Orthographic Mapping: The Key To Learning Sight Words

Have you ever found yourself asking, “Why does my child have so much difficulty learning sight words ?” or, “Why does my child read the word correctly on one page and then read it incorrectly on the next?”  The answer may lie in what is known as orthographic mapping.  Orthographic mapping explains how we learn to read words by sight, spell words from memory, and acquire vocabulary from print.   According to Dr. Linnea Ehri, the orthographic mapping process determines how quickly a student’s sight vocabulary grows.  This process is critical to reading fluency and comprehension, it determines how we map sounds (phonemes) onto letters (graphemes).  

Sight vocabularies are the pool of words we immediately recognize from our permanent memory.  They affect reading fluency, which then affects reading comprehension.  The word orthography comes from the Greek word “orthos” which means straight and “graphos” which means writing.  Therefore, orthography means straight writing, it is the memory for the correct way to write  words.  It is  a memory of the precise letter order in words.  It allows one to instantly remember the sequence of letters well enough to instantly trigger the word without sounding it out or guessing.  Remember, writing was invented to make speech visible.  Students will understand that specific letter sequences are meaningful because letter order represents speech sounds in spoken words.  In the English language 59% of words follow precise letter sequences of spoken speech and an additional 36% can be spelled out correctly except for one speech sound, which is usually a vowel sound.  These letter sequences can be anchored into permanent memory if the student is aware of the stored phoneme sequence in a spoken word. The student will instantly make a connection between the letter and the sound sequences.  This is orthographic mapping, how words are permanently stored in memory, by the connection between the string of spoken sounds in a word’s pronunciation with the letter order in the written word.  When children do not recognize the meaning of the letter strings that make up a word, recognition becomes effortful and storage of the word in permanent memory becomes difficult.  

How is orthographic mapping accomplished?  According to Ehri (2014), this process develops in overlapping phases and changes as the child learns more complex skills.  These phases include letter knowledge, complete connections between letters and sounds, segmenting pronunciations into phonemes, reading words by analogies, and understanding that pronunciations are unitized into larger spelling patterns that recur in many words.  It is critical to understand that these phases become automatic, not a sound out process.  Orthographic mapping is the instantaneous recognition of a word.  This process does not focus on one or two letters at a time, it is the immediate recognition of a word.  All letters of the word are processed at once and are seen with a glance of the eye.  It is a spoken sound to letter process, it turns unfamiliar printed words into familiar words.  

The three areas of reading that students must become proficient in order to access the orthographic mapping process are: Phoneme awareness, which is the automatic access to sounds in spoken words and letter sound skills, which is the pairing of letters to sounds.  The third area of reading is word study, which is the unconscious and unconscious connections of phonemes in spoken words or letters in written words. Word study is not possible if your child is not proficient in phoneme awareness and letter sound skills.  Word study is the link in the process that attaches the letter to the sound and stores it in permanent memory.  

 If your child is struggling with instantly recognizing words, they probably have a weakness in one or all of these areas.  It is critical that your  child’s skills, in these areas, become  automatic.     It is these word study skills that grow vocabularies.  Also, if your child has begun to read silently, on their own, it is important to teach them to pronounce new words aloud while reading.  Often, struggling readers skip over new words and infer their meanings.  This strategy will help your child to connect the letters to sounds and retain the word’s spelling, pronunciation, and meaning into memory.  Reading science reveals that when students learn new vocabulary, they should hear the words aloud, say the word, and be exposed to the word’s proper spelling.  These strategies enhance vocabulary learning and will help store the word in memory. 

Ehri, L. C. (2014) Orthographic Mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling, memory, and vocabulary learning.  Scientific Studied of Reading, 18 (1), 5-21.