It is not uncommon for children to confuse p/d/q/b.
There is a great video clip in which an educator holds up a watch by one end of the band and asks his audience of teachers what he is holding – a watch! He then then turns the watch upside down by holding it by the other end of the band and again asks what he is holding – a watch. He repeats this several more times holding the watch horizontally and then turning the watch so the audience can only see the back of the watch. He finishes by making the point that for the first 4 years of a child’s life he/she learns about object constancy (i.e., irrespective of how an object is held or from which angle it is viewed it is the same object – the watch doesn’t suddenly become a ball just because it is being held differently or viewed from a different angle).
However, when a child goes to school and starts learning the letters of the alphabet, suddenly this concept of object constancy no longer holds true – a stick with a circle can be a ‘p’, ‘d’, ‘q’ or ‘b’ depending on how it is viewed.
So, how can we help children having difficulty distinguishing between these letters and in particular between ‘b’ and ‘d’?
I very rarely work with students who don’t have a reasonable understanding of the alphabet. However, when I start at this level and teach students how to write each letter correctly including the correct starting position and direction of formation, they don’t confuse ‘b’ and ‘d’ when writing, even though they might confuse the letters when reading. This suggests that a good starting point is to ensure that children are taught to form letters correctly right from the beginning.
As a child, I never found it particularly helpful talking about a bat and ball or drum and drumsticks because I could never remember if it was ball and bat or bat and ball, or drum and drumsticks or drumsticks and drum.
- Teach children the bed (see accompanying picture). Bed begins with ‘b’ and the first hand looks like a ‘b’ with the thumb and side of the hand forming the ‘stick’ and the fist forming the ‘ball’. Bed ends with ‘d’ and the second hand looks like a ‘d’. Many children need to see the two letters written and make the comparison between the shape of the letter and the shape of their hands to make the connection.
- Focus on one letter. For right-handed children, every time they want to write ‘b’ or ‘d’ encourage them to form the first part of the bed with their left hand. This is ‘b’. If they are writing ‘b’, then they just copy the formation. If they are writing ‘d’, it’s the other one. For left-handed children do the reverse (i.e., they form the end of the bed with their right hand. This is ‘d’ and the reverse is ‘b’).
- Reinforce the concept of ‘b’ beginning with a ‘stick’ by hitting the desk with an open left hand and then making the right hand into a fist and placing it next to the ‘stick’.
- Reinforce the concept of ‘d’ by comparing it to ‘a’. I find that children rarely reverse the letter ‘a’. Consequently, it is often useful if they think of the letter ‘d’ as being like the letter ‘a’ with a long stick. Write the word ‘dad’ on a whiteboard and then place a piece of paper on the top half of the word to demonstrate the similarity between ‘d’ and ‘a’.
- Every time your child writes ‘b’ or ‘d’, encourage him/her to check irrespective of whether the letter has been written correctly or incorrectly. As this checking process is understood, change from a verbal cue to just tapping on the letter. Hopefully, the child will begin checking without prompting and then transfer this behaviour into the classroom.