Orthographic Mapping and Phonemic Awareness can help struggling readers. If you teach reading in a classroom setting or a homeschool parent, you know that one of the challenges of teaching reading is helping kids learn to read fluently. Literacy instruction can be frustrating for students as they struggle to sound out words over and over again.
Flash Cards are Not That Helpful
Well-meaning teachers and parents have stacks of cards to help these students with “sight words” to increase their sight word vocabulary.
But why do some children seem to not be able to remember the words that they see? Their sight vocabulary and automatic reading skills do not progress. How do we help these students?
What is a Sight Word in the Context of Reading Research?
When learning to read, we first sound out unfamiliar words using phonics. like /h/ /a / /t/ eventually after enough times we see words and read words instantly without sounding them out. When we see words and know them instantly, they are sight words. Any word that is read automatically and instantly is referred to as a sight word by reading researchers.
Building Orthographic Mapping and Phonemic Awareness Skills
A person’s sight word vocabulary is an internal dictionary of any word that can be read automatically and accurately. By the time typical students get through high school, their sight word vocabulary can be anywhere from 30,000 to 70,000 words.
Within education circles, many teachers usually are referring to high-frequency words both regular and irregular words when they speak of sight words.
Visual Memory Is NOT how we store Words
It may sound counterintuitive but written words are not stored as visual memories in permanent memory. It was thought that we store a visual image for every word we learn. It was mistakenly believed that familiar written words were stored using the visual memory system to hold all of the printed words we know and that skilled readers were those who had stored an enormous amount of words in that section of memory.
We Store Words Using Our Auditory Memory
Educators believed to create fluent readers, the key to building permanent memory with immediately recognizable words is not a large, strong visual memory. However, now the research has shown how auditory memory is key in the process of storing words in permanent memory.
Dyslexic readers do not have a poor visual memory. Studies show they perform just as well as non-struggling readers on memory tasks that do not involve word reading.
We use different parts of the brain to process print than images
Also, brain scans are often used to understand the process of reading and storing words in permanent memory. These brain scans show that the part of the brain activated while doing a memory task like naming objects is different than the parts of the brain activated while doing a task that involves naming familiar and unfamiliar printed words.
Students with deafness usually learn to read at about a third-grade level
In addition to brain scans, research has been done on the deaf population that shows they graduate high school with on average a third-grade reading level. If visual memory is the primary process for reading success, then these deaf students should have at least as much success as hearing students in terms of word identification (decoding) and comprehension. However, this is not the case. Deaf readers struggle with Orthographic Mapping and Phonemic Awareness.
Researchers found that developing readers do not have the cognitive capacity to remember word pictures of 30 to 90 thousand words for immediate retrieval. Therefore, we can conclude that words are not stored in long-term memory as visual images.
What is the core deficit for struggling students?
The answer lies in phonological awareness and phonemic awareness. A lack of these skills is the true basis for all reading struggles. Phonological awareness is the study of speech sounds and patterns. Students must understand that sentences are made up of individual words, which are composed of syllables.
Phonemic awareness is a deeper level of phonology and it requires students to detect individual phonemes or sounds within words and syllables and be able to manipulate them in the mind just by listening, without having to write anything down.
The Most Important Skill for Successful Reading
These skills are what link directly to reading proficiency, not visual tasks as previously thought. So to overcome reading difficulties with the written word, reading instruction must focus on helping students have proficient phonemic awareness skills.
What role does visual memory play in reading proficiency?
Visual perceptual-spatial processing does play a role in reading. This skill is essential for letter sound correspondence and alphabet recognition. It also helps beginning readers to distinguish letters such as B, D, P, and Q. This letter knowledge is important for readers.
How Long Does it Take for Children to learn Letters?
Students need hundreds of exposures to the letter sound correspondences effortless and automatic. Visual-spatial memory also comes into play when it comes to reading comprehension. If a student can create a good visual spatial image of what they are reading, then their comprehension is better. Therefore, while visual memory alone does not directly impact word recognition or fluency in students who have already learned the letter sound correspondences, it does play a role in helping them comprehend what they read.
Orthographic Mapping and Phonemic Awareness is How the Brain Stores Words
- In his book, Equipped for Reading Success Dr. David Kilpatrick defines Orthographic Mapping as “a mental process we use to permanently store words for immediate effortless retrieval”. It is the process we use to take an unfamiliar word and turn it into an immediately recognizable sight word.
