Right 2 Left

I’ve had this post sitting in my backlog for a while, waiting for the right time to share it. It seems to me that it’s a nice follow-up to yesterday’s post about the EEEEEville Lernstift pen, so here it is.

I will warn you, though, that it’s something of an incomplete post. Not only can I not fill in the “why”, but I have more questions than answers. I’m throwing this out in the hope that you, the reader, can help fill in some of the blanks.

My nephew Simon is three years old, and beginning to learn to read and write. A little while ago, some of his writings came out backward: written right-to-left and the letters flipped around the vertical axis.

Don’t start thinking “dyslexia”, though. It turns out that this is actually very common with children learning to write. A pediatric physician sums it up nicely:

There is no need for concern if your granddaughter is otherwise well. It is completely normal for children to write “backwards” at this age. In addition to letter and number reversals, some children will truly write in mirror image: going from right to left with all the letters reversed. There is nothing wrong with this. The brain does not completely form the concept of left and right until somewhere between ages five and eight. This means that almost all children will have persistent reversals when they first start writing.

The “why” I can’t find an answer for is what’s actually going on in forming the concepts of right and left? Is it a change in brain structure (there’s a lot of physical brain development happening at that age) or is it a software change (something learned)? Logically, I would think it was the latter, given that left/right distinction can be taught well into adulthood (I’m thinking here of the ancient military trick of tying hay to one foot and straw to the other to get recruits marching with the correct foot first.) But that doesn’t really answer the question of whether there is physical development that has to happen first – and if so, what is that change, and what else is tied into it? There doesn’t seem to be a lot of concrete information out there on the web (at least not in layman-friendly language), but as best I can tell, adults learning a new language don’t exhibit mirror-writing in the absence of strokes.

The other question I can’t find an answer to is whether this phenomenon is seen in other languages, especially languages that are not written left-to-right. I’d be particularly interested in the behaviour of children who are learning Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or other languages that can be written horizontally or vertically. Are there occurrences of children writing bottom-to-top?

I note also that there are several languages which are traditionally written in alternating directions on successive lines. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for English-speaking children who exhibit mirror-writing to write this way – I can’t help but wonder whether children learning to write in those languages have directionality issues, and if so, what form they take (spiraling around the page to the center, perhaps?)

Any parents out there want to chime in with your experiences? Any developmental psychologists with data?