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Difficulties distinguishing b and d

Extracted from Frank Smith's book -- Reading

The tendency to give unnecessary and inaccurate medical explanations for quite normal kinds of behavior is well illustrated by the phenomenon of reversals the apparent confusion of pairs of letters like b and d or p and q, and even pairs of words like was and saw or no and on. Misreadings of this kind are conspicuous in some children and may provoke 'treatment' which can make learning to read more difficult. In fact, the discrimination of mirror image figures is not easy, mistakes can be made by anyone, and the problem invariably goes away as the individual learns to read.

The discrimination of b from d is difficult because the difference between the two letters is minimal; a matter of whether the upright stroke is on the left or the right of the circle -- and is not a difference that is significant or even relevant in most other aspects of our experience. A dog is a dog whether it is facing right or left: a car is a car whether it is traveling west or east. Only letters of the alphabet change their name depending on the direction they are facing. (Those more general discriminations that do require distinctions of actual or relative direction, such as 'left' and 'right' or telling the time from the hands of a clock, are notoriously difficult for most children.)

Not only is the b d distinction difficult for children learning to read because of its unusual sad minimal nature, it is also one of the easiest for adults to confuse. Of course we do not usually mistake b and d when we read, but that is primarily because we have so many other clues and are not looking at the letters in the first place. Fluent readers could make sense of print if every b were changed into d and vice versa, or if every b and d were obliterated altogether. But to distinguish b from d when the letters occur in isolation, one at a time, is much harder, and the fact that we can normally do so with facility must be attributed to the years of experience we have had and the amount of time we are given, relatively speaking, to inspect the evidence, Put a fluent reader in a situation where a minimum of visual information is available, for example by flashing the letter briefly on a screen, and there is a high probability that if a mistake is made at all it will be to confuse b with d, p with q.

Because the difference between b and d is both unusual and difficult to perceive, it is relatively difficult for children to learn, especially if they are not given adequate opportunity to observe and practice making the distinction, or if they are confused about the distinction in the first place. Children cannot 'see' a difference if they do not understand what it is or the difference that it makes. It is completely nonsensical to say that reversals are caused by 'seeing backwards'. Seeing backwards is a logical and physical impossibility. It is physically impossible to see part of our field of view one way and the rest the other --to see two cars going one way and one in the reverse direction when they are all in fact heading the same way. A child who sees a letter backwards would have to see everything else backwards at the sane time, including the paper or board on which the letter was written. But it is logically impossible for everything to be seen backwards, because each element would still be seen in the same relationship with every other element, and paradoxically therefore everything would still appear to be the right way round.

Sometimes it is argued that children must be seeing letters backwards because they write them that way. But writing requires quite different kinds of skill altogether. We can all recognize faces and figures that we could not possibly reproduce accurately. If I try to draw a face and make it look like a potato, that does not mean that I see a face as a potato, it means that I am a poor artist. A child may draw a human figure as a circular head with matchstick arms and legs, but the picture does not indicate how the child sees a human figure. Show young children their own distorted drawings of a person and an artist's representation, and they will readily tell you which looks most like what they see. Children do not and cannot draw what they see, and the fact that they might write a few or many letters backwards says nothing about their vision, simply that they have not yet learned the difficult task of writing letters conventionally.

How should a child who makes reversals be treated? Confronted by the choice of helping children to circumvent a minor difficulty or of magnifying it into a major stumbling block, teachers may unwittingly act as if they have no choice at all and select the most difficult and least productive alternative. The importance of being able to distinguish b from d is grossly overrated. Skill in making the distinction is not required to become a reader, but becoming a reader makes distinguishing the two letters relatively simple, especially when they occur in meaningful print. When children have trouble with letters, perhaps confusing words like big and dig, it must be because they are reading words or sentences which are essentially meaningless (or as if they are meaningless). No one who is reading for sense could confuse words like big and dig, or was and saw, in a meaningful context.

But instead of being encouraged to use meaning to help unravel the confusion of similar looking words, children who encounter difficulty are likely to be given concentrated exercises requiring them to distinguish word pairs like big and dig in isolation: this is not only more difficult but is almost certainly going to increase apprehension and bewilderment. And if they show no progress with words in isolation the children may be restricted to drills with b and d alone. But letters in isolation are considerably more difficult than letters in words because an important clue has been removed. The difference between b and d at the beginning of a word is that the upright stroke is on the outside for b (as in big) but on the inside for d (as in dig). But 'outside' and 'inside' are meaningless for letters in isolation. There is only one possible way of making learning to distinguish b from d even more difficult, and that is to show the letters one at a time, so that there is no basis for comparison, expecting children to learn b before even meeting d. And this of course is the logical final step of transforming the 'problem' of reversal from a transient nuisance to complete consternation. The only treatment required to help a child avoid reversal errors is a solid regime of meaningful reading, so that a temporary difficulty is not magnified into an insurmountable handicap before the child learns to read

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