Number-One Myth about Dyslexia

Children See Letters Backward. This is the number-one myth about dyslexia. This myth had its illustrious start with American neurologist Samuel Orton in 1925. Orton’s views helped to perpetuate the longstanding belief that letter reversals are central to dyslexia, and this belief continues today.

Two weeks ago I was stopped in the halls of one of my Seattle elementary schools by a first-grade teacher insisting that I evaluate Lexie. Ms. Barnett held a piece of lined paper with light pencil-writing full of letter reversals. Ms. Barnett has taught for twenty plus years and by all accounts, she is an effective teacher. She insisted that this writing sample and Lexie’s continuing confusion between letters b and d served as ample evidence that Lexie had dyslexia and required special education services.

Since the 1930s, multiple studies have thoroughly debunked the myth that people who have dyslexia see letters and numbers backward. Below, you will see links to a few of the many scholarly studies that should have put this persistent misguided notion to rest. Just this week a friend shared that she got lost because, she said with a laugh, “My dyslexia kicked in and I reversed your address.” Not only do accounts of reversals populate dyslexic jokes, but the media has also spread this myth. In the 2001 film Pearl Harbor, Captain Rafe McCauley (portrayed by Ben Affleck) informs the nurse administering an eye exam that he can’t read letters because “I just get ’em backward sometimes.” Even journalists get it wrong: on a National Public Radio (NPR) show on dyslexia in 2007, the host stated that the “simplest explanation, I suppose, is that you see things backwards.” More recently (November of 2016), NPR did a series about dyslexia and called out the myth about visual confusions in the NPR Dyslexia series.

Dyslexia literally means “difficulty with words” and is defined as an unexpected delay in reading in an otherwise healthy child or adult who has received a proper education. It affects an estimated 5 to 17 percent of the population (Shaywitz and Shaywitz 2004).

So why does it appear that those children with dyslexia have more difficulty than peers with letter and number reversals? For starters, all beginning readers to some extent are challenged by letter orientation. And why not? Other than letters and numbers, visual representation of objects are not defined by their orientation. Studies have shown that the number of reversals kindergartners make is not predictive of their reading performance in first grade (Simner 1982). Yet children with reading challenges continue beyond the age of their peers to display letter reversals. Not only letter reversals, however, but many other traits common to beginning readers. This is due to delayed development in reading rather than a separate issue with visual processing.

Conceiving of dyslexia as a visual issue and perpetuating the myth that dyslexic individuals see numbers and letters backward is unhelpful and needs eradicating. Dyslexic children have problems in naming letters, perceiving letter sounds, and associating phonemes (sound units that roughly correspond to individual letters) with letters, but not necessarily in copying them. Because many people erroneously believe that letter reversals define dyslexia, the children with dyslexia who do not make letter reversals often go undiagnosed.

Here is a helpful site full of tips and activities developed by Julie Vanalst, a former speech language pathologist and currently a teacher consultant for special education.

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