The Big  Five: Phonics-Orthographic Mapping 




Orthographic mapping is now considered “the most current theory of how children form sight word representations” (Torgesen 2004b, p.36) 


From David Kilpatrick’s book, “Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties.”


In my previous blog, I described the importance of phonological blending and letter-sound knowledge to phonic decoding, or word identification. Today, I will be dealing with orthographic mapping, which David Kilpatrick describes as, “The process we use to store printed words in our long-term memory.” 


Orthographic mapping has been known about since the late 1970s, and was first described by Linnea Ehri, when her work in the 1980s provided evidence for her Orthographic Mapping Theory. However it only became more widely known in the 1990s, after British researchers began to work with her theory. I mentioned David Share and his “Self-Teaching Hypothesis” in a previous blog.  This hypothesis proposed that we teach ourselves most of the words we know, but it didn’t explain how that actually happens. 


So how exactly are sight words stored? We know that orthographic mapping requires advanced phonemic awareness, letter-sound knowledge, and phonological long term memory. These all work together to help us produce a long term memory of the words we learn. 


Sight words and orthographic sequences of letters are hooked or anchored to pronunciations of words which are already stored in our long term memory, because we learned to speak long before we learned to read. David Kilpatrick explains, “Orthographic mapping proposes that we use the pronunciations of words that are already stored in long-term memory as the anchoring points for the orthographic sequences (letters) used to represent those pronunciations.” He goes on to say that if this process is going to work well, a student will need to be proficient in their letter-sound knowledge and advanced phonemic awareness. 


So how exactly does this work? Well, let’s take a word such as pin, 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. 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 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, that make up pin, onto the pronunciation they already have in long term memory. 


In my previous blog, I discussed how a student would approach a word such as pin, to identify it using their letter-sound knowledge skills and their phonological blending skills. The technical term for this is phonological synthesis, which means “bringing sounds together.” To link the printed word, pin, to the the spoken word, pin, the student will need to be able to break the spoken word pin into its individual phonemes. Next the student has to match those phonemes to the printed letter sequence that represents the word pin. 


If the student can figure out that pin is made up of the sounds /p/ /i/ /n/, they can match those sounds, already stored in memory, to the letters p-i-n. A student will need to identify where, in the oral word, they hear the various sounds. For example they will need to be aware that the /n/ is heard at the end. This way they can match the phoneme making that sound to the printed letter ‘n.’ This allows the student to make connections and map the spoken word to the spelling of the printed word. 


The encoding process is the opposite of decoding. In decoding a printed word, a student uses their letter sound knowledge and blending to identify it. They don’t need to pull apart the spoken word; that is already done for them. They simply need to blend together the phonemes those letters make to be able to say the word. Orthographic mapping is the reverse process. The student has to split the spoken a word into its individual phonemes, which will be anchored to the individual letters of the written word. 


I teach this as follows: 


● First I ask students to “finger spell,” a word, such as pin. This means assigning each phoneme to a finger on their non-dominant hand. 

● Next they write each letter on a whiteboard, repeating the phoneme with each one.

● Finally they read the whole word, before giving me the letter names. 


I think David Kilpatrick describes this process very well in “Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties,” when he says the following: “Think of phonic decoding as going from text to brain (part to whole, phonemes to words) and orthographic mapping going from brain to text (whole to part, oral words to the individual phonemes that make the word.)” It should be  acknowledged that phonic decoding and orthographic mapping use some of the same skills, such as letter-sound knowledge and phonological long term memory, but the process is different and each makes use of some distinct additional phonemic awareness skills. 


It is important to recognize we need both phonic decoding and orthographic mapping to be able to create sight words from words that are initially unfamiliar. During the decoding process a student is identifying the letters in a word and blending them to read it. This is not an automatic process and you will be able to see the student doing this. Be aware that some students are still decoding even if they don’t voice the phonemes, and your clue may be the length of time it takes them to read the word in front of them. Instant recognition of a word is immediate and automatic, and if this is how the student is responding you can be fairly certain the word in front of them is a sight word for them. 


How do we test for orthographic mapping? Well, you are really testing to see if the student is instantly recognizing the words you are presenting them. If that is the case and they can read words at their grade level easily and instantly, you can assume these have become sight words for them and that the words are stored in their long term memory. 


Why is this important? A student who is able to read words instantly at their grade level, is very likely able to read passages selected for their grade level easily and with fluency. Having a large bank of instantly recognized words is the single biggest factor affecting fluency. The student who is slowly reading the parts of words, or is slow in producing the correct word, is still at the decoding stage. In this case their reading fluency will be strained and slow, as they have to decode the words they do not instantly recognize. 


Sight words can be phonetically regular or irregular, and they can be high or low frequency words. They are just the words that a particular student recognizes instantly. Nonsense words should also be included because these assess whether a student is able to instantly recognize common patterns which occur in many of the words that young children are exposed to when reading. Any assessment of sight word recognition should include examples of all of these. 


The Orton-Gillingham Online Academy offers an Informal Orton-Gillingham Coding Assessment, which covers all the types of words I have mentioned. Really Great Reading have produced a number of assessments to assess this area, which can be downloaded for free from their web site.  I often use the San Diego Quick Assessment of Reading Ability, available in Assessing Reading: Multiple Measures, Revised 2nd Edition, to give me some idea of where to start a student on the Really Great Reading assessments, regardless of their grade level. These are just a few of the various informal assessments I use. I plan to discuss the others in the future.


These assessments could be further broken down into those which have more of an emphasis on testing a student’s phonic decoding ability, and those where the emphasis is more on discovering a student’s sight word vocabulary for a given grade level. Either will in fact allow you to assess a student’s sight word recognition. As all of these tests I have mentioned are untimed, it is important to note whether a student is responding quickly and accurately, to determine if they are recognizing a word, or if they are still decoding it. 


If the results show that a student has difficulty in the area of sight word recognition, how do we remediate it? The quick answer is by coaching the student to an advanced phonemic awareness skill level, and integrating these skills with teaching phonic decoding and orthographic mapping, all while working on words that a student doesn’t instantly recognize. Students should also have the opportunity to practice unfamiliar words in connected text. Word study, and ideas for building sight vocabulary based on orthographic mapping, will be the subject of my next blog.


The Orton-Gillingham Online Academy has a number of products as well as online and face to face training opportunities to allow a parent, tutor or teacher to develop a child’s orthographic mapping skills. 


Sources for Additional Reading and Watching:


1. Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties by David A. Kilpatrick 

2. Equipped for Reading Success by David A. Kilpatrick, Ph.D

3. Webinar: Recent Advances in Understanding Word-Level Reading Problems: Implications for Assessment and Effective Intervention by David Kilpatrick.




Lorna Wooldridge is a dyslexia specialist tutor with over twenty-five years of experience and qualifications in the field of learning differences, from both the UK and USA. Lorna has a unique perspective on this condition as she has dyslexia, and her passion is to serve this community in any way she can.

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