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The Role of Orthographic Mapping in Learning to Read

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 32 Comments

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. Through orthographic mapping, students use the oral language processing part of their brain to map (connect) the sounds of words they already know (the phonemes) to the letters in a word (the spellings). They then permanently store the connected sounds and letters of words (along with their meaning) as instantly recognizable words, described as “sight vocabulary” or “sight words”.

Sight Words

A sight word is any word that a reader instantly recognizes and identifies without conscious effort. Adult competent readers have between 30,000 and 60,000 words that have been orthographically mapped in their sight vocabulary. As soon as one of these words is seen, it is unconsciously and instantly recognizable. This is what enables us to be efficient readers, able to focus on the meaning of what we read instead of on word reading. When words are stored as sight vocabulary words in long-term memory, a reader no longer has to decode words one at a time the way beginning readers do. While some orthographic mapping can begin earlier, most children start applying this skill in second and third grade. As we continue to read into adulthood, we continue to use orthographic mapping to grow our sight word vocabularies.

Because some high-frequency words (e.g., the, and, is, was, for, are) are essential to learning how to read, teachers of kindergarten and grade 1 typically provide explicit instruction to help students automatically read some of these words. Students are taught to read them as whole words at the same time that they are being taught 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.

What is the mental process of orthographic mapping?

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 memorizing just the way a word looks. It is also important to remember that orthographic mapping is a mental process used to store and remember words. It is not a skill, teaching technique, or activity you can do with students (Kilpatrick, 2019). What can be taught are phonemic awareness and phonics skills which 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 is stored in their long-term memory. Students turn a written word into a sight word by attaching the phonemes in the word’s pronunciation to the letter sequence of the word. The pronunciation of the word has to be broken into 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) because the student can attach it to the already known pronunciation.

Kilpatrick (2019) provides 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 (phonemes)  /b/  /e/  /d/. Those sounds become the anchoring points for the word’s printed sequence. The student can then attach each phoneme to its corresponding letter (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/  /e/  /p/. The student then attaches each phoneme to its corresponding spelling. In this example, some of the sounds are represented by more than one letter.

In typically developing readers from grade 2 on who have orthographic mapping skills, they only need to see and read printed words one to four times before they become permanently stored as sight words for future instant recall (Reitsma, 1983 as cited in Kilpatrick, 2015). When a word becomes a sight word, as soon as it is seen its sound and meaning are immediately available. Having a significant amount of stored sight words is what enables fluency – quick and accurate reading where the reader is free to focus on making meaning from text.

How does orthographic mapping develop?

Three intersecting skills must be in place to enable orthographic mapping (Ehri,  2014; Kilpatrick, 2015):

  • Highly proficient phonological and phonemic awareness
  • Automatic letter-sound correspondence knowledge
  • The ability to accurately and quickly decode a word by identifying its sounds letter by letter, and blending those sounds to read the word

Kilpatrick (2015) describes three phases of word-reading development for children in the primary grades that are aligned with corresponding phonological skill development.

Beginning readers in kindergarten and grade 1 are developing their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences and basic phonemic awareness skills, and are beginning to learn phonic decoding. Before a student can orthographically map a word, the word first has to be identified. Young students identify the pronunciation of a word by using their letter-sound knowledge to determine each sound in the word, and then using their phonemic blending skills to blend those sounds to decode (sound out) the word.

Once these skills are proficient, typically by grade 3, orthographic mapping usually develops for the majority of students simply by interacting with letters and words. However, many students with word-reading difficulties do not develop orthographic mapping. They therefore have greater difficulty developing the sight word vocabulary needed for fluent reading and will likely stay disfluent and hesitant readers unless they receive intervention that builds proficiency in phonemic awareness and phonics skills (Kilpatrick, 2015; Parker, 2019). It is difficult for them to get beyond having to decode most words when they read.

