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November 9, 2021

Orthographic Mapping--what is it and why is it important? (Part 1)

Did you know that literate adults have a library of 30,000 to 70,000 words they can read automatically, accurately and effortlessly? 

These words are considered "sight words," because we instantly recognize them by sight.  This library of sight words is called your "orthographic lexicon" or your "sight word memory" as these words are orthographically mapped in your brain.

What is orthographic mapping? 

The official definition of orthographic mapping is: 

"The mental process we use to store words for immediate, effortless, retrieval. It requires phoneme proficiency and letter sound proficiency, as well as the ability to unconsciously or consciously make connections between the oral sound spoken in words and the letters written in words." -Kilpatrick, 2016

To understand it more simply, orthographic mapping is a filing system for the brain.  When you encounter a word that has already been mapped (meaning it is already stored in your mental filing system) multiple things will occur--the ability to produce the word by decoding it and the ability to understand the meaning.  Orthographic mapping is the process that all successful readers use to become fluent readers.

Lets take the word "bed." When you see "bed" you should be able to associate the string of sounds to the letter order of the word.

In addition to pronouncing the word, you should have some sort of meaning attached to the word. For example when you read the word, "bed" you should be able to associate this word with something that one sleeps on, and some sort of visual imagery should pop into your brain.  

Orthographic mapping is a high processing ability!  The most important thing to remember is that orthographic mapping is an immediate, effortless retrieval.  You see a word, you say it and you know it. 

Why is orthographic mapping important?

The great thing about mapped words is that once a word is mapped, you can't unmap it.  It is mapped forever.  Whoop!  Mapped words are what enables us to be efficient readers.  When we have a large orthographic lexicon, we are able to focus on the meaning of what we read INSTEAD of word reading.

Teachers in grades Prek to first help students with orthographic mapping by teaching students phonological awareness and decoding skills.  This sets the stage for typically developing readers in second grade and beyond to have strong skills to be able to map words. 

Orthographic mapping continues well into adulthood.  As readers we continue to map words and add them to our sight vocabulary, or orthographic lexicon.  As our sight word vocabulary increases, our fluency (accurate and efficient reading of text) also improves. 

Orthographic mapping is vital to become a successful reader. 

How do you help students map words?

Follow along in this three part blog series where we will tackle teaching strategies to help students map words AND resources teachers can use! 

In the meantime if you are looking for more information about orthographic mapping, check out this blog post I wrote earlier by clicking here.  It is full of GREAT information, and a video by David Kilpatrick!

Another great resources is a blog post from Keys to Literacy about orthographic mapping in school.

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