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What Is Orthographic Mapping?

Two young students working at a table in class

Skilled adult readers have typically "mapped" between 30,000 and 60,000 words into their sight word vocabulary. When we see one of those words, we recognize it instantly and unconsciously. This is what enables us to be efficient readers, able to focus on the meaning of what we read instead of just sounding out one word at a time.  

When we store words in our long-term memory as sight vocabulary words, we no longer have to decode them. Because some high-frequency words (such as the, and, is, was, for, and are) are essential to learning how to read, kindergarten and first-grade teachers typically help students automatically read many of these words. Students learn to read them as whole words at the same time that they are learning how to decode most other words. However, once students are able to orthographically map, they will start to store high-frequency words as sight words on their own.

While some orthographic mapping can begin earlier, most children start to develop this skill in second and third grade. As we continue to read into adulthood, we use orthographic mapping to keep growing our sight-word vocabularies.

What Is the Mental Process of Orthographic Mapping?

Orthographic mapping is a mental process used to store and remember words. Every word has three forms – its sounds (phonemes), its orthography (spelling), and its meaning. Orthographic mapping is the process that all successful readers use to become fluent readers.

With orthographic mapping of a word, the letters we see with our eyes and the sounds we hear in that word get processed together as a sight word and are stored together in the brain. This is not the same as just memorizing the way a word looks. As Dr. David Kilpatrick, a psychologist and reading researcher, explains, orthographic mapping is not a skill, teaching technique, or activity you can do with students. Phonemic awareness and phonics skills are explicitly taught, and they then enable orthographic mapping.

With orthographic mapping, students connect something new with something they already know. Through listening and speaking, young students already know a word's pronunciation and meaning, which are stored in their long-term memory. Students turn a written word into a sight word by matching the phonemes in the word's pronunciation to the letter sequence they see in the word. The pronunciation of the word corresponds with its phonemes, which is why having strong phonemic awareness skills is important. The word's letter sequence can become familiar (i.e., become a sight word) when the student attaches it to the already known pronunciation

Graphic of a bed and a sheep with sounds mapped

Dr. Kilpatrick uses examples similar to the following:

  • If a student knows the spoken word /bed/, its pronunciation is stored in long-term memory – he knows what it means and what it sounds like. If he has good phonemic awareness skills, he can pull the word apart into its individual sounds – /b/  /ĕ/  /d/. Those sounds become the anchoring points for the word's printed sequence. The student can then attach each phoneme to its corresponding letter to get the spelling. The student is using the power of what he knows (the pronunciation) and attaching it "like superglue" to the printed word bed. This example has all single sound-letter correspondences.
  • If a student knows the spoken word /sheep/, its pronunciation is stored in long-term memory – he knows what it means and what it sounds like. Using phonemic awareness skills, he can pull the word apart into its individual sounds /sh/  /ē/  /p/. The student then attaches each phoneme to its corresponding spelling. In this example, two of the sounds are represented by more than one letter

Dr. Linnea Ehri, an educational psychologist and expert on the development of reading, explains three intersecting skills that must be in place to enable orthographic mapping:

"To form connections and retain words in memory, readers need some requisite abilities. They must possess phonemic awareness, particularly segmentation and blending. They must know the major grapheme-phoneme correspondences (letter-sound knowledge) of the writing system. Then they need to be able to read unfamiliar words on their own by applying a decoding strategy." … [Doing so] "activates orthographic mapping to retain the words' spellings, pronunciations, and meanings in memory." 

Typically developing readers from second grade on who have orthographic mapping skills only need to see and read a printed word one to four times before that word becomes permanently stored as a sight word for future instant recall, according to a 1983 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. When a word becomes a sight word, its sound and meaning are immediately available as soon as the reader sees the word. Having a significant amount of stored sight words is what enables fluency – quick and accurate reading where the reader is free to focus on deriving meaning from the text.

A longer version of this piece was originally published by the Houston Branch of the International Dyslexia Association and on the Keys to Literacy blog.


Ehri, L.C. (2014) Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific Studies of Reading 18(1).

Kilpatrick, D.A. (2019). Assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Online course. Colorado Department of Education. Retrieved from:

Reitsma, P. (1983). Printed word learning in beginning readers. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 36, 3 

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