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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Widemire Smith

Right-vs-Left, -vs-Wrong, -vs-Car...

Updated: Mar 26, 2020

A common issue dyslexics face is remembering left from right. It’s a constant battle that continues to trouble people well into adulthood. It affects driving skills, ability to read a map, follow instructions, turn a key or water hose. For the most part, it’s a mild frustration.

Schools have all kinds of memory tricks they try to use for learning left from right. Most children learn these tricks well. A common one is to make an L shape using your thumb and pointer fingers. Whichever side makes the “L” shape is the left side. It makes perfect sense. If your brain can remember which way an “L” goes.

The problem is, dyslexics struggle with reversals. An L backward is still seen and interpreted as an L to a dyslexic. So which one is left and right again???

Memory trick fail.

My kids have been no exception.

For the most part, I’ve not made an issue about it. There have been so many other things to worry about that this doesn’t even come close to making the list as a priority. However, lately, my kids have been getting frustrated when they try to use a key to open a door and can’t remember which way to turn it.

They’re trying to use language like, “Please pass the crayon on your left.” but getting it wrong thus leading to the wrong crayon.

“Mom? How do I remember without making mistakes all the time?” Lyla asked me a few weeks ago. “I try to learn from my mistakes but this one is really hard,” she said.

Great question.

I wasn’t sure how to answer other than to keep promoting the language.

Recently I took up cycling. I wanted to push into becoming a tri-athlete—own my limits and demolish them. I have thoroughly enjoyed the wind in my face and the strength I’ve built in my legs and core. In so doing, I’ve become a part of an awesome cycling community. I've grown rather fond of a group, in particular, that’s family-friendly. Kids who can keep up are encouraged to join.

We have friends who do it and so naturally my kids want to join in. But there's a problem. Cycling can be dangerous on the roads if you don’t know the rules before they can join they first need to master quite a lot of new skills.

Language first:

“Car up” means there’s a car approaching us.

“Car back” means there’s one behind us getting closer.

When approaching a stop sign or intersection it’s “Car right” or “Car left" or "Clear."

At intersections, my kids end up looking in all directions. Double-checking their double-check. At first, I thought it was an overabundance of safety. But it slowly dawned on me. It was an inability to remember which way was left and right. An overabundance of caution isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if I say, "Car left!" and they don't understand? They don't know where the danger is. And that's a huge problem.

Understanding the language and rules of the road can have life and death consequences so it’s imperative as a parent that I teach them well. Bicycles are legally considered vehicles and as such are required by law to travel on the streets, not sidewalks. There's not a cop in my area who would ever ticket a bike for being on the sidewalk but technically sidewalks are for pedestrians only, so unless you're a baby in a stroller you shouldn't be on wheels on the sidewalks. They're not made for it. Your bike is not designed for it. Stay off.

As cyclists, we are generally expected to stay on the right side of the lane. I’m allowed to take up the entire lane, but given how small a vehicle I am, it’s polite to hug the painted white line on the right. This is so that 1) other cyclists can pass me on the left. And 2) cars may pass me on the left with a minimum of 3 feet distance when, and only when, it is safe to pass with oncoming traffic (just as you would when passing little miss daisy).

Knowing all this, I’ve been a drill sergeant. I’ve lost track oh how much I’ve told my kids, “stay on the right.” They swerve and crash. They’re still learning control. Still growing accustomed to having breaks on their handlebars instead of their pedals. Whenever they forget and look down wondering why their feet aren't breaking they swerve, big time.

Oy vey.

In the midst of exercising patience as my kids pushed my nerves to the edge and beyond I realized I was up against the big D once again. It wasn't simply a matter of learning control it was also a matter of communication within their brains. I reminded myself of the rules: Dyslexics learn best using hands-on activity, five sense engagement, and utilizing understanding not memorization.

I decided to take them off-roading and take the cars out of the equation. Our city built a bike path that travels down an airport runway. We get to ride and watch the coast guard planes take off. The big Fed Ex planes land. And the smaller private jets bank. It’s been the perfect place to run bike drills.

In order to stay on the right, they have to maintain visual of that white line, not the yellow (vision is a five sense engagement). If a line is not present then it's "the edge."

They are constantly hearing me repeat, “hug the white line” or "stay near the edge." Audio is another five sense engagement.

Biking also requires them to physically engage just about every major muscle group in their little bodies to keep moving along that white line. There isn't a single part of them that isn't engaged. Each kid got one-on-one lessons.

Lyla rode flawlessly the whole way down the path. We reached the end of it where it collides with Mobile Bay. We took a water break, listened to the waves and seagulls, and talked about how great she’d done and the few areas she could still work on—like changing gears on hills.

When it was time to head back she took the lead and for the life of me I could not figure out why she kept going to the left side whenever I’d say, “Stay on the right.” I finally had to overtake her and make her come to a stop.

“Hey, kiddo. What’s happened? Why are you on the left side?”

She looked completely confused. “Isn’t that side the wrong one, Mom? You said we always had to stay on this side.”

Oh dear right-vs-wrong instead of right-vs-left. Double dyslexic strike!

I made her move her bike over to the right-right side of the path. "Whenever you are riding no matter what street or direction you're going in," I explained and touched her right arm only, "Stay on this side." and I patted her right arm and her right leg and pointed to the edge of the concrete. "Even if it's a dirt road, it's this side." then I pointed up ahead, “There are blind corners on the path and a lot of cyclists come down this path and they go very fast. You have to stay on the right side no matter which direction you’re riding. If you don’t do this, you’ll crash into the other cyclist and get very hurt.”

As if right on cue, a cyclist came barreling down the path. She watched him pass us and waved. The light bulb went off. She stopped using the terms right and left and just looked at the concrete. “So I want to keep the edge next to me, on this side?” and she lifted her right leg and hand in the air.


The visual, the physical sensations, the audible all coming together and understanding finally dawned. She raced me back to the car hugging that edge the entire time. I'd start to pass her on the left by saying, "Passing left." and she'd squeal and pedal faster, "Not today mom!"

After both kids had their own private lessons they started drilling each other as a game.

“Raise your right hand if you want some ice cream.” A hand would go up and they’d race to the freezer.

“Hop on your left foot. Now your right.” they giggle as they often lose their balance and fall over. Twister became a fun game all of a sudden.

“Car left!” they’ll shout in the car on the way to school. And sure enough, cars are on the left side.

“Lyla will you hand me that toy?” Landon will ask.

“Which toy?” she'll clarify.

“The one on your right!”

It’s clicked.

When they’re tired I still see the struggle. It sometimes takes them an extra second to get it “right.” They sometimes raise the correct hand but call it the wrong word. Often I see them close their eyes before answering. "Whatcha thinking about?" I'll query. "I'm just recalling the bike path to remember which direction."

Each person is a little different and each brain stores information according to the importance it deems a priority. The thing to remember when teaching our dyslexic kids these types of lessons is to make it personal and relevant to them. This lesson stuck because my kids are highly motivated to join the bike group. Their desire to learn is overcoming their brain communication problems. Experience will trump rote memorization every time.

Whatever you do, make it memorable, make it fun, and make it count.

Learn to ride a bike...Car left folks!

While you're here don't forget to check out my new novel, coming soon. Read an excerpt here.

#learningleftfromright #saydyslexia #1in5 #thedword #diaryofadyslexic

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