It is important to recognize that reversals are a normal symptom of poor decoding skills, regardless of the reader’s age. An adult who reads at a first-grade level is likely to make the same reversal errors as a 6-year-old reading at a first-grade level, especially when reading words in isolation. As decoding ability improves, reversals almost always disappear.

In nearly all cases, the student has simply not developed a strong enough visual image for the word and miscalls the word because he simply cannot remember what it is. (For an instant the child may ponder: “Is the word was or is it saw?”) When a student is first learning how to decode, the task of correctly pronouncing printed words is quite a struggle and demands most or all of the student’s mental energy. At this early stage, the student may pay little or no attention to the context of what he is reading. Gradually, as reading ability develops, context clues help the student to pronounce the word correctly. (“The boy was the dog” doesn’t make sense, but “The boy saw the dog” does.) With practice and success over time, the student learns to recognize instantly many of the little words in English that are often confused, such as on and no, that and what, big and dig, come and came, and went and want. With this in mind, the teacher should be careful not to fuss too much about these problems with beginning readers. Sometimes too much focus on these errors makes matters worse instead of better.

Assessing the Cause of Inversions or Reversals

Some experts claim that reversals occur because the student has failed to develop a left-to-right eye movement or a left-to-right reading pattern. This problem, if and when it exists, is difficult to determine. Others believe that a student who reverses letters or words may suffer from some neurological impairment, or he may not realize that the order or position in which letters appear makes a difference. Determining the existence of neurological impairments is also difficult and beyond the scope of most reading teachers.

Some reading teachers believed that students who made many inversions or reversals tended to have more severe difficulties than students who made other types of errors. More recent research has tended to refute this belief. We now believe that, if you check carefully, you are likely to find that children who make numerous reversals will also make just as high a percentage of other types of errors.

Teaching to Limit Inversions or Reversals

Regardless of the cause, the recommendations for solving inversions or reversals are the same. Most children who make reversals tend to outgrow the behavior after a few months of school. However, if the difficulty persists after several weeks of instruction and the student is making normal progress otherwise, the suggestions listed in this chapter, along with a little patience, should solve the problem.

ELL Students and Inversions or Reversals

It is doubtful that a second-language student would have additional inversions or reversals beyond those that could be explained by unfamiliarity with English print. As an ELL student gains experience with English print, the number of inversions or reversals should decrease.


The suggestions in items A through H can be used effectively with groups of students. The recommendations listed under items I through Q are designed for use with individual students.

A.  Use Big Books for beginning readers to point out left-to-right progression (as well as other skills, such as sequencing of words and common sight words). The larger print and the high interest level of most of these books enhance motivation for learning these skills. The shared book experience is an instructional technique in which the teacher attempts to duplicate some of the best features of the “lap method” that parents use when reading to their young children. When the teacher glides his hand under the words as they are read (some teachers prefer pointers), he is emphasizing not only left-to-right progression and the return sweep at the end of a line of print but also the separation of the individual words in the story. When you use this technique with students, be sure to read slowly and with expression. Big Books or language-experience stories that the students have dictated (see the Introduction) should be read many times and the children should be encouraged to participate by reading along orally as much as possible.Poetry, songs, and rap music can also be used effectively for shared reading experiences as described in item A. When teachers engage students in reading (or singing) words as they see them, they are using a powerful technique to help students decode words. Remember to insist that the students look at (focus on) the words as you and they pronounce them slowly and clearly.

B.  Poetry, songs, and rap music can also be used effectively for shared reading experiences as described in item A. When teachers engage students in reading (or singing) words as they see them, they are using a powerful technique to help students decode words. Remember to insist that the students look at (focus on) the words as you and they pronounce them slowly and clearly.

C.  After discussing the problem with the student, give him sentences in which words that he tends to reverse are covered by a small piece of paper. Have him read to the end of the sentence, using the context to determine the word he thinks should be in the sentence. Then have him uncover the word and check the accuracy of his use of context.

D.  Provide students with their own copies of the simple sentences, stories, songs, and so on that are being read; have the students underline the words, phrases, or sentences, pronouncing each word as it is underlined or reading the phrases or sentences as they are underlined.

E.  Teach students to pace their reading with their hands, practicing a left-to-right movement.

F.  Draw arrows pointing from left to right under troublesome words or phrases.

G.  Write in pairs the words sometimes reversed (was/saw, net/ten, war/raw, trap/part). Use one word in a sentence and ask students to point to or write the word used.

H.  Use a colored letter at the beginning of words commonly confused. Discontinue this practice as soon as these words no longer present any difficulty.

I.  As mentioned in the Discussion section, one of the most effective things you can do to help a student correct the problem of reversals is to call his attention to the context in which the word is used. If the student is made aware of the context, then he will have a tendency to correct the problem on his own. To do this, give the student a number of simple sentences in which the word or words being reversed could only logically be used in one context. It may be helpful to have the student work at the sentence level, rather than at the paragraph or passage level, so he can focus more on the context. Also, try not to put other difficult words in the sentences you prepare. The following is an example:

Bob was going with Tom to the store.

Mary saw a big dog on the way home.

J.  Emphasize left-to-right in all reading activities. The following method may be helpful: Cover words or sentences with your hand or a card and read the word or sentence as you uncover it. Then have the student do the same.

K. Let the child use a typewriter or computer to practice words with which he has difficulty. This will enable him to see the word formed from left to right as he types.

L.  Pair the letters that are causing difficulty (such as p and q). Have the student trace the letters with his index and middle fingers, sounding each letter as it is traced. Or, place a thin layer of salt or fine sand in the bottom of a shoebox lid and ask the student to trace letters with his fingers in the sand or salt.

M.  If whole words are reversed, you can have the student trace the word and then attempt to write it from memory. It is often helpful to have the student say the word slowly as he writes it and to repeat this procedure several times. (It is important for the teacher to provide motivation for this type of activity. It is hoped that the student will view this as a game or a fun activity rather than punishment or drudgery.) 

N.  Use a magnetic board with three-dimensional letters. Have the student manipulate letters to form words commonly reversed. The use of magnetic letters has become very popular in recent years as an outgrowth of their use in practices associated with Reading Recovery. 

O.  Blindfold the student, then form letters or words with which he is having difficulty, using three-dimensional letters. Have the student trace the letter and say it as you trace it on his back, making sure that your finger follows the same part of the letter on the student’s back that his finger does in tracing the three-dimensional letter. 

P.  To help make the student aware of the importance of the sequence of words commonly reversed, place one word commonly reversed above itself. Then have the student draw lines from the first letter of the top word to the first letter of the bottom word.  Have the student say each letter as he begins to draw the line from it and each letter as the line reaches it. 

Q.  Write two words commonly reversed side by side. Ask the student to number the letters in the first word by placing a number under each letter. Then ask him to assign the same numbers to the letters in the second word:

saw      was            on      no

123      321            12      21