What in the world is orthographic mapping?

Orthographic Mapping

What in the world is orthographic mapping?

Orthographic mapping is how written words are read and remembered.  It explains how we build a large volume of words into words that we recognize by sight.  It is a process that we use as readers.  Many people develop this skill of orthographic mapping easily, on their own, and unconsciously.  However, students with reading difficulties do not develop this skill and need direct and explicit instruction of orthographic mapping skills.  

Orthographic Mapping and Word Reading

According to Kilpatrick, there are four components in learning to read words.  Those components are: 

(a) proficient letter-sound knowledge 

(b) proficient phonological awareness (basic and advanced) 

(c) phonological blending 

(d) vocabulary/phonological long-term memory 

(Kilpatrick, p. 84)

Letter-Sound Knowledge

English is an alphabetic based writing system.  It is designed so that the sounds in words match the letters written.  This is called the alphabetic principle. 

Letter and sound knowledge needs to be proficient.  More specifically, students need to know the letters and sounds associated with the letters so well, that they con’t get them wrong!  I know that might seem extreme.  

However, if students are unsure of their letters and sounds, they don’t map words correctly or efficiently.  Or they don’t start mapping words at all!  This would be that student that sounds out the same word on every single page.  It is an indication that we need to step back and work on letter-sound knowledge and/or phonemic awareness.  

Phonological Awareness

Kilpatrick describes and uses three levels of phonological awareness:  early, basic, and advanced.  

Early phonological awareness skills that typically develop in preschool age children include:

  • rhyming (can, tan, fan), 
  • alliteration (bug, boat, box) 
  • segmenting words into syllables (/pur/ /ple/), 
  • beginning sound identification

Basic phonological awareness includes 

  • Blending putting words together

(day + time = daytime) 

  • Segmenting is taking words/sounds apart

(purple = /pur/ + /ple/) 

Advanced phonological awareness involves manipulating phonemes in words in some way.   This would include:

  • deleting phonemes 

(say dog, then say dog without the /d/, “og”)

  • substituting phonemes

(say mat, instead of /m/ say /p/, “pat”),

  • reversing phonemes

(say cat, say the last sound first and the first sound last, “tack”) 

Vocabulary/Phonological Long-Term Memory

It is easy to understand that vocabulary knowledge plays a part in comprehending what we read.  However, it isn’t as evident that words and even parts (spelling patterns) of words are a part of long-term memory for words and how they sound.  

It is helpful to know the meanings of many words.  In addition, there are also words we “know”, but don’t know the meaning of.  In other words, it is a word we recognize when we hear it or see it written, but we have no idea what it means.  

It turns out that all of this vocabulary knowledge is anchored in the phonological long-term memory.  The more words you have heard spoken and remember hearing, the better your ability to be able to read them and turn them into words you can read on sight.  

Orthographic Mapping vs. Phonic Decoding

orthographic mapping vs phonic decoding

Orthographic mapping is a connection forming process that can turn unfamiliar words into familiar words.  It enables us to remember a string of letters as a word.  This probably explains that feeling of reading words as a whole.  We kind of do!  However, that is not how we mapped the word to the point where we COULD read the whole word.  We start with the pronunciation of the word and the individual sounds in the word.  We then map those sounds to the written letters and spelling patterns that are used to represent those sounds.  

Beginning Sounds Boom Cards Activity

Click on the image to the left and preview an example of an orthographic mapping activity that helps students practice and connect the spoken sounds to the letters we use to spell those sounds.  

You can purchase this activity from my BOOM Learning store!

Do you use PowerPoint?  Get a free copy of the PowerPoint version of the above activity by filling out the form to the right.  

The word on each slide is presented visually with a picture, and audio with the teacher saying the name for each picture.  

On the other hand, decoding works in the opposite direction.  It begins with the written words, letters, and sound spellings in words.  A reader blends the sounds together to say a word.  Even during silent reading, our speech centers light up under brain scans.  This is where our listening vocabulary kicks in.  Even if students blend the sounds accurately, they are still sometimes unsure of the word they have spoken if it isn’t a word in their listening and speaking vocabulary.  

Click on the image to the right and preview an activity that is a decoding activity.  

Decoding CVC Words Activity Preview

How Orthographic Mapping Works


While it was helpful in the previous section to think about orthographic mapping as a process that works from the pronunciation of words to the printed word, it is actually a more complex process.  In the process of orthographic mapping, our brains take the whole spoken word, break it apart into the individual phonemes, and then map those phonemes onto the the precise sequence of letters in words. The mapping process also goes back and forth between the sounds and the letters.   

Remember that English is an alphabetic system and that’s how it works.  This is why proficient readers don’t confuse look alike words like send, sand, and dens.  The particular letters and order of those letters in words matter.  All of this is then connected to the meaning of the word being mapped.  

This is what has happened when you see a word and it instantly pops into your mind and you just read the whole word.  It was a process to get there.  If any of those key pieces are lacking, word learning suffers.  

Want to hear more about orthographic mapping?

You can check out this presentation for those of you that like to listen.  

If you would like to read more about orthographic mapping I highly suggest: 

Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties by David A. Kilpatrick


Equipped for Reading Success:  A Comprehensive, Step-by-Step Program for Developing Phonemic Awareness and Fluent Word Recognition also by David A. Kilpatrick

I do not receive any compensation from the sale of these books.  I am just recommending them! 

These are the texts referenced in this post.   

Share the Joy of the Science of Reading

Share the joy of teaching and learning to read!  If you like this post, share it with a friend.  Find more beginning reading resources, early literacy resources, and information throughout my blog and website. I am on a mission to help as many students learn to read as I possibly can.  The best way to do this is to help as many parents and educators that teach reading as possible. I only post teaching and learning information that is research-proven.  I fully support and believe in the Science of Reading.

Dr. Jenelle Strecker

2 Responses

  1. Wonderful explanation. I have shared this far and wide.

    Someone pointed out to me that the image has a typo (maping)

    As a dyslexia myself I did not notice but passing along the suggestion to correct

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Dr. Jenelle Strecker teaches beginning reading

Hi, I'm Jenelle!

I help K-3 teachers teach with the science of reading so that all of their students learn to read.

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