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  • Jessica Poggioli

A Letter by Any Other Name

Updated: Feb 1, 2019

I recently attended a fascinating talk by Dr. Joanna Christodoulou of MGH Institute of Health Professions about the cognitive neuroscience of reading. She pointed out that the lowercase letters “b”, “d”, and “p” are pretty much the only things in our existence that stop being what they are when we flip them around or turn them upside down.


All other objects in our worlds stay the same no matter how we view them, and our brains our trained to expect that sense of constancy. A toothbrush is still a toothbrush when it's backwards and a fork is still a fork even if it's upside-down. So really, when we learn to read, we’re rewiring our brains and teaching it that a small“b” is something entirely different from a “d” or a “p” (even though it’s really the same shape, just flipped a different way).


This got me thinking about kids with learning disorders and how our education system treats them, as if there is something terribly wrong with them and how unfair that really is. Some children struggle mightily with letter reversal, when really, their brains have only just mastered the concept of object constancy.


We have to help all kids learn to read as best as they can. Written communication is essential for success in our culture. But let’s not forget that maybe there’s something a little silly about this alphabet of ours and that our aural language and written language don’t really match up all that well. We came into this language that we use at this particular place in the world at this particular time through various stumbles and missteps, through wars and through marriages of cultures and through migration. It's

not because it's the *right* language and not because there is something wrong with those whose brains can't crack the code. If the language we used was a little different, it would just be a different group of people who would have trouble using it. So let's try to remember that when we write our IEP plans and discuss our kid's learning strategies. Especially when they're in the room.

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