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How the Brain Learns how to Read: Orthographic Mapping

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

It is a great tragedy that orthographic mapping is a lesser known framework for understanding literacy instruction. I recently did an Instagram series on orthographic mapping but I wanted to dive in and explore it in more depth here on Latch Onto Learning's Blog.

What is Orthographic Mapping?

Orthographic mapping is the term that researchers use to describe the process of how our brain learns to read words.

Now this is going to sound extremely simple and logical because it is. Nonetheless, many educators (myself included), were/are not trained on this in teachers college and if you are a younger professional (like me), you may have never experienced reading instruction guided by this framework in your formative years.

Fortunately, in response to the Right to Read Inquiry Report, the Ontario Ministry of Education is making important strides to align their instruction with the Science of Reading within the Effective Guide to Reading. They are finally sharing the importance of orthographic mapping with Ontario Teachers!

Orthographic mapping is the idea that the brain reads by:

  1. Looking at the letters/graphemes

  2. Translating those letters/graphemes into phonemes/sounds

  3. Blending those sounds together to form words

Thus to read a word like 'cat'... your child would need to:

  1. recognize that there are 3 letters in what is called a word

  2. recognize that the c says /k/

  3. recognize that the a says /a/

  4. recognize that the t says /t/

  5. recall/remember all three phonemes ( /k/ /a/ /t/)

  6. blend the phonemes together to form the word cat

  7. comprehend that what they just said is describing an animal, specifically a cat

You might be thinking... I don't do that

Now as an adult reading this blog... you might be thinking... "I don't do that. I look at it and know that the word is 'cat' because I just know it". While it is possible you have memorized the word cat. It is highly unlikely that as a literate adult, you have sat down and memorized 30, 000 to 70, 000 words! That is the average number of words that a literate adult can read by sight without having to actively decode the word.

Instead what your brain has done is it is now effortlessly decoding these words without you needing to sound them out or think about it. It is sort of like if you are driving your car and it comes so naturally that you that you don't even think about putting the blinker on or turning the wheel... you just do it.

While this comparison may be helpful to consider, your brain's connection to sight words is actually stronger. Once a word has become part of your 'sight word vocabulary' you actually can't not read it. It is impossible for you to look at a word that is in for sight word vocabulary and for you to not make meaning from the word.

So what?

Linnea Ehri, who coined the term orthographic mapping, had some key observations.

If you want your child to read well, your child will need to have:

  1. A good knowledge of the grapheme-phoneme relationship

    1. Phonemic Awareness

  2. Your child needs to notice the sequence of letters

  3. Lastly, to the parents and teachers... it's a marathon not a race. This skill is cumulative and will become effortless for both regular and irregular words... but it takes time


Lyn Stone Spelling For Life: Uncovering the Simplicity and Science of Spelling. Second Edition.

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