage in children at their age:

"At about kindergarten age most children pass through at least a short period during which they confuse certain letters with their mirror images or rotated transformations. Reversals, along with other types of letter confusions, are apparently rare beyond age 8 (Davidson 1935; Gibson, Gibson, Pick, & Osser 1962; Hildreth 1932; Ilg & Ames 1950; Smith 1928; Wilson & Flemming 1938). Gibson et al. (1962) suggested that improvement with age is to be expected because reversal and rotational transformations are seldom significant for the identification of familiar objects until children are required to make graphic discriminations. When orientation becomes critical, children eventually learn to attend to invariant features that are peculiar to letters and help distinguish one from the other."

(Letter Reversals in Naming, Writing, and Matching to Sample Murray Sidman and Barbara Kirk, 1974)

But why does this happen? Why does writing the proper way before hand give way to the letter reversal in kindergarten? In fact, I have a second son, just started preschool yesterday, and he too can write his name properly. He never reverses letters (yet) and is very good about writing all his words left to write, even when he is not copying me. So why is there this stage of letter / word reversal? I have searched and searched, and there doesn't seem to be a good explanation. Here is my theory why this happens:

Young children, when they start learning to write, they only learn to write lines and patterns. They don't see letters as units. For instance, my younger son, when writing an E would think of writing a vertical line with three horizontal lines attached to it. He saw me do it, so he follows my example. It is a pattern for him, not one thing. My older son, however, after so much experience with letters, has already acquired a feeling for all the letters. He understands each letter as a "thing" and not a series of lines. He can flip it around in his mind, see it from every angle. And since he doesn't understand the importance of orientation as of yet (or distinguish between left or right), he has a hard time deciding which way to write the letter. Hence the confusion.

I read somewhere (I think it was "Scientific American") that it is not inborn to distinguish left from right, and this is why symmetry is so important in humans. That only after a lot of practice does that "symmetrical" orientation get replaced with left and right distinction. There was a study that was comparing non-dyslexic and dyslexic people and comparing their abilities at recognizing symmetry: the participants with dyslexia were much better at recognizing symmetry. Similarly, this can be said about young children. They are still in the "symmetry" phase, they have still not unlearned that natural inborn human trait.

(Another subquestion is why the kids don't mix-up "up" and "down" only "left" and "right"?)

Since the time I noticed this letter reversal I've been working with my son to show him that the direction of writing is important. Initially he didn't understand, because he said that if he draws a house with a chimney on one side or a house with a chimney on the other, it is still a house! I thought that was clever, and I never thought about it like that, but I guess that's what he was seeing: An F is still an F, even if it's written backwards, so what's the problem? I seemed to have convinced him that there is a difference, and that direction matters, but his letters are still sometimes reversed. Now he's in grade 1... hopefully he can be fully "asymmetrical" by the end of the school year.



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Keywords: 
education, letter, mirror-image, letter reversal in children
Submitted by bogusia on Thu, 09/02/2010 - 20:33

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This happened with my middle child. She wanted to learn to write letters when she was three. Soon, she was writing her name and other words. She would ask, "Mommy, what spells ________" and she would write words or short sentences to describe a picture she had drawn. When she was four/five, she began to write words mirror image - letters backwards in reverse order. She's in fourth grade now and grew out of it. My oldest never went through that particular stage, but didn't start writing very much until she was five. Our youngest, although she began writing at 3/4, is now 5 and has never gone through that stage.

Interesting! I wonder if your youngest is still going to go through it... Very cool! Thanks for sharing.

This is very interesting. My son is now eight, it is not only the odd letter that he writes backwards but a whole paragraph. It is completely mirror image and printed very neatly. We are trying to figure it all out. He can print a paragraph completely backwards in no time at all but it is a diifficult thing to do for us if we try to do that. We have no idea what causes this. His reading is just fine. If you have any thoughts on this situation, please feel free to coment. thank you!

Does your son do this intentionally, or is it that he wants to write properly but then confuses it and writes in "mirror writing"? If he is just "playing", then I think we can call this a talent... I've heard of famous people doing this. For instance a google search gave me this explanation about why Leonardo Da Vinci wrote backwards:

For over five hundred years, scholars have explained Leonardo's mirror writing as writing which could only be read in a mirror because he wanted to keep what he wrote secret.

As an inventor who understands how some inventors think, I never believed that Leonardo's writing had anything to do with secrets or mystery writing. He was such a creative, innovative person, he wrote the way he did because it was easier and possibly less "messy". Leonardo was left handed. If you have ever watched a left handed person write you will see that in order to be able to read what they have written, as they write it, they "curl" their hand around what they have written. This allows them to see what they are writing as well as reduce the tendency to cover the newly written material with the side of the hand. If the writing was being done with a pen or quill dipped in ink, the left handed writer would tend to "drag" the outside part of the hand over what was just written. The right handed writer doesn't have this problem because the hand moves away from what is being written. There is no blocking the view of the writing and no dragging the hand across the wet ink.

So, I believe Leonardo simply devised the backward writing because it worked for him. Truly a practical and ingenious way to write his thoughts quickly and without mess. And obviously, he had no problem reading what he had written. That's it. No big secret and deep dark mystery. Just a good example of how Leonardo was someone who could "think outside the box". By the way, he didn't always write backwards. There are examples of his writing in the "normal" way. And he sometimes also used a short hand system he devised.www.inventorpat.com

I'm not sure how reliable this entry is, but it's something to think about.... Maybe your son is left-handed, or disgraphic, or maybe there's a completely different explanation. Very interesting....

