Orthographic Mapping

The word ‘orthography’ is comprised of two Greek words: ‘Orthos’ meaning straight, right or correct and ‘graph’ meaning to write.  So, literally, orthography means writing correctly. In literacy, orthography refers to writing words with the proper letters in the correct order according to accepted usage. Orthographic knowledge includes an awareness of common letter patterns that are consistent across words and this awareness requires an understanding of prefixes, suffixes, root words, syllabification and spelling rules.

Fluent reading requires you to have orthographic recognition.  In other words, the ability to instantly recognise a particular pattern of letters as a familiar word or familiar letter strings such as the suffix ‘ing’ or the prefix ‘pre’.

In contrast, accurate spelling requires you to have orthographic recall.  In other words, you need a detailed recall of correct letter combinations and sequences.

Orthographic mapping is the process competent readers use to store written words so that in future encounters with that word or similar letter strings they are able to automatically recall that word or letter string without needing to go through the decoding process again (i.e., the word becomes a ‘sight word’ in the true meaning of the word in that it can be instantly recognised). Once the word has been decoded, which requires good awareness of the sounds in the word and a well-developed phonic knowledge, the word or letter string is associated with (i.e., mapped to) other similar word patterns already stored in long-term memory.

A growing body of research (see Kilpatrick, 2015) shows that once typically developing readers become reasonably proficient at phonic decoding they begin to ‘self-teach’.  This self-teaching hypothesis proposes that every time these readers encounter an unfamiliar word, they sound out the word by attending to the structure of the word. They then use this new knowledge to establish an orthographic representation of the word in their long-term memory. In typically developing readers, the storing of the word in long-term memory occurs after one to four exposures to the word.

However, unlike their typically developing peers, students who have poor phonemic awareness and phonic decoding skills do not self-learn orthographic mapping.  Rather than remembering a word after one to four exposures, these students may need twenty or more exposures. As a consequence these students do not easily develop a large ‘sight’ vocabulary, compromising their ability to read fluently, which in turn interferes with their comprehension.

Kilpatrick’s (2015) analysis of the research indicates that successful intervention for these students needs to include:

  1. Teaching phonemic awareness to the advanced level (this includes not only teaching blending and segmenting, but also phoneme manipulation such as deleting, adding, substituting or reversing phonemes).
  2. Teaching and reinforcing phonic skills and decoding.
  3. Providing authentic literature so students can practise reading connected text.



Kilpatrick, D.A. (2015). Essentials of Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. John Wiley & Sons : New Jersey.

Richards, T., et al. (2006). Individual fMRI activation in orthographic mapping and morpheme mapping after orthographic or morphological spelling treatment in child dyslexics. Journal of Neurolinguistics 19, 56–86

2 Responses to Orthographic Mapping

  1. Linda Reedman June 30, 2017 at 2:12 pm #

    Thank you for this interesting article Lillian. I have worked with a number of children experiencing difficulties in orthographic mapping. These children also have difficulties in their working memory. I would like to read more about the impact working memory has on developing proficient orthographic mapping. Could you please recommend any research in this area.

    Thank you. Linda

    • Lillian June 30, 2017 at 4:56 pm #

      Kilpatrick’s book is well worth a read.

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