Simply put, when you can read a word instantly without putting any effort into decoding it, you know that word has been orthographically mapped into your brain’s storage system. This way, the ability to store words makes reading seem magical because it means we can listen to the story with our eyes and escape into the world of a great book.
What Is Orthographic Mapping?
In the early stages, listening to children read can be frustrating for an adult. Young readers approach words letter by letter, sounding out each with varying degrees of accuracy. Thankfully over time, reading skills improve, and children become more fluent. But how do they move from slowly decoding word by word to being able to read words quickly and easily? Thank orthographic mapping, the process competent readers use to store written words, so they can automatically recognize them on sight. The more words we have stored in this sight word bank, the easier reading becomes, allowing our brains to focus on comprehension rather than decoding because the words simply jump off the page and can’t be stopped.
Oral language comprehension provides the foundation for understanding written text. The term “orthographic” comes from Greek, meaning to have correct writing. This mapping process makes a connection between the correct spelling sequences and the words we know. To understand the relationship, let’s look at brain processes used in learning to read.
Learning to Read is Complex
Learning to read is a complex process that involves connecting spoken language to the written code through four different processing systems in the brain. This Four-Part Processing Model (Seidenberg & McClelland, 1989) includes the phonological processor, a mental dictionary that stores all the words we’ve heard and use orally, which is utilized for sounding out the words we see. These words are taken in through the orthographic processor, and then we use our meaning and context processors to make sense of the text. For example, when a child sees the word “bat,” they can say the sounds /b/-/ă/-/t/ and determine the word’s pronunciation if it is in their phonological dictionary. But is it an animal or sports equipment? Putting the word into context allows the correct meaning to be established.
Speaking comes naturally for most children, and words learned along the way are stored for fast, easy retrieval in that phonological processor. Within those words are units of sound called phonemes, the smallest speech sound differences that are important for word recognition. Phonemes help us distinguish between “save” and “safe” – You can save for a rainy day, but money should be stored in a safe place. Although phoneme sequences are stored in the brain along with the words, unlocking them is not intuitive. Yet phoneme awareness is key to reading success because it’s needed for orthographic mapping.
Unlike speaking, reading is not a natural process and must be taught. English is an alphabetic writing system where the letters represent the speech sounds. Most children need instruction in the connection between the letters and the phonemes, and for many, this link needs to be explicitly taught. But the connection is not simply one letter to one speech sound. There are about 44 speech sounds in English, and our alphabet only has 26 letters, so we end up with letter combinations like ‘ch’ and ‘sh’ to spell words like ‘chip’ and ‘ship.’ English is also morpho-phonemic, meaning that spellings represent both sound and meaning. For example, ‘people’ and ‘population’ are related in meaning, and although the ‘o’ isn’t sounded in ‘people,’ it is there to mark that connection.
These types of irregularities in spelling are not a problem for reading once our brains become skilled at orthographic mapping. We aren’t born with this orthographic mapping system; our brains need to be taught how to do it. The sounds or phonemes become connected to the letter sequences in a word. They are permanently bonded and stored for instant access after one to four exposures in typically developing readers. The words stored in our phonological memory bank, which are built up naturally as we learn to speak, attach to the printed letter sequences by orthographically mapping them together. Once the system is started, our brains learn to do this automatically when we encounter new words. But how do we get this system started?
What Do We Need for Orthographic Mapping?
To become good at orthographic mapping, children need to develop phonological awareness and word-level reading skills. Learning to read requires that children understand the alphabetic principle, that words are made of sounds and can be written with the letters of the alphabet. To do this, they need an awareness of the phonemes in spoken words and proficiency in using phonics to decode words. This involves using the four processing systems: phonological, orthographic, meaning, and context when needed for word meaning.
Phonological skills build along a continuum. Early skill development begins with larger sound chunks in words, such as being able to rhyme and segment syllables. Next, individual sounds can be noticed in shorter words, starting with the first sound, then the last, and finally the middle sound. Once children develop basic phoneme awareness, they can learn to blend and segment words for reading and writing. This process paves the way for our brain to learn that ALL the words stored in our phonological dictionary can be broken apart this way, which is critical for permanent written word storage. The phonemes in spoken words become the metaphorical glue that attaches to the written representations. But children need other tools to develop word reading skills that lead to orthographic mapping.
As early phonological skills develop, children need to learn letter names and basic letter sounds. Learning that letters are used to write the phonemes will open the door to decoding words for reading. In our example with the word ‘bat,’ knowing that these letters represent the sounds /b-ă-t/ allows the connection to be made to this word that is already stored in our phonological dictionary. The reverse can be done for encoding, or spelling, to write words. As more letter-sound relationships are learned, more words can be unlocked.
Practice Makes Automatic
The more practice our brains get with this sound-symbol relationship pattern, the more automatic the process becomes. One key to the orthographic mapping of words into our permanent memory system is the proficiency with which we have access to the phonemes in spoken words. Children can sharpen this skill through phoneme manipulation practice, such as saying the word ‘bat’ and then repeating it but changing the /b/ to /m/ for ‘mat.’ A more advanced version of this practice would be to say ‘slip’ then repeat it without the /l/ sound, ‘sip.’ The ability to do this type of wordplay makes the phonological processer stickier and better able to attach to text.
Phonics is essential to reading and is best learned when explicitly taught. Proficiency with letter-sound relationships is another key to orthographic mapping. Beyond basic letter sounds, good phonics instruction should include common spelling rules and patterns in English along with basic syllable types.
The ability to decode a word with phonics knowledge provides children with the skills to unlock new words they encounter. This knowledge helps children become familiar with the allowable letter sequences that make up words. Only one to four exposures are needed for typically developing readers before a word’s spelling is locked together and permanently stored for instant recognition.
Although listening to children learn to read by painstakingly decoding each word can be tedious, it is precisely this process that makes orthographic mapping possible. It is the combination of phonemes and phonics that begins to build the orthographic mapping storage system. Once activated, reading begins to transition into the magical process of making the words on the page speak. This opens the door to new worlds.
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Author’s Note: The information contained in this article is an combination of what I know based on my current level of understanding obtained in the following references as well as other sources and I do not claim to be an expert on this topic. However, I have a keen interest in reading instruction and continually grow my knowledge. I encourage anyone interested in learning about orthographic mapping and how reading is learned to start with the following resources and seek their own understanding.
Kilpatrick, D. A. (2016). Equipped for reading success: A comprehensive, step-by-step program for developing phonemic awareness and fluent word recognition. Syracuse, NY: Casey & Kirsch Publishers.
Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it.New York, NY: Basic Books.
Seidenberg, M. S., & McClelland, J. L. (1989). A distributed, developmental model of word recognition and naming. Psychological Review, 96(4), 523-568.
Zgonc, Y. (2010). Interventions for all: Phonological awareness. Peterborough, NH: Crystal Springs Books.
About the Author:
Laura Betgevergiz is a Level 3 IMSE OG Master Instructor living in Gainesville, Georgia. She holds an Education Specialist degree in Special Education and a Graduate Certificate in Dyslexia, both from the University of Georgia.A former Georgia elementary school teacher for 18 years, Laura has taught kindergarten, first grade, reading intervention and ESOL, always with a focus on reading instruction. She is a CERI Certified Structured Literacy Classroom Teacher and an ongoing member of the International Dyslexia Association.