Why do some children write letters backwards?

Information & training
on language acquisition and language education

In the past, it was thought that learning to read and write would take place in school alone, but today we know that many children acquire skills in dealing with written material long before that. The written language experiences that children have in the first years of life have been summarized for several years under the term “literacy”. The idea of ​​what reading and writing can actually mean has also changed: While in the 1970s this was primarily understood to mean correct writing, over the decades a more comprehensive picture of written language has established itself. This is one of the reasons why elementary schools do not necessarily focus on correct spelling at the beginning of writing lessons. However, many parents find it difficult to appreciate a freely formulated text from their own child if it contains numerous spelling mistakes - also because they themselves have just learned to write after a different understanding.

If you take a closer look at what, according to today's knowledge, belongs to written language skills and how children acquire them, it becomes clear that freely written texts, as incorrect as they may be, are an important step on the way to written language (How do children learn to read and write in school?). How can parents and educational professionals in day-care centers support children on this path? To answer this question, it is helpful to know:


What does it mean to be able to read and write?

From today's perspective, reading and writing include:

  • The ability to recognize where something is written, how around you hold a book, that you leaf through it, from where to where we read and write ...

  • To perceive reading and writing as full-fledged activities, to recognize that writing has a meaning that can be communicated through it.

    Example: Marie (2; 9) borrowed Nick's socks with TUESDAY on them. When undressing, she perceives the writing as such and says
    "It says Nick!"

  • The ability to think about language (= metalinguistic awareness): To be able to draw attention to the purely linguistic form - and not, as is usual for smaller children, to the content.

    Example: raven and vine are similar in terms of their typeface
    because the sound is similar and not what is designated,
    as with raven and blackbird.

  • The ability to perceive individual sounds of language (= phonological awareness): Where does one word end, where does the next begin? What sound does a word begin with? Which sounds are in the middle / at the end of the word?

  • The knowledge that written language differs from spoken language in essential points: the grammar is more complex, the vocabulary more diverse. What is written is not explained, like what is spoken, from the current context - this must always be explained as well.

    Example: Oral: I put that there.
    In writing: I put the book on the dresser.

    Oral: Paul wrote with a pen at school.
    In writing: (in a story): Paul wrote in school with a fountain pen.

  • Correct spelling is of course still one of the main written language skills.


What phases do children go through when actually acquiring the written language?

Children go through the following stages when they learn to write:

1st scribble phase:
Insight into the behavior when writing; imitation

Example: Children draw traces on a piece of paper and then read aloud,
"what it says".

2. Logographic writing:
Writing of sequences of single known letters;
Copy or paint

Example: Child (3; 9): MAMAMAMA

3rd alphabetical phase:
Writing with a sound reference; Write how to speak

Example: Child (5; 11): "Okay - Oh, no!"


4. Orthographic phase:
Spelling strategies, often associated with over-generalization:
New insights into spelling are applied, even there
where they may be wrong.

Example: A child has learned that things can often end with -er
writes, even if it actually sounds like -a.
It now spells correctly: excavator, truck
but also: Omer (instead of grandma)

5. Automation:
The spelling is mastered so that the person writing
can concentrate fully on the content.

The age at which a child goes through the respective phase varies greatly from person to person. It depends to a large extent on how diverse the experiences it has in its environment with written language. Most children are in phase 2 or 3 when they start school.


How do children acquire written language skills?

Children approach written language in the same way that they generally acquire language (How do children acquire language (s)?): By imitating what you experience in your environment, in interactions, playfully, with the involvement of all your senses, unconsciously and actively.

As with the acquisition of spoken language, the focus is not on writing as such, but on its function: What is written there for, what do I get out of it when I can read and write? If writing plays an important role in the child's family, for example because the parents read a lot, do paperwork in the presence of the child, because lists or letters are written together, the child receives mail from relatives, etc., the child will do so accept it as something important and self-evident - and find a variety of answers to the question of the importance of written language:

I can through written language ...

