What is Orthographic Mapping and What’s its Role in Reading?

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    Orthography is the knowledge of how words are spelled, structured, and defined, making it impactful for both short and long term reading comprehension.

    Defining and understanding orthographic mapping 

    Orthography is the knowledge of how words are spelled, structured, and defined. It is a fundamental component of phonics, word recognition, and reading. Learners use decoding, the ability to read unfamiliar words, by relying on their letter-sound knowledge, spelling patterns, and syllables, and phonemic awareness skills to form the necessary connections to build on vocabulary and the memorization of words and their meaning.

    Every word has its phoneme (i.e., meaning-carrying sounds), its orthography (spelling), and its meaning. Readers must connect all three parts to retain a word. Words permanently stored with the correct associated sounds and meaning are called “sight words.” 

    A sight word is any word that a reader instantly recognizes and can identify without conscious effort. Competent adult readers should have between 30,000 and 60,000 words orthographically mapped in their vocabulary.

    Orthographic mapping is the mental process by which written words are etched into long-term memory. The letters we see and the sounds we hear of a word are bonded together in the brain. That is not the same as learning by heart. 

    With orthographic mapping, something new is connected with something already known through listening and speaking. A written word becomes a sight word by attaching the pronunciation of a word broken down to the letter sequence. After a word’s letter sequence becomes familiar, a student can attach it to the already-known phoneme. 

    Educators and parents should use reading instruction to encourage phonemic awareness. Learning the relationships between the letters of written language and the sounds of a spoken word is key to mastering alphabetic knowledge. 

    First, associations between visual cues and prominent spoken words are formed. Later, students will learn letter names and phonemes. After sounding out the given word several times, its sequence of individual sounds and meaning becomes bound and set in memory. 

    That allows for the recognition of conventional letter patterns in words. Sight vocabulary does not require decoding, making it possible for efficient readers to focus on the deeper meaning of given writing.

    Why orthographic knowledge is essential for children and their reading and comprehension abilities

    To form connections and remember new words, readers need highly proficient phonemic awareness, and they must know the grapheme-phoneme correspondences or letter-sound relationship of a writing system. 

    Most children with these skills will progress from decoding to building a basic sight vocabulary. While orthographic mapping can begin earlier in phonics instruction, most children apply this skill in the second and third grades. 

    As we practice excellent reading habits, we master phonics and facilitate more orthographic patterns. Our reading fluency and comprehension grow exponentially by continually adding words to our vocabulary far into adulthood.

    Developing phonological awareness should be a focus for Pre-K and kindergarten instruction to develop knowledge of basic letter-sound correspondence. Most students should be capable of phoneme manipulation by first grade.

    Readers in Pre-kindergarten learn early phonological skills through rhyming and alliteration intentionally using the same beginning letter with two or more neighboring words. 

    In first grade, students start learning to blend and segment for decoding. By 2nd grade and on, learners should have the advanced phonemic awareness required for orthographic mapping. 

    Skilled readers will eventually foster the competency for self-teaching through exposure to new words through copious reading.

    How orthographic mapping relates to dyslexia

    In order to add and store words to the automatic word bank, the brain must do much more than connect a sequence of letters to their sounds. Orthographic mapping also requires the brain to connect letter sequences with word meanings. That is true in all written languages, but especially important in English because it contains many words with the same sound with different derivations of spelling and connotations.

    Reading difficulties might be problematic for dyslexics, who grapple with encoding simple and complex words with familiar functions and interpreting words with abstract and ambiguous meanings. 

    A dyslexic reader will sometimes be unable to recognize whole words in print, will interpret themes in different contexts, hesitate and stumble on terms, or substitute other words due to confusion. They exhibit problems with word pronunciation and deciphering letter combinations, for example distinguishing between similar-appearing varieties, upper and lower cases, digraphs, two letters combined to make a single sound, and different typefaces. 

    For some with dyslexia, mapping words is challenging, and difficulty acquiring this mental word bank leads to dysfluent and labored word reading.

    When struggling readers cannot recognize words automatically and instantaneously, they must use other strategies, usually slower and faultier ones. 

    The extra effort spent on figuring out what each word is discourages the capacity to focus on comprehension and deeper meaning. Many often lose track of the text and must go back to re-read sentences or passages, making reading quite arduous. When dyslexic children struggle with phonics, it is often because of a problem with integrating visual skills and the way the brain perceives, categorizes, and interprets symbols and information.

    Dyslexic children and adults can develop strong sight word vocabularies and improved reading skills with different sets of tools than the average readers. If one needs help with orthographic knowledge and phonological awareness, traditional approaches to teaching might be unsuccessful. 

    Dyslexic readers often cannot follow the same transition sequence from phonetic decoding to automatic word recognition. Also, the type and degree of dyslexia for each individual are important variants. 

    Some students possess strong oral language and are good readers but are poor spellers because they form only partial orthographic memory. Fortunately, many of these barriers can be easily addressed once recognized with the proper tools, with dramatic improvements in reading with as little as ten minutes of visual-attention training. 

    Orthographic mapping takeaways

    The key to flourishing with reading and orthographic mapping is having the insight, tools, and research needed to address any obstacle. Educators must be equipped for reading success to uncover any barriers or missing elements preventing beginning readers from being able to mentally assemble and lock words into the brain. 

    Explicit instruction, assistive technology, apps, and sites like Speechify offer a number of programs, including speech-to-text services and audiobooks, to bridge the gap in literacy for learners who have fallen behind, making reading easier and more convenient. 

    Knowing how to read well will improve one’s self-esteem and boost the ability to receive new information and find deeper meaning in context, increasing the likelihood of future achievements.

    FAQ

    Why is it important for children to learn about how the brain works?

    The brain guides everything we do, including controlling movement, decision-making, and emotions. Children should be taught from an early age about the basic working of the organ and how it directly affects learning and social-emotional facets, and that the brain is plastic and can change and grow throughout life.

    What role does the brain play within orthographic mapping?

    Orthographic mapping skills use the oral language processing part of the brain. Cognitive neuroscientists found that the left inferior frontal gyrus in the frontal lobe, the left temporoparietal cortex, and the left occipitotemporal region are responsible for decoding, sight word recognition, and the storage of language.

    What is a high-frequency word?

    High-frequency words are terms most commonly used in the English language. Because they are essential for skilled readers, they should be introduced to students early in primary school. Some high-frequency words are decodable, signifying they can be “sounded out,” while some are irregular and must be read as unique words. 

    Over time, those identified by applying decoding skills become sight words that are read and understood automatically. Reading programs and daily lessons can teach high-frequency vocabulary by referring to directories like The Fry 100 List of the Most Common Words Used in English. 

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    Cliff Weitzman

    Cliff Weitzman

    Cliff Weitzman is a dyslexia advocate and the CEO and founder of Speechify, the #1 text-to-speech app in the world, totaling over 100,000 5-star reviews and ranking first place in the App Store for the News & Magazines category. In 2017, Weitzman was named to the Forbes 30 under 30 list for his work making the internet more accessible to people with learning disabilities. Cliff Weitzman has been featured in EdSurge, Inc., PC Mag, Entrepreneur, Mashable, among other leading outlets.

    Dyslexia & Accessibility Advocate, CEO/Founder of Speechify Dyslexia & Accessibility Advocate, CEO/Founder of Speechify

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