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A Literacy Lesson in Orthographic Mapping

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Modified on September 28, 2023

When it comes to reading comprehension and fluency, vocabulary and oral language are two key components. However, teaching vocabulary to new readers is notoriously difficult. Before simply giving students a list of sight words to memorize, educators may benefit from focusing on a process called orthographic mapping, which helps students learn new words.

What Is Orthographic Mapping?

Orthographic mapping is the thought process students employ to connect the phonemes of familiar words to their orthography, helping them to learn new words. Every word has three parts: its sounds (phonemes), its spelling (orthography), and its meaning. As David Kilpatrick says in his book, Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, orthographic mapping is the process used to store words in long-term memory.

As students practice reading, more words will become "sight words," or instantly recognizable words. As students learn more sight words, they can begin to better shift their focus from the sounds and spelling to the meaning of the words. This also then helps students begin to store words in their long-term memory. As a child’s vocabulary grows, so does their reading comprehension and fluency. Orthographic mapping is proven to enhance sight word recognition and vocabulary, making it an imperative skill for educators to focus on during early literacy instruction.

For example, high-frequency words like the, and, is, are, was, etc. are often some of the first sight words students store in their memory. These words are foundational when it comes to reading fluency, which is why they are often introduced in kindergarten and first grade. Simple words like this may involve more explicit instruction since they are so frequent in sentences, while other words are taught with more focus on their sounds and correct spellings. Because of this type of instruction in the first few years of school, students are more likely to start applying orthographic mapping skills during second or third grade.

Orthographic Mapping vs. Decoding

While orthographic mapping and decoding are often talked about in relation to each other, they are two different processes. Orthographic mapping is a process that happens unconsciously because of the foundational skills students have previously acquired. Decoding is a conscious, intentional act that helps students to sound out unfamiliar words. In Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, Kilpatrick describes the difference between the two: “Think of phonic decoding as going from text to brain (part to whole, phonemes to words) and orthographic mapping going from brain to text (whole to part, oral words to the individual phonemes that make the word.)”

Therefore, in a sense, decoding is actually the opposite skill to orthographic mapping. In word decoding, a student moves from individual phonemes to the full word by blending them together. Decoding involves memorizing familiar letter patterns and sounds. This letter-sound knowledge sets up foundational relationships that will be used throughout higher-level learning as well.

On the other hand, in orthographic learning, a student takes a full word and breaks it into its phoneme components to use it on another word. Orthographic mapping is a retrieval of stored words and sounds. It is the process of connecting something students have already learned and applying it to something new they are trying to learn.

Sight Word Reading

Mapping and decoding strategies focus on students breaking down words and building them back up. Sight words, however, are words students should learn to recognize instantly without sounding them out every time. Students recognize these words more as their word shapes rather than their grapheme-phoneme sounds. The more words students are able to recognize by sight, the faster and more fluent they can be when reading. Many educators will choose a list of high-frequency words to establish as sight words, since students will come across those words repeatedly when reading. Another group of words educators will often add to a list of sight words to teach is those that do not fit the standard phonetic patterns. These irregular words are usually harder for students to decode because they break the rules and sound patterns being taught.

Below is a list of examples of common sight word vocabulary. While there is no definitive list of sight words that must be taught in a certain grade or at a certain age, good reading programs will incorporate a variety of vocabulary instruction into daily activities for students.

High-Frequency Sight Words

Irregular Spelling/Sounding Sight Words

a, an

am, is, are, had

in, with, at, on

he, she, they

can, like


was, were, have, does

from, of

who, you

said, want

Eventually, words students are decoding will become sight words for them. This is where the process of orthographic mapping comes into play. It is an advancement from visual memorization to long-term learning. Students will later be able to easily recognize low-frequency words, as well as more irregular words, as they begin to recognize patterns.

Key Skills To Developing Orthographic Mapping Ability

There are several essential skills that must be honed for students to be able to perform orthographic mapping. These are foundational not only for orthographic mapping but also for reading instruction in general—including fluency, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and more.

  • Alphabetic Knowledge—Basic knowledge of the alphabet—knowing which sounds go with which letters—is one of the principle skills that will help students on their lifelong journey of literacy.

  • Phonological Awareness—This is an umbrella ability of recognizing parts of spoken sentences and words and manipulating them. Many other skills fall under this category, such as alliteration, rhyming, blending, segmenting, and more.

