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Helping Children with Letter Reversals: Practical Tips for Parents

Navigating the B/D Maze: A Hands-On Approach with Balloons and Pigs

Mastering the distinction between 'b' and 'd' can be a stumbling block for young learners and students who have difficulty with reading, but fear not—there's a tried and true solution: the Balloons and Pigs strategy.



In this blog post, we'll not only explore this multisensory approach but also delve into a crucial first step that often gets overlooked—the identification of the "tricky letter hand."

Before we begin, we'd like to give credit to Susan Barton and The Barton Reading and Spelling System, which is where this effective letter reversal technique was developed.


Hammond Bell Tutors are certified in The Barton Reading and Spelling System and other Orton-Gillingham based programs. If your child has difficulty with reading and spelling and you're looking for real results, contact us today for a free consultation. Helping children with letter reversals is one of the many skills that we tackle in our programs.

1. Discover Your "Tricky Letter Hand":

Don't skip this step!! Before diving into the world of Balloons and Pigs, students must identify their "tricky letter hand." This is the hand they'll always use for 'b' and 'd' letter differentiations. Make it memorable—add a sticker, draw a smiley face, or associate it with their non-writing hand. This personalized touch sets the stage for a hands-on learning journey. The tricky letter hand is your student's left hand.


Susan Barton Reading, Barton Reading and Spelling, Orton-Gillingham, Dyslexia letter reversals, dyslexia flipping letters, writing letters backwards, visual strategies for letter reversals, multisensory learning
Barton Reading Orton-Gillingham Letter Reversal Strategy


2. Balloons (reading and writing the letter 'b'):

With their tricky letter hand (the left hand), students hold up the letter 'b' like a balloon. The visual connection is reinforced as balloons float "up," aligning with the upward thumb direction. With this technique, students are taught that if the letter they are working with (either spelling or reading) is the shape of their balloon/ tricky letter hand, then that letter says /b/ like the first sound in "balloon". This technique creates a mental image that makes letter orientation a breeze. When students write either the letter b or d, or come across it in a word, they should ask themselves, "is it a balloon, or not?" This will eventually become second nature, but may require parents/ teachers to use that prompting question until the student no longer needs it.


Tip: Encourage parents or teachers to actively participate in this process by adding the visual cue to the student's hand like putting a sticker or drawing a smily face, making it a collaborative and memorable experience. Helping children with letter reversals can be fun and interactive!


3. NOT balloons- Checking for 'd':

Now, let's use the same "tricky letter hand" to check for the letter 'd.' Students already know that b's and d's are tricky letters, so when they come across either when reading or spelling, they should use their "tricky letter hand" to check their balloons. If they are intending to write the letter d, their letter should not be a balloon (see below- the stem will go the opposite way). If they come across the letter d when reading, checking their tricky letter hand will show them that the d is not a balloon, so will not make the /b/ sound, but rather /d/. The key is consistency – the left hand is always the guide. This simple check ensures a quick and reliable way for children to distinguish between 'b' and 'd.'




4. Pigs: (reading and writing the letter 'p'):

When it's time to tackle the letter 'p,' the left hand transforms into a pig by flipping it downward. This action mirrors the visual cue for 'p,' and we remember this by thinking about how a pig puts its nose "down" in the mud. When students come across the letter 'p', they should check with their tricky letter hand to see if it is a 'pig' and if it is, it will say /p/, but if it's going the other way, the letter must be a 'q'.





Tips for helping children with letter reversals and to reinforce "balloons/ pigs"


Multisensory Reinforcement:

To embed the Balloons and Pigs strategy, engage students in activities that appeal to various senses:

  • Tactile Reinforcement: Incorporate tactile elements such as textured surfaces or finger tracing to reinforce the shape of each letter. This hands-on experience enhances the multisensory aspect of the learning process.

  • Verbal Associations: Encourage students to vocalize the strategy as they practice, reinforcing the connection between the hand movements, letter shapes, and associated animals. This verbal reinforcement enhances memory recall.

  • Games: There are so many games that you can play to reinforce this skill! Tic-tac-toe, eye spy, and letter searches are just a few. Reach out to us at Hammond Bell Educational Services if you want us to send you more reinforcement game ideas.


Regular Practice and Positive Feedback:

Consistent practice is the key to success. Implement regular exercises and games that involve letter differentiation. Celebrate small victories, providing positive reinforcement to boost confidence and motivation.



Teaching 'b' and 'd' distinctions doesn't have to be a challenge; it can be an interactive and memorable journey. By establishing the "tricky letter hand" and incorporating the Balloons and Pigs strategy, created by Susan Barton, developer of The Barton Reading and Spelling System , educators and parents can empower students to conquer letter reversals with confidence, turning potential frustrations into triumphs.


Supporting Readers and Sustaining Success

Nurturing the Habit of Checking for Tricky Letters

While the Balloons and Pigs strategy provides an effective framework for conquering 'b' and 'd' reversals, it's essential to recognize that mastery takes time. As students embark on this journey, it's crucial for teachers and parents to play an active role in reinforcing the habit of checking for tricky letters.

  1. Understanding the Learning Curve: Letter reversals are a common hurdle, and overcoming them is a process. The Balloons and Pigs method sets the foundation, but it's normal for students to require time and practice before these distinctions become second nature. Patience is key in this learning curve.

  2. Consistent Reminders: To support the development of this skill, consistent reminders are invaluable. Teachers and parents should encourage students to "check for tricky letters" during writing activities, spelling exercises, and reading sessions. This gentle nudge serves as a prompt, fostering awareness and promoting the application of the Balloons and Pigs technique.

  3. Incorporating Daily Practices: Integrate the habit of checking for tricky letters into daily routines. Whether it's during morning writing exercises, reading assignments, or spelling quizzes, make it a ritual to remind students to apply the Balloons and Pigs strategy. Repetition and routine play a vital role in solidifying new habits.

  4. Positive Reinforcement: Celebrate progress, no matter how small. Positive reinforcement, such as praise and recognition, goes a long way in motivating students to consistently employ the Balloons and Pigs technique. Create a supportive environment where efforts are acknowledged and celebrated.

  5. Engaging Learning Activities: Keep the learning experience dynamic and engaging. Design activities that prompt students to actively apply the Balloons and Pigs method. Interactive games, storytelling, and collaborative writing exercises can transform the learning process into an enjoyable and memorable adventure.

  6. Open Communication: Establish open lines of communication between teachers, parents, and students. Regularly discuss the challenges and successes encountered while applying the Balloons and Pigs strategy. This collaborative approach ensures a unified effort in nurturing this valuable skill.


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Confident student improving reading and spelling

Letter Reversal Strategies that work

While the Balloons and Pigs method lays a solid foundation, the journey to mastering 'b' and 'd' differentiations is a gradual one. By weaving consistent reminders into daily activities, offering positive reinforcement, and maintaining open communication, educators and parents can guide students through this transformative learning process. This is one of many strategies that Hammond Bell Educational Services uses to support students who have difficulty with reading and spelling. Remember, the goal is not just to correct reversals but to instill a lifelong habit of checking for tricky letters, setting the stage for continued success in literacy.


While it's not uncommon for young learners to experience letter reversals during their reading and spelling journey, it's essential to be proactive in providing additional support. Identifying and addressing these challenges early on can significantly enhance a child's reading skills. Explore personalized reading intervention options to ensure every child receives the individualized support they need for reading success.




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