Are letter reversals in preschool normal? Yes. Can you avoid them, and thus speed up the accuracy and automaticity that are hallmarks of successful handwriting? Sure! This post will explain why reversals are slowing kids down unnecessarily and how to limit letter and number reversals right from the start.
Writing letters backward is very common in preschool, and is not considered abnormal if a few letters or numbers are reversed if a child is under the age of 8. So why bother even thinking about how to teach letter formation without reversals? Common Core, PARC, and all the other achievement tests have contributed to less classroom time made available to focus on handwriting, while demanding independent writing skills earlier and earlier. Teachers in grades 1 and up expect that learning to write letters and numbers has been accomplished, and now it’s all about content. That means that preschool and kindergarten teachers need to spend time on writing instruction, and they need to choose the most effective methods to do so.
That sounds so simple, but understanding how to avoid reversals without doing constant drilling is hard. That is how your grandma’s learned to write: kids practiced daily and knew that good “penmanship” was a thing, a thing that mattered. Today’s preschool teachers generally don’t have much (or any) instruction in how to teach handwriting, and certainly don’t review research on how to teach it the most efficiently for the fastest results. They are asked to teach kids with learning differences, some of which make it difficulty for kids to perceive that they have reversed a letter, even when it is pointed out to them. Their budget includes glue and posters, not training programs on something as targeted as writing instruction. For some teachers, the best they get is a thick packet and some worksheets from their director. That’s it.
Handwriting Without Tears does a terrific job of attacking reversals where they begin, with the start and the sequence of strokes. To simplify it: They start letter instruction with the letters that are easy to write and begin in the same manner without risk of reversals, use a style of writing that is less easily reversed, and they have great beginner tools which replicate the same cues throughout the program. Their smiley-face icon for orientation while writing is a good example. The repetition on workbooks and writing materials remind children where to start so many letters supports correct orientation right from the beginning. They also use meaningful but simple directions. No tree line, no worm line and no dangly tails that could go either way. Letters such as “S”, “J”, and “Z” have specific cues to help children prevent reversals. They are also among the last letters taught.
Kids have lots of practice with start and sequence before they hit the harder letters. The kids with perceptual issues learn a motor plan that is so automatic that they may write a letter perfectly even if they struggle with object manipulation. Their hands are telling them how the letter is made, not their eyes! Should they still get practice with these skills? Yes, but they need to be successful writers now.
In my opinion, the push for increasing demands in early grades is here to stay. The smartest thing teachers and parents can do is to pick materials that fast-track kids toward handwriting independence and then use them consistently. It is also the kindest thing to do. Kids don’t need more pressure, they need more success!