  • tell me, e.g. B. through notes with messages or in letters

  • Make lists so that I don't forget anything

  • Get stories read out loud and read for yourself

  • write stories

  • Read the news in newspapers

  • Read instructions in instruction manuals ...

Children who are taught from an early age what written language is for and who experience it at an early age find it easier to learn to read and write later in school than those who had little or no experience beforehand ( Reading studies by the Reading Foundation). In this context, the daycare center plays an important role - namely to enable all children to experience the written language.


How can literacy experiences be conveyed in the day-care center?

Like language education (linguistic education in the day care center; language education in the family) In general, the teaching of written language skills is also based on the child's acquisition processes. Pedagogical specialists in day-care centers can take advantage of the impartiality with which children actively acquire new things.

Literacy in the day-care center does not contradict its own educational mandate, but rather shapes the transition from day-care center to school.

Concretely, everything that has to do with written language is beneficial, e.g. B .:

  • Make writing (in different languages!) Visible in the day care center, e.g. B. through books and notices; write the names of the children on their coat hooks; do paperwork in the presence of the children ...
  • Offer role-playing games in which writing plays a central role, e.g. in the shop, in the post office, in the restaurant ...

  • Set up a writing area with writing utensils / reading area with easily accessible, changing books in many languages.

  • Write together with children, e.g. B. Lists, invitations; Annotate photos ...

  • Viewing picture books and reading aloud in many languages
  • Much that plays a role in language education and in day-to-day life anyway, e.g. B. rhymes, songs, rhythms, is also conducive to the development of language awareness.


How do children learn to read and write in school?

There are different methods for spelling lessons in school, which differ mainly in the degree of their structure: Some children learn individual letters one after the other so that their writing efforts begin with given words such as "Mimi" or "Mama". Other children are given a sound table with the help of which they can write free texts from the first lesson on - which of course initially contain a lot of spelling errors.

Which is the right method? This is difficult to answer empirically, because firstly, learning to read and write is a complex process, the success of which cannot be tied to one teaching method alone. Second, the individual methods are rarely used in their pure form in a class or school, but are often combined with one another.

In summary, studies show ("Fact check" of the Mercator Institute) but:

  • All methods lead to the goal - at the end of the 4th grade no method is superior.

  • There is not one method that is right for everyone. Some children learn well in open forms, others need more guidance. It is also important that the teacher is convinced of the methods they are using.

  • Structured instruction is essential for spelling acquisition; Children do not learn correct writing on their own.

  • It makes sense to teach the children spelling strategies with which they can find out for themselves how something is written (e.g. dog - dogs, so dog is written with a “d” at the end and not with a “t”). If, on the other hand, you just give rules for the correct spelling and let them learn by heart, they are not understandable for the child.

But how do you start the lesson? This question can be easily answered if you look at the child's development at the time of school entry and keep in mind: Children don't suddenly develop completely differently just because they are a school child!

When starting school, children bring ...

  • Proud to be a school kid

  • Pleasure and motivation to read and write
  • Self-activity and the urge to develop further

  • Individual very different previous experiences

  • Most children are in the logographic or alphabetical phase when they start school (Phases of written language acquisition)

When starting school, children bring Not With ...

  • A mature awareness of language as such

  • The ability to deal with linguistic rules in a differentiated manner

  • Sufficient fine motor skills
  • Interest in writing beautifully and correctly

A pedagogical maxim is to pick up a child where it “stands”. When it comes to teaching the written language, it also makes sense to tie in with what the child in question brings with them (and what not yet). That means letting it write freely at first. In this way, the child can further develop their interest in written language and their personal experiences with it. Right from the start, they experience themselves as a competent writer and learn that reading and writing have important functions. Children who learn to write letter by letter, on the other hand, often never even get the idea that they could write something freely (“No, we haven't had that yet”). Free writing is as Started thought. It in no way replaces the structured instruction, rather both complement each other: Children use script from the beginning, but also increasingly learn to follow rules.

further literature on children's written language acquisition