Orthographic mapping doesn’t work well for students who struggle with letter sound knowledge or who do not have proficient phonemic awareness skills. Here’s how Ehri (2014) explains the skills that need to be in place before orthographic mapping can take place:

“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.” (p. 7)

Implications for Teaching: Explicit Phonemic Awareness and Phonics Instruction Leads to Orthographic Mapping

Phonemic awareness and phonics instruction help students use the alphabetic principle to learn relationships between the letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language. As noted in the word-reading development chart above, developing early phonological awareness, including phonemic awareness of initial sounds, should be a focus of PreK and kindergarten instruction to develop basic letter-sound correspondence knowledge. As students move through kindergarten and grade one, a focus on blending and segmenting of phonemes in written words develops phonic decoding skills which must be in place for orthographic mapping. Some kindergarten and grade 1 students may be able to start completing simple phoneme manipulation tasks, such as deleting or substituting initial sounds in words.

Kilpatrick (2015, 2019) suggests that as students move into grades two and three, they need to become proficient in more advanced phonemic awareness skills to apply the orthographic mapping process. If a student can do a phoneme manipulation task with ease (i.e., deleting, substituting, reversing phonemes), it indicates a higher level of proficiency with phonemes which is correlated with word reading more than blending and segmenting.

For struggling readers in grades two and three who do not naturally develop advanced phonemic awareness skills through exposure to classroom literacy activities, orthographic mapping is difficult. Research suggests that advanced phonemic awareness skills and phonics should be directly taught for these students to become proficient readers. Kilpatrick (2015) notes:

“Intervention studies that allow students to complete their phonological awareness development (along with teaching and reinforcing phonics skills and phonic decoding, and providing opportunities for reading connected text) produce very large gains in word-level reading skills. Studies that do not address phonemic awareness skills beyond the basic level (blending and segmenting), however, yield more limited results because their students have only partially completed their phonological awareness development.” (p. 312)


  • Ehri, L. C. (1998). Grapheme-phoneme knowledge is essential to learning to read words in English. In J. L. Metsala & L. C. Ehri (Eds.), Word recognition in beginning literacy (p. 3–40). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
  • 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. (2015). Assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Kilpatrick, D.A. (2016) Equipped for reading success. Casey & Kirsch Publishers
  • Kilpatrick, D.A. (2019). Assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. Online course. Colorado Department of Education. Retrieved from:
  • Parker, S. (2019). Sight words, orthographic mapping, and self-teaching. Stephen Parker blog post, April 22, 2019. Retrieved from
  • Reitsma, P. (1983). Printed word learning in beginning readers. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 36, 321-339.

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founder of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy professional development programs. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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  1. Marci Peterson

    Well written and a clear explanation of the importance of phonemic awareness in the early years for all readers. This article points to the importance of identifying those readers who need intentional instruction in advanced phonemic awareness skills.

    • Brittany

      Is there a curriculum that you recommend?

      • Joan Sedita

        There are numerous companies that offer programs that combine phonemic awareness with phonics to explicitly teach the alphabetic principle and develop the blending and segmenting skills that are needed for decoding, as well phoneme manipulation. Fundations, Letterland, Lively Letters to name a few. Some core reading program also include fairly good phonemic awareness/phonics lessons. I think the more important thing is the level of knowledge that teachers have about evidence-based practices for teaching these components, and that comes from quality professional development!

      • Judith Colvin

        I have been teaching reading to kindergarten students for years but have not really know what exactly I have been doing. I have or my students have had a high success rate, but it is/was the ones that did not get it that I did not know what to do about it. Now I have a better understanding where they may be coming from and where they need to go.

  2. Debbie Eckles

    Wonderful article. That’s why we began using Heggerty exercises with our kindergarten program.

  3. Lyn


  4. Corrine

    Wonderful article. Thanks for clearing a few things up for me. Now, I know I need to by myself a Kilpatrick book too!

    • Joan Sedita

      You are welcome!

    • Heather Jones

      Excellent article, I actually just finished Kilpatrick’s webinar series and I’m now reading Equipped for Success. This article is very clear and easy to understand I’m very tempted to share it with my district. After reading several books about the science of reading and finally coming to this I’m completely chilled by how I was teaching reading and how many people are still uninformed.

      • Joan Sedita

        Please do share with your district. I wrote this to try and make a very complex concept understandable to classroom educators who might not have a deep knowledge of phonics instruction.

