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Learning to See, Right-Side Up

You might assume that you were born seeing.

Actually, sight takes some learning. A neonate needs time to process the new visual world it’s confronted with.

Part of the problem: Eyes are built to see upside down. We learn to see right-side up in our first hours… most of us.

While I’m no expert at reading upside down, when asked, I can do it, and even pick up some speed. But I don’t call it easy.

I’m not at all unusual – as kids, lots of us played with books end-over-end for fun, and are able to read inversed texts as adults when necessary. Those of us who work with a lot of upside down documents, like tutors and clerks in copy stores, learn to be very proficient – however, not likely to read upside down by choice.

There are, however, some people who preferentially read print formats in orientations other than upright. Called PI – Print Inverted – readers, their perspectives, like those of Mirror Readers, are inspiring exciting new learning tools for teachers and parents.

I recently became aware of a fascinating website called – a research-based hub hosted by Stephen Round – a US elementary school teacher devoted to helping children learn to read in ways that suit their unique points of view. His conclusion: “For some kids, reading upside down is the ONLY way they can make sense of print…” “A true PI reader cannot read at all in the conventional way.”

How is this possible?

We return to the biology of vision: The physics of optics dictates that the images of what we look at are projected onto our retinas upside down and backwards. It’s because of the crystalline lens in each eye that bends incoming light rays. The job of the visual cortex is to take the inverted image produced by the lens in each eye, and make functional sense of it given other sensory information.

For the majority of us, this orientation adjustment occurs early, right after birth. It seems most people come prepared to cope with these crystalline quirks, and easily adjust. At least until it comes to dealing with print. Recognizing an inverted tree as a tree is not the same as recognizing an inverted letter or word, because when it comes to decoding text, orientation and directionality matter. Take the classic p and q, or d and b. Learning to read English requires learning to see right-side up and frontwards.

Stephen Round believes that for some people, this ability to perceptually flip the word-image over is incomplete, resulting in tremendous difficulties when learning to read. He contends that children who have problems learning to decode ought to be encouraged to explore different text orientations, to see how they respond.

Round draws on the research of Larsen and Parlenvi (1984) who observe, “A significant percentage of struggling readers perform much better when allowed to hold the text inverted (upside down) rather than in the “normal” way.”

According to Round, “if allowed and encouraged to read text upside-down, these children progress just as rapidly in their reading and writing acquisition as their peers…The interesting thing is that when they are encouraged to read upside down, they will usually ‘turn it over’ within a month and be able to read normally after that.”

Both Mirror Reading and PI Reading are part of a fast-moving new wave of educational research and practice using alternate print formats. These discoveries, that brains approach differently oriented texts with different aptitudes, offer ancient-new options for people with dyslexia and dysgraphia.

When struggling readers learn to love books, something is going very right.

Please let us know about your own backwords skills.

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