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Orthographic Mapping

Feb 12, 2020

Written by Jill Hodge

In the last few decades, scientists have learned a lot about how we learn to read and why some people have reading challenges. One of the most significant findings is orthographic mapping. Orthographic mapping is the process our brain uses to store words efficiently for permanent retrieval. To be a good orthographic mapper, you need to develop three skills:

  1. Automatic letter-sound associations
  2. Automatic access to the sounds in spoken words (phonemic awareness)
  3. Unconscious/conscious connection of sounds (phonemes) in spoken words to written words

Before I dive into this concept, I would like to invite you to chew on these two statements for a moment: 

  1. Our brain is naturally hardwired for spoken language.  
  2. Reading is a human invention developed over thousands of years.  

Since reading is a cultural invention, there isn’t a single location within the brain that serves as a reading center. There are parts of our brain that process the sounds and meaning of language. It really is amazing if you take a moment to think about it; we are born with a system already in place for learning spoken language. Children are placed in a speaking environment and their language and comprehension begin to develop. However, our brains have not been hardwired to understand written language. Reading is a skill that must be explicitly taught. 

Word meaning is activated based on what we hear. For example, when you say the word “dog” to your child:

  1. He/she will hear a sequence of sounds (/d/+/ŏ/+/g/)  
  2. The sounds are recognized and matched to stored sounds “filed” in his/her brain
  3. Oral vocabulary is activated
  4. Word meaning is retrieved

Due to this, phonemic awareness is one of the most important skills needed for orthographic mapping. The word phoneme comes from the Greek word phonos, meaning sound. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a spoken word. It is important to note that in English, phonemes and letters often times do not match up. For example, there are four letters in bike, but only three phonemes /b/+/ī/+/k/.  This is because phonemes are oral and letters are written

Remember, word meaning is activated by what we hear.  Think of all of the words you have heard up until now. Each word is stored in a “filing cabinet” in your brain, and can be instantly accessed when needed. When it comes to moving words into our long-term storage, our brain filing system is fascinating. Words are input visually, but are stored auditorily. What does this mean for reading?

Written words can be placed into long-term memory when the reader is able to identify a meaningful string of sounds that also match the spoken word. For example, when we see ot in a word, we do not sound it out.  As efficient readers, we see it as a unit pronounced as /ot/. We do not sound each letter out, that would be phonetic decoding. Instead we instantly recognize ot as a unit. 

This is where phonemic awareness comes into play. We do not hear /ot/ as a stand-alone word in English; however /ot/ is placed in our oral dictionary as a familiar part of words such as blot, knot, robot, slingshot, forgot, etc. 

Take a moment to connect this information back to how it affects a child with reading challenges. If a child does not have phonemic awareness, then /ot/ in this example will not anchor to anything in his/her memory.  For that child, ot is simply two random letters that need to be memorized. 

In David Kilpatrick’s book, Equipped for Reading Success he explains how this all connects to what orthographic mapping is:

“When we map, the letters of the printed form of a word piggyback onto the phonemes in our existing rapid oral filing system, which we use to understand spoken language. If a student is not attuned to the sounds within oral words, there is no efficient way for printed words to become familiar letter strings. There is nothing to which they can efficiently connect the strings of letters for later retrieval.”

The bottom line is that we use our oral filing system for our word storage and retrieval. Circling back to the three components of orthographic mapping, I hope you can now see the importance of each part:

  1. Automatic letter-sound associations
  2. Automatic access to the sounds in spoken words (phoneme awareness)
  3. Unconscious/conscious connection of sounds (phonemes) in spoken words to written words.

Children need to know their letters and sounds, so that they can develop phoneme awareness. This then builds into the process of matching oral phonemes to letters, which establish a secure memory file for future retrieval. Mapping is a connection-forming process that turns unknown words into known words. The connection process is the superglue that places words into long-term memory. 

At Horizon Academy we use the Orton-Gillingham Approach to reading instruction.  This explicit, multisensory instruction teaches each student the needed sounds and spelling skills to help him/her be successful. If you would like to learn more about the Orton-Gillingham methodology, Horizon Academy is offering a comprehensive six-day O-G Classroom Educator Training class. This course is taught by Karen Leopold, MS ed., and Accredited Training Fellow of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators. This course will be held June 1-6, 2020. Visit horizon-academy.org/resources/teacher-training/orton-gillingham-training/