Sight Word Learning and Orthographic Mapping

by Marianne Dudek

Beginning readers can experience many struggles. One in particular, that this blog will address, is the necessary skill of being able to read words from memory, both accurately and automatically in or out of text. With efficient recognition of each word, readers can focus their attention on comprehension of the text. A term that is relatively new to the field, is “orthographic mapping”, which is the mental process that readers use to store written words for immediate, efficient retrieval where readers turn unfamiliar written words into familiar instantly accessible sight words. Scientists have learned that storing words in permanent memory requires phoneme level skills. Learning to read words is central to children’s success in acquiring proficient reading skills. David A. Kilpatrick, Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, and Linnea C. Ehri, Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading, Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning, have both conducted empirical research and validation studies to show the importance of orthographic mapping to the world of reading. Content in this blog summarizes their work.

The meaning of a “sight word” carries many definitions in the field of education: 1) an alternative term for the whole-word reading approach, 2) an irregular word that cannot be sounded out, and 3) a word that is instantly recognized as a familiar word without sounding it out, whether it is phonetically regular or irregular (word with irregular letter/sound connections i.e.. said). This third definition of “sight word” is addressed in this blog, as proficiency in the skill of orthographic mapping determines whether students can easily remember the words that they see. Students who struggle with remembering words that they read, must rely on phonic decoding or guessing, and are inefficient at orthographic mapping.

Efficient orthographic mapping requires the skills of advanced phonological awareness, automatic letter-sound knowledge, and word study. These skills interact with each other to produce long term orthographic memory of all the words we learn. Our named researchers above report that when readers can read words from memory rather than by decoding, analogy, or prediction, text reading is greatly enhanced. As a student’s orthographic mapping skills improve, sight vocabulary grows. Readers are able to read and comprehend with greater ease, and can focus on meaning since word recognition happens automatically. Once a proficient reader encounters a new word, the reader may attend to the internal structure of the written word to sound it out. Orthographic mapping occurs when readers form connections between single graphemes, and patterns in written units. Repeated encounters with word units help readers to establish orthographic representations of words that are stored in long term memory, which is a key to building a large sight vocabulary. The pool of words that students will instantly and automatically recognize activates effortless pronunciation and meaning and is a powerful variable for fluent reading.

According to David A. Kilpatrick’s research, there are three phases of word reading development that all require phonological skills: 1) Letter name and sound knowledge, 2) Phonic decoding and basic spelling skills, and 3) Orthographic mapping. Proficiency in these areas is predicated on proficiency in early phonological awareness (rhyming, alliteration, syllable segmentation, first sound awareness), basic phonemic awareness (segmentation and blending), and advanced phonemic awareness (manipulation). Efficient orthographic mapping will only occur if a student has adequate phonemic awareness/analysis skills in all of these areas.

For typical readers, this may not be a problem, as orthographic mapping will occur somewhat naturally for them. For atypical readers, it will be necessary to provide additional instruction in letter-sound skills, phonemic awareness skills including advanced phonemic skills of manipulation and deletion at the beginning and endings of words, and word study. If children do not have strong phonemic awareness and letter-sound skills, word study will be difficult. Reading should also be taught in a developmental sequence based on the science of reading. There are a variety of techniques and programs that promote mapping which will lend to sight word fluency. The goal of these are to help students become more efficient with sound-symbol and phonemic awareness skills that will map to permanent memory.

There are several evidenced-based programs that have been shown to produce results and enhance reading outcomes. A few are mentioned here, and I encourage you to pursue further exploration:

As practitioners in the field, it is imperative that we encourage evidence -based reading practices and stay current with research. I hope you will enhance your professional development and read about the importance of orthographic mapping as it pertains to sight word learning.

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