      • Cristal Fertitta

        Hi Heather Where! Where can I find Kilpatrick’s webinar series?? I’m interested in them!

      • Luqman Michel

        Why are there kids who are unable to read despite phonics being taught in a class?
        For decades about 20% have left school as functional illiterates; why is this the case?

        • Joan Sedita

          There are many students who will learn to read regardless of the approach used to teach reading! They are able to intuit how an alphabetic writing system works and learn the phoneme-grapheme associations without direct instruction (the 20% you mention). However, the great majority of students (especially those who have dyslexia, other learning disabilities), need an explicit approach to teaching the foundational skills of phonological awareness and phonics. Students do learn to read some words as a whole units, many before they enter school, including things like their name and words they see in real life such as on a “stop” sign, or restaurants (e.g., “Wendy’s” “MacDonald’s”). And when kindergarten students first enter school there are some very basic high-frequency words (e.g., my, like ) for which teaching how to decode and spell may be needed before they are taught the phonics concepts in these words. There are some sight words (e.g., was, said) that are not “regularly” spelled using common phonics patterns, but even when these words are taught, students benefit from the teacher segmenting the sounds in the word and pointing to each grapheme to show how that phoneme is spelled. See a related blog I wrote about teaching these kinds of words: The point of this blog post about OM is to highlight that proficient readers learn to read many, many words fluently not by memorizing them one at a time, but by applying phonemic awareness and decoding skills to orthographically map these words in a more efficient way.

  5. Sam

    Outside of Kilpatrick and Ehri this is the best explanation of orthographic mapping I have read. In fact, your article has helped me understand their work more. Thank you. I really appreciate it.

  6. Holly Moad

    You’re posts are always very helpful.
    Thank you!

  7. Dr. Katherine St. Peter

    Hello Joan,
    Interesting and very clear article. The teachers I am working with appreciate it!!! Thank you.

  8. Armi Dela Cruz

    Hi! Will orthographic mapping be an effective tool for improving reading proficiency among primary ESL learners? thank you!

    • Joan Sedita

      The Orthographic Mapping process occurs for all students as they learn to read, including ESL learners. If these learners are beyond grade 3 and are fluent in reading their first language, then the process will be easier.

  9. Luqman Michel

    ‘Young students identify the pronunciation of a word by using their letter-sound knowledge to determine each sound in the word, and then using their phonemic blending skills to blend those sounds to decode (sound out) the word.’

    I ask the same question as my question earlier. How do kids who are taught the wrong letter sounds able to blend words?

    • Joan Sedita

      Michel, Let me try to answer the questions you have sent in about orthographic mapping. One question you had was about the line “Students are taught to read them as whole words at the same time that they are being taught how to decode most other words.” What I was talking about here are the handful of high frequency words such as “the” and “was” that do not follow regular phonics patterns, yet need to be taught to kindergarteners because they are so common. Most of the other words these young children will be reading should be words that contain the basic phonics concepts they are being taught (e.g., short vowels in CVC words, digraphs such as sh, th, consonant blends, etc.). Even the high-frequency sight words that do not follow regular phonics concepts should be taught in a way that has students attending to the individual sounds in these words and the letter(s) that represent the, but the teacher also needs to point out that these are words that don’t follow typical spellings. It’s why we say they are taught to read them as sight words…. but they are still being orthographically mapped. Another question you posed was “how do kids who have been taught sounds represented by consonants with extraneous sounds are able to decode a word by identifying its sounds letter by letter and blending those sounds to read the word?” I think you may be asking about phonemes that are spelled with what is sometimes referred to as silent letters — e.g., “mb” spelling for the sound of /m/ in the word “thumb”. The first phonics patterns to teach are the most basic where there is a single letter representing a phoneme. As students move into grade 2, the more complex phonics patters (such as the silent letter example) are taught. In both cases, when we teach students to decode words, we teach them to focus on each sound in a word and the letter or letter combinations that represent them. I hope this response helps explain why the orthographic mapping process works regardless of how a word is spelled — students attend to the sounds (phonemes) not just the spellings!