Hi, I too have a daughter she is almost 7years old. She also rights from left to right. I don't understand why and her school teacher and I have let the school counselor know about this. My daughter has AD/HD and epilepsy. We are hoping that she is not dyslexic.

I've heard that many learning disorders come together. Hopefully it's just a phase for your daughter, though. It sucks to deal with so many things at once!

writes* and I believe you meant right to left

I think this is fascinating. It surely has to do with left & right brain, and is a lot like being ambidextrous. I personally have a hunch that this is a good thing and should not be unlearned. My son is 5 and can write in mirror image too. I want to encourage it to continue, but to learn to differentiate, so he can do both, and make a choice at school to write "correctly", and practice backwards at home. As a culture we have completely trained ourselves out of the experience of oneness, and operate from a two dimensional left brain capacity most of the time. Its time to evolve, and our children are naturally already whole, we don't need to divide them into hemispheres... just look what's happening to our planet!

This is a fascinating post - thanks for sharing. It's good to keep in mind for the future...

I don't know if anyone is even following this post anymore, but I felt the need to post. My daughter is almost 6 and also started mirroring after about a year of knowing how to write correctly. I agree with your theory, it makes perfect sense. My daughter is left-handed and very much in her "creative mind" most of the time. She mirrors perfectly in the true sense. She starts at the right of a page and writes letters and words backwards. She does this quite naturally and seems to prefer it. Given freedom to write anything, it would end up mirrored on a page. Her teacher (with a history in special education) can't stand it, has gotten school administration involved, and an occupation therapist has evaluated her. I was thinking it was a serious issue until I started reading up on the topic. I now think of it as a talent, and although she can't do it when writing assignments for school, I am not going to discourage her from perfecting this rare skill. Interestingly, my child is also displaying "some" symptoms of ADD (not hyperactivity) and is being held back in kindergarten again next year. I wonder if the two issues are connected. Thanks for writing what you did.

my 5 year old daughter is doing alot of the same, she is also left handed but i can write a sentance down for her and ask her to copy it for me on another paper and every letter and word r backwords(mirrored)she's very bright but i just cant seem to get her to write from left to right and to flip her letters...I think it's neat how she does write but i just dont want her to have problems with her teacher when she starts kindergarten next month in august...

I'm not an expert on this, but I think this would be more common with left handed kids... My son, also starting kindergarten next month, is starting to do the backward thing, especially now with numbers. But I don't think you should worry. Most kindergarten teachers probably deal with this each year. That's probably one of the main issues they have to do each year. But it's still a good thing to get your child to avoid.

I'm really glad to see the positive approach parents are taking with their mirror writing kids :). I still remember suffering a great deal of anxiety over spelling my name on the back of a Thanksgiving themed arts and crafts activity (I had already been ridiculed by my peers earlier on for spelling my name backwards on a name tag the first day of school). Palms sweaty, heart pounding, I spent what seemed an eternity trying to remember which direction I was to write in. With the added pressure of wanting to be praised for a job well done, I was terribly discouraged by the feedback I received at school that day. I came home in tears but my father, a wonderful man, took my backwards art, held it in front of a mirror and told me to 'look again'. He showed me that I had spelled my name correctly with beautiful script and in a manner that he believed was unique and rare. I think that was all I needed to hear. Anxiety gone, my mirror writing quickly resolved on its own (though I still do it on occasion, but now it's intentional).

I truly believe that as with most things in life, it is what you make of it. Foster the belief in your children that they are special, unique and capable and they will more easily live up to those expectations then if they're led to believe that they are somehow challenged with a disability or less capable then their peers. Mirror writing aside; I was reading and writing (backwards :D) long before any of my peers, excelled in math, science and music, received numerous accolades for my art, graduated with honors a year ahead of my class and have gone on to enjoy a very successful and fulfilling career. I'm sure your special 'mirror writing' kiddo's will go on to be great successes as well.

Cheers!

Christina

Thanks for the wonderful comment!

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I have a daughter that had her right shoulder dislocated at birth, very severe birth, near death too. She began writing with her left hand and in reverse. Later her shoulder healed and she began writing with her right hand, as well. She did both directions until instructed the correct way, but didn't seem to comprehend at first. Now she is 17 and taught herself to play the piano in a few days, now doing major classical works and is learning the violin concurrently. I think something has happened to her IQ as well, she is into art and actually pretty good. I think the birth distress caused her to become ambidextrous and seems to have affected her abilities.

Very Interesting! I think the tragic event was a very important event in your daughter's life, but I think through your support, she came out of it in the best way possible. I don't know if the mirror writing had anything to do with it. I bet she was just coping with the fact that she couldn't use her proper hand. Anyway, thanks for sharing. I love stories like this... they inspire all of us, and let us know that there is reason for all the bad things that happen to us.

If you truly want your children to be able to write by hand and not just keyboard then it is important that you quit pushing them to write at such a young age. I have had the opportunity to work with many children who either by their own interest or their parent's pushing began writing between ages 2 and 4. Frequently, writing becomes very tedious for them as they age and are required to write for longer periods of time. For most people, the easiest "grip" is a tripod grasp. Generally, the hand muscles required for this grasp develop as we age. I've seen children actually use two hands on a writing utensil just to hold it steady enough to form the letters required for their name. Occupational therapist friends tell me they are seeing an increasing number of middle and high school age kids with abnormal grasps. Encourage your preschoolers to finger paint, work with modeling clay (not playdoh), play Tiddlywinks, tear paper for collages and let the handwriting develop gradually. Our ridiculous desire to push children to achieve at such a young age is often harmful to their development.