- Orthographic Mapping only works when students have phonemic awareness skills, so they can automatically and instantly break down a word into its individual sounds and connect those sounds to the corresponding graphemes (letters). As described by Ehri, L.C. (2014) Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific Studies of Reading 18(1).
Words We hear & Words We See are Stored In the Same Place in our Brains
Reading researchers have discovered that when learning to read, the same areas of the brain used for visual input are also used to store spoken language input. This means that despite seeing words with our eyes and hearing oral words and language with our ears, both of these inputs get processed and stored together in the brain. In fact, not only are they stored together but they are anchored or mapped to each other. This anchoring or mapping of visual to auditory language is known as orthographic mapping.
Having A Strong Vocabulary Influences Our Ability to Read
When it comes to learning how to read effectively, having a solid foundation with language comprehension and especially phonemic skills are essential for all students. This is because the ability to accurately map printed language to oral speech in the brain relies heavily on strong phonemic awareness skills. That is the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in a spoken language such as syllables, rhyming words and individual phonemes.
How does Orthographic Mapping Work?
So how exactly does this work? Well, let’s take a word such as hat – a word that most first-grade students are likely to encounter in print. It is also very likely that a student of this age has that word in their phonological long-term memory, so they have something on which to map or anchor that word. For Orthographic mapping to work students much have letter-sound proficiency meaning immediate automatic recall of phoneme-grapheme relationships and phonemic proficiency which goes beyond simple segmenting of sounds to manipulation of sounds within a word. (e.g.) say “slop” now say it again but instead of /l/ say /t/—>”stop” Proficiency with these purely auditory tasks are essential for reading fluency.
Orthographic mapping of unknown words helps to get words to long memory
However, how can they turn that unknown printed word into a known sight word, a word they recognize instantly when they next see it? The student will need to pay attention to the three individual letters and sounds in that word. A student’s letter-sound skills and phonemic analysis skills will allow them to map the sequence of letters – “hat” – onto the pronunciation and word meaning they already have in long-term memory if they have phonemic awareness skills of segmenting, blending, and adding and deleting sounds.
Must strengthen letter-sound (grapheme-phoneme) knowledge skills
To link the printed word “hat” to the spoken word “hat”, the student will need segmenting skills to be able to break the spoken word “hat” into its individual phonemes(sounds).
Next, the student has to match those phonemes to the printed letter sequence that represents the word “hat”. The process of linking the sounds (phonemes) to the graphemes (letters) is how the brain stores the information for retrieval and it increases students’ sight word vocabularies and internal lexicons.
Four Key Steps in the Orthographic Mapping Process
- Proficient phonological & phonemic processing skills
- Sound-letter (phoneme-grapheme) correspondences must be rapid and automatic so words and word parts (ie. word families) become familiar.
- Decoding and blending sounds & letters (phonemes & graphemes) into words.
- Then unitization happens as students recognize two or more letter strings as units. This process, also known as unitizing, starts with identifying common word parts such as blends ‘sp’, ‘st’, and word families such as ‘ap’ and ‘it’.
How to help children create orthographic maps
The Core Cause of Reading Problems
To help students create their own internal orthographic maps, a teacher needs to focus a great deal of attention on strong foundational skills like advanced phonemic awareness activities.
Research shows that all students who struggle with reading lack advanced phonemic awareness skills. It is this lack of skill in being able to manipulate sounds that is the core cause of reading decoding deficits. Connecting letters with their sounds to read and write is called the “alphabetic principle.” This letter sound knowledge increases a student’s phonics skills when paired with phonemic proficiency.
Once a student has strong phonemic awareness skills paired with letter sound proficiency most typically developing readers will automatically orthographically map words after only one to four exposures to a new word.
How To Assess Phonemic Awareness in Students
If students can’t orthographically map words this is a strong indication that they need to be explicitly taught with more phonological and phonemic awareness lessons. These lessons need to go far beyond just segmenting sounds but to internal sound manipulation (e.g. say sky now say it again but instead of /k/ say /l/—>”sly”) We need to build up to these skills but they are essential or orthographic mapping to lead to fluent reading. Without these advanced phonological and phonemic skills, students will continue to struggle. To see what areas your students struggle with, I recommend giving the PHONOLOGICAL AWARENESS SCREENING TEST by Dr. David Kilpatrick
Games are the ideal way to practice
Games that promote activities in segmenting phonemes into the beginning, middle, and final sounds as well as adding or deleting sounds can be extremely helpful for students. Orthographic mapping can be used with short vowel words and long vowel words through more complex word structures. Games like Phoneme Race below can promote orthographic mapping. Games can be played with real words and nonsense words. They can be done only with spoken language or with letter sequences added.
