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What Is Orthographic Mapping?

What Is Orthographic Mapping?

A proficient reader has thousands of words in their sight vocabulary. Words that we automatically recognize at a speed so fast we don’t even realize it is happening. Words that we can’t stop ourselves from reading. Words that are permanently stuck in our brains. How does this happen? How do words move from needing to be decoded, to permanent and instant recognition? It’s all about orthographic mapping.


Orthographic mapping is really kind of magical. It is the process readers use to store written words for instant and effortless retrieval (Kilpatrick, 2015 ). Dr. Ehri’s theory regarding orthographic mapping involves connections between letters and sounds to bond spelling, pronunciation, and meaning in long term memory (Ehri, 2014). Words that can be read automatically become part of an individual’s sight vocabulary. Humans recognize words in their sight vocabulary faster than they can name pictures of objects. Once words are stored permanently and are part of our sight vocabulary the brain is free to shift the focus to meaning. 

reading graphic

Once a reader develops proficient automatic word reading it seems like we are reading whole words, but that isn’t actually what’s happening. In an alphabetic system, we are reading and writing at the phoneme level. Kilpatrick explains this in detail in a video linked here and below. For words to become permanent and automatic, readers start with the individual sounds in words. Phonemic awareness plays a critical role in words becoming part of our permanent sight vocabulary. Readers then match sounds with letters or spellings, this is the alphabetic principle. 

Reading skills bundle

This process has to be extremely proficient for a reader to successfully and automatically read words. When readers begin learning to read it can seem very laborious, and it is, a reader is building a neural network that isn’t there naturally. Over time readers become more and more proficient in the process and are able to permanently map words with only a few exposures.


To sum it up, orthographic mapping is the process reader’s use to store words for immediate and effortless retrieval. As teachers of reading we want to be cognizant of the role orthographic mapping plays in becoming a proficient and automatic word reader. We want to make sure our instructional practices support and align with how words are stored in our brains.


Looking for resources to use in your classroom?

Let's map words game

Sound segment trays

Works Cited and considerations for further exploration.



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Free Organizational Wellness Guide
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Reading Simplified Free Workshop
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