Orthographic Mapping

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The Process of Orthographic Mapping: What is it and why is it so important?

“The mental process we use to store words for immediate, effortless retrieval.”

David Kilpatrick

What is Orthographic Mapping?

Orthographic mapping is a behind-the-scenes, cognitive task in which students store words in their long-term memory. It’s not a skill or form of curriculum. It’s a process.

The process of orthographic mapping builds our sight word vocabularies. This is the pool of words from which we can immediately recognize for automatic word reading. This is the same process for phonically “regular” or “irregular” words so that we do not have to spend mental energy sounding out words.

What Skills Are Needed for for this Process?

While orthographic mapping in and of itself is a process and not a skill, it does require two main skills in order to occur. These are phonemic proficiency and letter-sound knowledge.

Orthographic mapping requires the ability to connect the phonemes (or the sounds) in spoken words to the graphemes (or letters) in written words. In order to make those connections, one must have phonemic proficiency AND he must have mastered the letter-sound correspondences.

What Does the Process of Orthographic Mapping Look Like?

Orthographic mapping is a process and not a skill.  There are instructional practices and skills that promote orthographic mapping.
Orthographic Mapping Process by Orton Gillingham Mama

When we orthographically map, we take what we already know about a word (which is usually the meaning and the pronunciation) and connect the individual phonemes (sounds) to the graphemes (letters) that represent the sounds in the word. When we do this, the phonemes, graphemes, and word meaning are inextricably linked! We can store the word as a sight word for automatic retrieval. We no longer need to decode these words one sound at a time. This is how we become fluent readers.

Skilled Readers DO NOT…

Skilled readers do not use visual memory to remember words. Brain scans show us that we use a different part of the brain for word reading. Other brain scans show us that word recognition is faster than processing a picture of the same written word.

Once we have orthographically mapped words, we recognize them in any font, shape, color, or size. That is because we have mapped the specific letter sequence to the individual sounds, not a visual image of the word. We could not have memorized the global word shape of all different fonts and letter shapes nor sounded them all out.

Words are not read as visual images.
Words are not read as visual images

Which Instructional Approaches DO NOT support Orthographic Mapping?

When we over-rely on pattern books, we set up young readers to use contextual guessing or to rely on pictures. Contextual guessing, looking at a picture, or skipping a word not only do not help our struggling readers store the unknown word in memory, but it actually hinders them from learning the word. If they guess or skip the word, then they are not actually attending to the familiar sequence of letters in the word.
Each time we encourage a decoding strategy other than attending to ALL the sounds left to right, we are robbing the student of the opportunity to orthographically map the word.

So, either by our instruction or without strong foundational skills, these students are left to guess and use context clues to figure out unknown words.

Studies show that skilled readers DO NOT USE CONTEXT to read. So why would we teach that as a decoding strategy?

Context CAN help once a student decodes a word. Context can help with comprehension, as a checking method for decoding, or to help with accent/stress. But we should not encourage context guessing as a strategy.

-And as we discussed before, encouraging learning words by their shape is not efficient or effective. So, learning high frequency words on flashcards or sticky notes may not likely be an efficient use of time.

How Do we Teach the Skills for Orthographic Mapping?

  1. Make sure that letter-sound correspondences are secure. We should explicitly teach these and give students opportunities to practice them.
  2. Teach and practice phonemic awareness skills through the manipulation level to allow for orthographic mapping to occur.
  3. Decoding and word study– this entails EXPLICIT INSTRUCTION in letter-sound correspondence, spelling patterns, spelling rules, syllable types, morphology, etc. Once those have been explicitly taught in a systematic manner, you can practice playing with sounds in words first and then exposing the student to the letters.

Phonics alone is not enough. Phonemic awareness alone is not enough. And word study alone is not enough. But we should explicitly teach all three of these components. Some students need a lot of practice with these skills, and some require only a little.

Phonemic Awareness and its Role in Orthographic Mapping

Levels of Phonemic Awareness to support Orthographic Mapping by Orton Gillingham Mama.
Levels of Phonemic Awareness by Orton Gillingham Mama

Phonic decoding (sounding out words) requires the bottom level of these phonemic awareness skills (isolation, blending and segmenting).

