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How to Solve b-d Reversal Problems

B-D confusion!Fortunately, most of the letters of the alphabet have unique shapes. No matter which way you turn them, the letter i looks quite different from the letter x, and f looks different from k.

There are two notorious troublemakers, though: the letters b and d. It is easy to see where the confusion comes in: flip the b and it becomes a d.

When should you take action?

Beginning readers commonly confuse b and d. If your student is between the ages of three and seven, is just starting to read, and makes occasional reversal errors when reading, that is normal. It doesn’t mean that your student has dyslexia or a reading disability. Make a gentle correction and move on.

But if your student is eight years or older, has had prior reading instruction, and is making frequent b-d reversal errors, it is important to take action to solve the reversal problem.

As reading instructors, we have two jobs to do regarding reversals:

1.  Try to prevent confusion. 
2.  Where confusion exists, resolve it.

Job #1: Prevent Confusion

The first line of defense is to prevent confusion before it begins. The All About Reading program is carefully structured to minimize the likelihood of letter reversals. We teach the sounds of potentially confusing letters like b and d in separate lessons. The child’s task is simplified because he only has to make one new visual discrimination at a time.

When your student is learning to print, be sure to teach correct letter formation. Doing so is critical to prevent confusion. When forming the letter b, start with the stick first, followed by the circle:

Forming the letter b

To write the letter d, start with the circle first, followed by the stick: 

Forming the letter d

Have your student use lined paper so it is clear where the circle is in relation to the stick. Also be sure your student does not lift the pencil from the paper when writing any of these letters.

If you are working with older learners, though, it may be too late to prevent confusion. They may have had a few false starts in reading, and they may have already confused these troublemakers. They may encounter the letter b and misinterpret it as the letter d. They may read the word bad as dab, or fad as fab. You might give a gentle correction, pull out the corresponding Phonogram Cards, and re-teach the letters separately, but your student still mixes them up.

In this case, you need to move on to your second job as reading instructor:

Job #2: Resolve Confusion

The best way to clear up reversal problems is through multisensory teaching. Multisensory teaching involves multiple pathways to the brain: sight, sound, and touch.

Concentrate on just one letter per session. After that letter is completely mastered, you can add the second letter.

Teaching the letter b

Explain that the letter b is made up of a bat and a ball. When you write the letter, you first draw the bat part of the letter. Demonstrate this.

Have a variety of textile surfaces for your student to choose from. Possibilities include flannel fabric, corrugated cardboard, very fine sandpaper, fluffy fur fabric, or a carpet square. Ask him which surface reminds him of the letter b.

Then cut a large lowercase b out of the chosen tactile surface.

Demonstrate to your student how to trace the letter b on the tactile surface. As you are tracing, say “bat-ball-/b/,” like this:

Teaching the letter b

To further clarify which side of the letter the straight line is on, tell your student, “First you grab the bat, then you hit the ball.”

Have your student practice this motion and chant many times over a two-minute time period. Repeat the exercise several times a day.

Show your student that when you are reading from left to right, you encounter the bat part of the letter first. If he is ever unsure of the sound this letter makes when he sees it, he should think to himself, “bat-ball-/b/.” He will now be able to recall the sound of the letter b.

You can also have your child use “air writing” to write the letter b. Stand next to your child and demonstrate how we make the letter b. Get your whole arm involved, and pretend that your pointer finger is a pen. Write lowercase b in the air, using big motions. Start at the top of the first line of the b, pulling the line straight down. As you do this, say “/b/ – bat.” After you hit the bottom of the b, trace part of the way back up and then form the circle part. Keep it all one fluid motion. After you’ve done this several times, explain that the first line down is like a bat used in baseball, and then we hit the ball. Be sure that your child uses his or her dominant hand to do this activity. The large movements of the arm combined with saying the sound at the same time will help link these two concepts together in his or her brain. Brain research shows that two ideas practiced at the same time can permanently bond the ideas together. Additionally, this multisensory activity takes advantage of the fact that the muscles in the shoulder and in the jaw have “muscle memory,” and this makes it easier for your child to recall the shape and sound of the letter b.

After the “air writing” activity, you can reinforce the concept by tracing the letter b on other tactile surfaces. Then, when your child misreads a b as a d, you can refer back to the activities that you did together. After the misreading, point to the misread letter and say, “If you wrote this letter, what would this letter say?” If your child can’t answer easily, ask him or her to draw the letter b using air writing. The sound of the letter (“/b/- bat”) should come more easily this way. Then have your child read the word again.

Concentrate first on getting your child to master the letter b. When he or she has that concept down pat, you can move on to the letter d.

Teaching the letter d

Have your student choose a different textile fabric for the letter d. Cut a large lowercase d out of the chosen tactile surface. Use the new surface to trace the letter d, saying “doorknob-door-/d/.” The doorknob represents the circle part of the letter, and the door represents the straight line, like this:

Teaching the letter d


To clarify which side of the letter the straight line is on, tell your student, “First you grab the round doorknob, then you open the door.”

Again, practice the motion and chant many times over a two-minute period. Repeat the exercise several times a day.

Show your student that when you are reading from left to right, you encounter the doorknob part of the letter first. If he is ever unsure of the sound this letter makes when he sees it, he should think to himself, “doorknob-door-/d/.” He will now be able to recall the sound of the letter d.

When tracing the letter d in the air, start with the circle part of the letter first. (Don’t start with the line first. For many kids, this causes confusion between the b and d.) As you write the circle part of the letter, say “/d/ – doorknob,” as described above.

Another tip: When we say “b,” our lips are closed in a straight line. The straight line comes first in b. When we say “d,” our lips are open. The circle comes first in d.

After the letter d is mastered, do a mixed review of letters b and d. Continue to practice several times a day, and then gradually reduce the number of sessions.

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