Help Students Remember Through Simultaneous Processing
It’s beneficial to provide simultaneous processing multisensory instruction where they hear a sound, say a sound, and write the corresponding grapheme (letter) as they spell out words and sentences in dictation. Doing this will enable students to create orthographic maps of their own with CVC words through multi-syllable words. These activities are part of all my decodable passage reading lessons.
Organizing Sound Symbol Relationships
Some examples of orthographic maps
Word mapping is an essential skill for children to develop phonics knowledge, but it doesn’t have to be difficult! As teachers, we can guide the process in a way that strengthens the child’s understanding of language. Get a simple mapping template like my Dot and Write Template and then:
- -First say the word out loud, making sure they can see your face and lips as you do.
- -Then have them echo the word back to you. If they are struggling, have them look at their mouth in the mirror as they do so.
- -Next, have them finger-stretch the word from beginning to end – starting with their thumb – putting up one finger for each sound in the word. Not for each letter for each sound – so for example in the word “ship” there are three sounds but four letters. Students would put up 3 fingers, then say each sound in the word as they put up those fingers.
- -The next step is to put down a dot or a marker such as a cube or felt circle for each sound.
- – Then finally have them write down the letters that represent those sounds while saying the letter names as they write.
Orthographic Mapping Silent E Words
I want to give special attention in this blog post to word mapping with silent e is an important skill to teach students because many students struggle with the jobs or functions of silent e. If you are using Elkonin sound boxes then for words like “cage” and “have” the /ge/ and the /ve/ go in one box because the e is silent.
Teach Spelling Patterns and Rules
But the jobs of the silent e are different in these 2 words. In “cage” the silent e has two jobs even though it is silent. Its first job is to make the /a/ say its long sound and its second job is to make the /g/ say its soft sound because English words don’t end in /j/. In “have” the silent e’s only job is to end the word because English words don’t end in /v/.
Help students understand word structure and spelling rules as you goI
We say that have is an irregular word because the /a/ in “have” says a short sound. But in the construction of the word “behave” the /a/ is saying its long sound. It is helpful to show these word connections as you do word study with students.
This phoneme-grapheme connection builds a map inside the child’s mind which will aid in overcoming reading difficulties and help to create proficient readers and spellers!
Using orthographic maps in the classroom
Orthographic mapping skills are an effective teaching tool that should be used in conjunction with the teaching of phonic decoding skills and phonemic awareness lessons every day, especially with beginning readers or readers who have defects at any age. If students are struggling to read in the upper grades it is still essential to test their phonemic proficiency with an assessment like the PAST assessment.
Explicit instruction with phonemic awareness and asking questions throughout your lesson that lead students to analyze each word’s structure for sound-letter correlations will help students to remember words more quickly.
Syllable manipulation and phoneme manipulation
Make sure that your students have proficiency with syllable manipulation and phoneme manipulation. Use the exercises in a book like Equipped for Reading Sucess by Dr. David Kilpatrick or that are embedded in all of my decodable passages reading lessons.
Get a Buddy to Practice Phonemic Awareness
Offer student partners chances to practice building words together on their respective mapping templates as well. It can also be helpful to print several different types of word mapping templates so that students can each create their version with tactile feel with felt pieces if possible, as this allows them to analyze the sound-structure more closely using all senses at play. Orthographic mapping templates can be wonderfully empowering tools when used thoughtfully in the classroom; give them a try!
Find free resources in the library for help with word mapping.
Orthographic mapping is a fantastic strategy for teaching typically developing readers and even dyslexic readers how to read and spell. Not only does it help them learn new words, but it also helps them visualize the relationship between letters and sounds.
Get some Free Mapping Templates
If you’d like to start using orthographic mapping in your classroom as part of your phonics instruction, I have some fantastic mapping templates for you. Head over to my free resource library where you will find phonemic awareness activities and dictation exercises which have an orthographic mapping component in every lesson. They will help you greatly in your literacy instruction and word work time. And if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments or send me an email – I love hearing from my readers!
Sources for Additional Reading and Watching
- Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties by David A. Kilpatrick
- Equipped for Reading Success by David A. Kilpatrick, Ph.D
- Webinar: Recent Advances in Understanding Word-Level Reading Problems: Implications for Assessment and Effective Intervention by David Kilpatrick.
- Ehri, L.C. (2014) Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific Studies of Reading 18(1).