  • Phonemic Awareness—As a subset of phonological awareness, phonemic awareness focuses more on identifying and manipulating individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. For example, separating the spoken word “cat” into the three distinct phonemes of /c/ /a/ /t/.

  • Decoding—Once a sense of knowledge and awareness is in place, then more application of skills can occur. Decoding involves automatic letter-sound association, and it is a skill students can use to recognize familiar words and also while figuring out new words, too.

  • Blending—While taking apart words is an important skill, learning to put them back together again is another vital skill. Blending is joining together the individual sounds and is crucial for developing fluency.

These skills are necessary to help students store new words into their long-term memory. By walking students through each skill set, the foundation will be set in place for students to successfully begin orthographic mapping—thus producing skilled readers.

How Can Educators Support Orthographic Mapping Knowledge?

There are many ways educators can support students through the process of orthographic mapping, including building or reinforcing strong foundational skills. Phonemic awareness skills and phonics knowledge are vital to activating orthographic mapping skills. With that in mind, educators can emphasize phonemic awareness and phonics in their early literacy teaching approach.

Educators can also routinely test their students' orthographic mapping ability. This can be done by regularly assessing whether students identify grade-level sight words quickly. A strong vocabulary is a key component of fluency. Measuring orthographic mapping in this way can help educators predict whether students will become efficient readers, and which students may need additional support or intervention.

If students are taking a longer time than typical to identify words or are still sounding out grade-level words, they are still in the decoding stage. Their brains need more time to learn to identify words so it becomes an automatic process. These students may require extra phonemic awareness and phonics direction to help boost their orthographic learning, and to create a stronger foundation. This may look like explicit instruction, hands-on activities, or even independent activities that include pictures and words.

Orthographic Mapping Tips and Activities

Incorporating several orthographic mapping activities into regular, routine instruction can be beneficial in solidifying this learning. The following phoneme-grapheme tips and activities involve visual, kinesthetic, and auditory components that will help cover the variety of learning styles likely found in one classroom.

  • Repeat the word—Simple repetition of saying the word throughout a lesson is important for students to practice hearing and verbalizing.

  • Use your hands—Tapping out the sounds or using your fingers to count out the sounds can help teach students to use the resource right at their fingertips to help them with their words. Students will then later be able to use their fingers to slide across the page and practice blending the letters and sounds and words.

  • Be colorful—Using colorful chips to match sounds with visual cues can create positive associations for students. For example, assign certain colors to certain letters or sounds and have students create colorful “rainbow sounds” across their page. This will also allow students to more clearly notice patterns between different words as well.

  • Graph things out—Utilize shapes and images by graphing out words by separating each letter or sound into its own box. These sound boxes, also known as “Elkonin boxes,” are effective tools for breaking down a word into segments and then blending them back together.

  • Create visual cards—Whether you are using picture, letter, word, or sound cards, the classic flashcard style of learning can help students with visual memory of each element of orthographic mapping.

  • Decorate the classroom—Placing visual cues or reminders around the classroom can support independence and student success. Displays like “sound walls” will provide students with visual concepts of auditory elements they are hearing every day.

  • Write it down—Always have students practice writing out the full word at the end of each activity. No matter what stage of understanding, ending an activity with a complete word will continue to point them forward in their comprehension.

At the end of the day, repeated exposure to new words—and to familiar words—is crucial for vocabulary development. A child’s brain has an incredible capacity for learning, and that is why vocabulary development starts at such a young age. Kilpatrick said, “Early training of phonological awareness in kindergarten and first grade prevents many reading difficulties from happening.” From knowledge of letters to letter sequences to coding and mapping skills, each lesson plan and activity is a new opportunity to enhance students’ mental processes and lexicon that they will carry with them throughout their education and their lives.

Support Elementary Students' Fluency With Voyager Sopris Learning Programs

While teaching new vocabulary to young readers can sometimes be challenging, with the right tools and solutions, it can be easier and more efficient. Voyager Sopris Learning® reading programs offer unique benefits that can help every learner—and teacher—be successful in the classroom and in life. For example, Voyager Passport® can help K–5 students with the five essential components of reading—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—plus language and writing, and provides educators with a teacher’s resource kit that includes the tools they need to effectively support their students.