-If we only teach the bottom set of skills, this will help students phonically decodesound out words. However, we need to teach the higher-level phonemic awareness skills to automaticity in order for students to orthographically map the words to REMEMBER WORDS for future, automatic retrieval! So, by itself, phonic decoding is not enough to produce a sight word vocabulary. But phonic decoding provides the OPPORTUNITIES needed for words to be added to our sight word vocabulary.

If students are allowed the time to practice phonemic awareness skills to mastery (through explicit, systematic instruction), then taught the word-reading skills alongside those, and given ample opportunities to practice these skills in decodable, controlled texts, they will build their phonemic proficiency AND their sight word vocabulary!


Activities to Support Orthographic Mapping

In Preschool and Kindergarten:

  1. Read Nursery rhymes that bring the student’s attention to similar word parts like rhyming. As we expose children to these parts of oral language, this sets the stage for the phoneme-level skills needed for reading and spelling.
  2. You can practice phoneme-level awareness with stories using alliteration.
  3. Students should practice matching beginning sounds with pictures and objects.
  4. Students should practice the phonological skills alongside learning letters. Teach letter-sound knowledge through explicit instruction.
  5. As their skills grow, weave in appropriate phonemic awareness skills like segmenting and blending to simple words or pictures. Students can begin to blend simple words once they have learned only a few consonants and short vowels.
Structured Literacy activities by Orton Gillingham Mama promote Orthographic Mapping.
Kindergarten Skills for Orthographic Mapping by Orton Gillingham Mama
Structured Literacy activities by Orton Gillingham Mama promote Orthographic Mapping. Letter identification practice.
Letter Identification by Orton Gillingham Mama

In Late Kindergarten and 1st Grade:

  1. Move away from the larger phonological awareness units like rhyming and focus on the phoneme-level skills like segmenting and blending individual sounds.
  2. Explicitly show students how the graphemes work together in a left to right manner. This needs to include a logically-ordered scope and sequence that moves from simple to complex.
  3. Use decodable texts.
Structured Literacy activities by Orton Gillingham Mama promote Orthographic Mapping.
Activities for Orthographic Mapping by Orton Gillingham Mama

In 2nd and 3rd Grade:

  1. Assess and practice the higher level phonemic awareness skills. Many students will still require a lot of practice with phonemic awareness, and some will need very little.
  2. Teach syllable types, phoneme blending, decodable reading with a specific skill, sorting activities, word chaining, look-alike words, and nonsense words. All of these bring the student’s attention to the sounds and specific letter sequence in words.
Structured Literacy activities by Orton Gillingham Mama promote Orthographic Mapping.
Activities to promote Orthographic Mapping by Orton Gillingham Mama

Do I Need to Change My Current Curriculum?

Some curricula innately promote the skills needed for orthographic mapping better than others. However, you can easily weave in activities to any curriculum to help improve your students’ sight word vocabularies. Even small changes can make a huge difference!

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  1. How can my child’s teacher support him? He will be entering third grade. Is a dependent learning with resistance to writing due to a deficit with orthographic mapping? Additionally, with intervention, will my son eventually learn this skill and apply it independently?

    1. I am so sorry I am just seeing your question! Without knowing about your son’s specific needs, there could be a myriad of reasons for his resistance. I can recommend a curriculum that follows the science of reading and addresses all areas of reading (decoding and language comprehension!).

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. I am very well aware of the research behind Kilpatrick’s work, the colleagues who have disagreed in the Clemens et al paper, and the colleagues who have then disagreed with the findings of that paper! (Kilpatrick, Ashby, Naftel, and Moats). Everyone agrees the importance of phonemic awareness paired with phonics for the students who need it. By no means do all students need high level PA since traditional/good readers and spellers will be able to do those tasks without PA instruction. So, for now, the research does suggest that automaticity with PA skills supports reading! How exciting that we know this much. You are right that we can fine tune from there as we learn more. I am excited to see what we learn in terms of frequency, small group vs. one-on-one, etc.

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