  10. michelle

    hello i have a student behind grade level how do i teach this when the schools use WORDS their way.?

    • Joan Sedita

      There are many reasons why a student might be behind grade level, so your question is broad. You should visit the videos and webinars at the free resources section of the Keys to Literacy website where you will find a number of teaching suggestions related to vocabulary and other components of reading:

  11. L.

    I work with students who are Deaf or hard of hearing. Their oral language skills are often impacted by their hearing status. I work heavily on developing their oral language skills and use visual cues for segmenting and blending phonemes (tapping on the shoulder for the first sound, elbow for the second, wrist for the third when segmenting and then running my hand smoothly down my arm to blend). Are there any other tips/tricks/ideas you have for working with students who don’t have strong oral language skills?

    • Joan Sedita

      Since I don’t specialize in the literacy instruction for students with hearing impairments, I can’t offer you some specific suggestions. But in general, being as multi-sensory as possible (as you are doing with the arm touching and visual cues) would be my recommendation!

  12. Michelle Koehler

    Very interesting article.

    • Stephanie Snow

      Thank you for this very clear and informative article. You have really cleared up some questions I had about how to help the young students I work with (kindergarten through 4th grade). I do have one question: I am surprised to read that the ability to orthographic map words doesn’t really develop until 2nd grade, if I’m understanding you correctly. Does this mean that it’s developmentally normal for my kindergarten students to see the same CVC words (e.g. “bed”) many times and still have to sound them out each time? I had thought that even at the kindergarten level, students would be beginning to orthographically map words as they are seeing them, blending them, reading, writing them etc. But maybe I’m expecting too much of them, and it’s normal for them to need many repetitions before developing automaticity in the words we’re working on.

      • Joan Sedita

        Good question about when young ones can OM! The process can begin to take place earlier than grade 2, but it is at grade 2 that it really ramps up!

  13. Judith

    It can’t be stressed enough as to how important early intervention for students who struggle to remember letter names and sounds.

  14. Nelda Bayer

    Orthographic Mapping (according to Kilpatrick, Sedita and others is achieved when “words are stored as sight words in long-term memory so that a reader no longer has to decode words one as a time the way beginning readers do”. I am working with a little 6 year old who seems to have difficulty ‘remembering’ the connection between sound and letter in short vowel words and I am wondering if this is a ‘memory’ issue. If in case it is a ‘memory’ issue can you recommend specific ways to enhance memory skills so that they can be applied in the orthographic mapping of words?

    • Joan Sedita

      First, from a developmental standpoint, most students begin developing orthographic mapping in grade 2, so if the child is 6 he or she may not have developed enough decoding skills or sufficient, automatic knowledge of letter-sound correspondences to be able to use the OM process to map phonemes to graphemes. As for why this child is having difficulty mastering letter-sound correspondences, rather than he or she having a memory deficit, it is more likely that he or she just needs more explicit, systematic instruction for letter-sound correspondences. It is especially helpful when that instruction provides prompts that help them make that connection, such as pictures that help students associate the letter with the sound. For example, a picture of a snake is used next to the letter s… the student is asked to say the picture and focus on the first sound (i.e., /s/). Then the students say the word (snake) the sound /s/) and the name of the letter (s). Some phonics programs also provide other prompts to help the students develop automaticity, such as a song or a gesture (e.g., rub you tummy when you say the sound /m/ along with the prompt word mouse and the name of the letter m. The Letterland program is an example that provides multiple prompts to help the students remember. If children haven’t mastered that letter-sound knowledge, it will then be difficult to start decoding words.

  15. nelda bayer

    OK So what are specific steps to be followed and mastered in order to foster the process in the brain that leads to orthographic mapping? Teachers need specifics, not generalities.

    • Joan Sedita

      Once teachers understand how the OM process works, it becomes clearer why it is so important to provide explicit, systematic instruction for letter-sound knowledge, blending and segmenting phonemes in words to decode, and advanced phonemic awareness (phoneme manipulation). These are the underlying skills that build proficiency in the ability to link knowledge of word meaning, sounds in words, and the spellings of those sounds.



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