Helping my four year old not mistake 'b' and 'd' (or 'p' and 'q')

My four year old (nearly five) is reading very well, level 2 easy readers already, and in general showing signs of enjoying reading quite a lot.

He still has one issue that trips him up constantly, though: 'b' and 'd'. He gets them wrong 50% of the time (i.e., he's always guessing). He knows that he gets them wrong, and he's smart enough to try the other one if it's making a word he doesn't know, but still, frustrating!

I don't think he's dyslexic or anything like that (he's picked up reading really, really quickly, and can read relatively complex texts if he takes his time); most likely, taking his time is the issue - he, like me, is quick and speeds through things a bit too much.

He does still have a lot of 'mirror' issues when writing - he can write entire words in mirror text unintentionally (right to left, making the word exactly as if it were reflected on a vertical axis immediately preceding the first letter, each letter backwards and in the opposite order). I know this is fairly common with children, even at this age.

His teacher showed me a number writing sheet (writing the numbers 1 to 50, in rows of 10) where he wrote every '4' correctly and the tens digit before the '4', so '14' '24' etc. correct, but every other numeral backwards. My hypothesis is that he has to take his time on the '4' (hardest numeral to write) so it slows him down.

How can I work with him to get 'b' and 'd' right, and in the other case (writing) write correctly? I can of course monitor his writing practice and remind him that he's writing backwards, but that seems less helpful when he's doing it without me.

If it's relevant, he's not all that good at right/left yet in general, either. His three year old brother is better already at that.

• This is much more common than you might think, but something a lot of people don't realize is just how many people go years without resolving it. My wife is a 5th grade teacher and she still sees kids mixing those up. Those are like 10 and 11 year old kids. At her school they have worksheet papers with a sea of b and d and it asks the kids to circle one or the other. I see my daughter straightening out her confusion decently and it may be due to exercises like this, in combination with attention. Like they say, practice makes perfect May 19, 2016 at 23:07
• The way I learned the difference between left and right when i was a kid was by remembering "The hand i write with is the right hand"
– Ovi
May 20, 2016 at 21:13
• Dyslexia is a genius disorder. Apparently Leonardo Davincci was dislexic. So really, no worries. May 21, 2016 at 3:25
• Small hint, use the word "bed" to teach him. It's pretty clear when you say it out loud whether the B or the D is first, and with some imagination the word itself looks like a bed. s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/8d/41/a4/… Jun 9, 2016 at 12:32

I have some experience with literacy, and not much experience with writing. This advice is picked up from listening in on literacy teachers' strategy sessions. Here are my suggestions:

1. Not to worry. He's writing already -- he's ahead of other 4-year-olds -- when he gets into kindergarten and first grade, this will probably all work itself out. It's not something to worry too much about until then.

2. Pick one and stick with it. If you want to help now anyway, for writing or reading practice, pick either 'b' or 'd' and drill it. This will cause your son to differentiate between the letters more easily because one will become habitual. This is the same technique you can use for right-left distinction. First you learn 'right', 'right', 'right' until you can do it without thinking, then you learn 'left', 'left', 'left'. Adults are used to thinking of these as opposites or mirrors so we forget that symmetry is a concept that is taught.

3. Try tracing and saying. Using a finger to trace the letters and saying the letter aloud at the same time is a really helpful, especially for very young children. It helps consolidate letter formation and naming.

4. Use a special workbook. If your son thinks it's fun (my boys liked them because it made them feel grownup), you might try a handwriting notebook. I've heard good things about Handwriting Without Tears. My sons' school uses this curriculum. My littlest still writes mirror sometimes, but his handwriting is remarkably legible for a 5 year-old.

• Thanks for the suggestions! I will have to try some of them out, particularly picking one and sticking with it. That seems obvious when I think about it, but isn't something I had thought about before.
– Joe
May 22, 2016 at 0:00

The trick my mother used was to draw a cute bumble bee on the palm of my left hand. Whenever I was confused, she would ask "Where is the bumble bee? Give him a 'hand hug'." A "hand hug" was closing my fingers over the bee and sticking my thumb up (makes a lower-case b shape). She said "if you can't hug a bee, then it must be a d (right hand)". It only took a few days for this habit to click. Eventually I didn't need the drawing of the bee, I just associated my left hand with the letter b (I still do to this day, in some weird indescribable way).

Mirror issues are extremely common - and if you think way back to prehistoric times, it was crucial for our ancestors to recognize the pawprint of a predator or prey, not whether it was a left or right paw. (That would be for the better hunters - aka readers today.) That's how our brains are still wired for a large part. The fact that your child still has them, puts the p/q and b/d issues right in that context, as you noted.

But you need a practical approach:

• The most important thing until the brain per se takes the next step is practise, but please not boring repetitive exercises for a child that is pretty advanced and enjoys reading and writing. Continuing with reading and writing should be enough.
• Some visual "clutch" can be helpful. Find a left-right distinction he's already familiar with and connect that to some part of the letter. This depends a lot on what he's familiar with and partly on you native language. Recognizing one of the pair via rhyme or visual image can be enough.
For our son, a 'd' was him writing with the right hand in "Druckschrift" (German word for "print"): the bow was the bent arm holding the paper, the straight line, the pen.
Do not say "the 'b' has the bow on the right side" - for someone with mirror issues, left and right get mixed up often, like in your son. Ours is almost ten and still has to think when given verbal left/right directions.

First of all, my own son (at 5.5 years old) has the same issue. So do quite a few kids in his class (though to a lesser extent I guess). He mirrors 'b', 'd', 'p', 'q', '3', '5' etc.

Guess what? He's a natural lefty. He used to dominantly use his left hand, still kicks with his left foot, leads with his left foot as long as he wasn't admitted to school. My suspicion is that he's been quietly forced to use his right hand at school, despite our repeated communications to the school that he shouldn't be forced to use his right hand to do everything. Even today, he leads with his left foot ( I guess they didn't bother about his left-footedness!)

A few ways to help your kid recognize the difference between 'b' and 'd' and to help make it funnily memorable!

• One is to do as follows:

1. When you do a thumbs up with your left hand, it looks like 'b'. When you do it with the right hand, it looks like a 'd'
2. The letter 'b' looks like a stick man with a "b for belly" hanging in the front. The letter 'd' doesn't.
3. Another quirky way, but memorable! First you fill your 'b'elly, only then you go and sit on the toilet (d looks like a stick man with a big butt!).
• You can also say the letter 'p' is a prince sticking out his tongue at the queen standing next to him.

Hope this is useful to you, and others out there!