What Is Orthographic Mapping in Reading and Why Is It Important?

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What Is Orthographic Mapping?

We have on average 20,000 to 70,000 words stored in our mental orthographic lexicon, but the process of reading and storing those words develops over time. Orthographic mapping is the cognitive process that we use to store and retrieve words by connecting their pronunciation, spelling, and meaning automatically and effortlessly. Orthographic mapping helps explain the process of how students read fluently, spell words, and learn new vocabulary when reading.

Components of Orthographic Mapping

Every word that we read or hear consists of sounds (phonemes), letters (graphemes) and how they are sequenced, and meaning (semantics). When students commit new words to memory, the process entails the following components.

  • Alphabetic Principle: As readers and speakers of the English language, there is an understanding that the oral and written language is based on the letters of the alphabet.
  • Phonemic Awareness: There is an awareness that our language is made up of discrete sounds.
  • Letter-Sound Knowledge: Each sound corresponds to a letter or letter patterns that are written in a specific sequence.
  • Morphology and Syllabication: At a more advanced level, students understand that words are broken down to word parts that contain meaning and are divided by different types of syllables.
  • Orthographic Fluency: When the brain connects the sounds to the letters and spells the words with adequate exposure and practice, students can do this process with ease and automaticity.

Once students have permanently stored words in their long-term memory and words become instantly recognizable and retrievable, they become “sight words,” and thus, students have developed orthographic mapping.

Elements of Orthographic Knowledge

When students become aware that sounds are represented by letters, students specifically need to acquire orthographic knowledge where understanding the pattern, sequence, and position of the letters is integral to read and spell words correctly.

  • Pattern: Students learn that letter patterns make specific sounds (e.g., -igh makes the long vowel sound of /ī/, or the letter "b" is silent in the -mb pattern).
  • Sequence: These letter patterns are written in a distinct sequence (e.g., -igh instead of -ihg or -mb instead of -bm).
  • Position: Some letter patterns occur in the initial, medial, or final position of words (e.g., -mb is typically only written at the end of a word).

What Is Orthographic Fluency?

As students acquire orthographic knowledge and practice those skills, students can read words with more ease and automaticity and, therefore, develop orthographic fluency. For some students, decoding can be laborious and they can sound disfluent without adequate practice. According to renowned reading expert Dr. Linnea Ehri, students must become highly proficient in phonological and phonemic awareness, have automatic letter-sound knowledge, quickly blend those sounds, and access meaning to become skillful readers. When students are reading words automatically, we know that they have developed orthographic mapping.

Orthographic Mapping in Spelling

The reverse is true for the encoding process. As students hear phonemes and encode them into graphemes, they segment the phonemes, correspond each sound to the letter or letter patterns, apply their advanced phonics, morphology, and syllabication rules where appropriate, and retrieve the sequence of the letters of the word. As students increase their exposure and practice with words, they retrieve the spelling of the words accurately and with ease.

Why Is Orthographic Mapping Important?

Developing orthographic mapping helps students decode unfamiliar words. When students know “the code,” they begin to independently apply the decoding strategy to read new words, which researchers refer to as the self-teaching hypothesis. As word recognition becomes automatic, students can focus more mental energy on comprehension and meaning. Orthographic mapping also aids in vocabulary acquisition, as students are able to secure new vocabulary into memory through connecting their meaning with the words’ pronunciations and spellings.

How Long Does Orthographic Mapping Take to Develop?

On average students take one to four exposures to words to store the printed word into memory and instantly recognize the word when they encounter it next. However, for students who exhibit reading difficulties, it can take more than 20 exposures to a word before it's committed to memory. Researchers have found that students with dyslexia differ from other readers during this orthographic processing. Therefore, evidence-based instructional strategies that develop students’ orthographic mapping process is vital to enhance students’ reading ability and will allow them to read connected text with ease.

Instructional Implications

Effective instruction that helps develop orthographic mapping encompasses explicit, systematic instruction on 1) phonemic awareness skills, 2) letter-sound knowledge, and 3) morphology and syllabication rules, along with 4) adequate practice to develop fluency and automaticity in word recognition. Here are some examples of orthographic mapping activities:

Orthographic Mapping Activities

  • Phoneme-grapheme mapping using sound boxes
  • Word sorts focusing on specific orthographic patterns
  • Spelling lists that are pattern-based rather than content-based
  • Repeated reading of single words to develop automatic word recognition
  • Repeated timed reading of word lists with similar grapheme patterns
  • Repeated reading of connected text using a specific grapheme pattern
  • Structured approach to spelling instruction—teaching conventional spelling rules, common letter sequences, and syllabication rules
  • Teaching word study with an attention on morphology (base words, prefixes, suffixes)
  • Explicitly teaching syllable types and syllable division rules
  • Additional practice reading and spelling high-frequency irregularly spelled words

These activities apply to all students, especially those exhibiting reading difficulties. Given that striving readers may demonstrate difficulties in the orthographic mapping process, you may want to increase the intensity of the instruction and practice along with providing the targeted lessons in smaller groups.

Teachers can differentiate instruction by adjusting the amount and type of orthographic mapping practice that students receive.

  • Increase Exposure: Provide additional exposure to the same pattern of words in various contexts through independent reading, audiobooks, and read alouds.
  • Increase Rehearsal and Practice: Strengthen and support working memory through repeating the words and writing the words in various contexts.
  • Review Cumulatively with Longer Intervals: Review the words from recent lessons and increase the number of lessons between each review.


When effective reading instruction takes place, research shows that all learners, even those exhibiting reading difficulties, can achieve their reading goals. Neurocognitive studies show that students with dyslexia who once displayed different brain activity patterns than students without dyslexia demonstrated normalized brain activation patterns after evidence-based orthographic instruction, signifying the development of successful orthographic mapping. As with any skill, evidence-based instruction with intentional and adequate practice is vital for the development of orthographic mapping that will form the basis of skillful reading and spelling.


Ehri, L.C. (2014). Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18(1), 5–21, DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2013.819356

Foorman, B., Coyne, M., Denton, C.A., Dimino, J., Hayes, L., Justice, L., Lewis, W., & Wagner, R. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade: A practice guide (NCEE 2016-4008). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Kilpatrick, D.A. (2015). Assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Lyon, G.R. (1998). Overview of reading and literacy initiatives. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

Richards, T.L., Aylward, E.H., Berninger, V.W., Field, K.M., Grimme, A.C., Richards, A.L., & Nagy, W. (2006). Individual fMRI activation in orthographic mapping and morpheme mapping after orthographic or morphological spelling treatment in child dyslexics. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 19(1), 56–86.


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