Building Blocks of Reading: Orthographic Mapping

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Hey y’all! This week we’re continuing our building blocks series with an essential fluency skill. Once students have mastered letter knowledge, understand syllables and phonemes, and are decoding regularly using phonics, they unknowingly begin a process known as Orthographic Mapping. 

If you’re not familiar with Orthographic Mapping, don’t be shocked. It’s probably the least recognized and understood by many teachers, even if you’ve been in the classroom a long time. In short, Orthographic Mapping is how we store new words in our brain for automatic retrieval. It’s “the process we use to store words into long term memory” (Kilpatrick 2015). 

While phonics and phonetic decoding are essential tools for early literacy, they alone aren’t enough to produce fluency and word recognition. At some point, our brains must begin to store words so we can recognize them immediately, without having to sound them out each time. 

Every word has three forms – its sounds (phonemes), its orthography (spelling), and its meaning.

Joan Sedita, 2020

The process of orthographic mapping involves the brain linking the three forms of the word (sound, spelling and meaning) and storing them together in our long term memory. “It explains how children learn to read words by sight, to spell words from memory, and to acquire vocabulary words from print. This development is portrayed as a sequence of overlapping phases, each characterized by the predominant type of connection linking spellings of words to their pronunciations in memory” (Ehri 2014). 

Alright alright, enough with the science. It’s all well and good to understand what orthographic mapping is. But we’ve got to know how to teach it in the classroom to ensure our students leave early elementary as fluent and capable readers. 

Whole Group

When practicing together, make sure to focus on helping students connect the three parts of a word: sounds, spelling and meaning.

  • First, say the word and have students repeat. (i.e. “Rug”)
  • Then, ask students: “What is a rug? What does that mean? What do you picture in your mind when you hear that word?”
  • Next, have students separate phonemes by stretching out the word and saying it slowly. They’ll recognize the sounds present in the word. 
  • Confirm the sounds with the whole group by sounding it out slowly together. 
  • Finally, build the word with letter tiles or write it on the board. Students can help by saying aloud which sounds go with each letter. 

Using this sequence, you can intentionally connect meaning, sounds and spelling when introducing new word families or words. This will ensure students understand all elements of a word when they’re beginning to learn and store words in their long term memory. 

Other Activities

The most important thing you can do is habitually connect meaning, sound and spelling with students. Once you’re doing that in the classroom in whole group, small group, and individual settings, you can begin to pepper in other variations of this. 

Sorting Words by Family

Have students match pictures of word family members (i.e. mat, hat, rat etc.) to the correct family (i.e. “-at” family) on a chart or worksheet. Sticky notes are fun for this too!

Draw the Word

Have students quickly draw or sketch (don’t let them spend too long on this!) words they read, strengthening the meaning and spelling connection. 

Roll the Dice

Create special dice with word family rimes on each side. Working in pairs, have students roll in turn and name a word in the family of whatever comes up. If they get stumped, they can work together with their partner to come up with two or more as a bonus!

Remember, practice is really what our struggling readers need most. And tweaking any of the above activities just slightly turns it into a whole new game! Make it fun and keep the pressure low. Learning to read can take time and making kiddos feel like they’re behind (even subtly) is not the ideal environment to gain fluency. 


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

Linnea C. Ehri (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

Paul, Sarah. (2019). Snippets by Sarah. 

Sedita, Joan. (2020). The Role of Orthographic Mapping in Learning to Read. Keys to Literacy. -in-learning-to-read/. 

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