What Is Orthographic Memory? A Guide For Writers

Reading instruction relies heavily on orthographic memory to connect words and their meaning. What is orthographic memory? Keep reading to find out.

When learning to read, orthographic memory plays an important role. Also known as orthographic processing or orthographic mapping, this process allows the brain to recognize letter sequences and patterns to connect those to words, even if they are phonetically irregular. It puts words into long-term memory, so the reader does not have to sound out words every time they read.

Orthographic memory is essential to becoming a fluent reader and moving beyond decoding by simply sounding out words to recognizing written words independent of their sounds.

What Is Orthographic Memory? An In-Depth Look

When you read an English word, you see letters with your eyes. If the word is new to you, your brain will work to determine the sounds in that word based on its letter sounds and blends. The more frequently you see that word and decode it, the more effectively the letters and sounds become stored in your brain.

This process is orthographic memory. Young readers already know how to pronounce a word and what it means, even before they learn to write or spell it. The word “dog,” for instance, most young readers know and have an understanding of what it means when they hear that word. The key to teaching them to read is connecting the image of a furry pet that barks to the letters d – o – g. Once that connection is made, and the child can consistently say “dog” when they see those letters in that order, the word is part of their orthographic memory.

How Orthographic Memory Develops

The reader must have strong phonemic and phonological awareness to pull up words from the orthographic memory. They also must be able to assign letter sounds to the letters automatically. This is known as grapheme-phoneme correspondence. Finally, they must be able to quickly decode words by noting their letters and blending those into a known word.

This process is why pre-reading skills in preschool and early elementary grades, such as learning letter sounds and blends and hearing stories read often, are so important. In addition, alphabetic practice is vital to building the foundation for orthographic memory. If it is lacking, the student may struggle to learn to read.

New research indicates that students can learn vocabulary more effectively when spelling instruction is connected to the pronunciation and meaning of new words. This activates orthographic mapping skills and thus makes it easier to connect sounds, words, and meaning. In addition, when taught together, these words go into the orthographic memory more efficiently.

Orthographic Memory Timeline

Orthographic memory timeline
Students are learning early phonological awareness until the age of five

To better understand this process of reading development, it may help to look at a timeline of literacy.

  • Preschool and kindergarten – Students are learning early phonological awareness until the age of five. They will learn about rhyming sounds, alliteration, first sounds, and the correlation between letters and their sounds.
  • Kindergarten and first grade – As they enter elementary school, students get explicit instruction on blending and segmenting words as they learn phonics. They also start phonic decoding, which sets the stage for orthographic mapping.
  • Second grade and beyond – This is when phonemic awareness and proficiency begin. Students learn how to manipulate phonemes to create new words, and they understand spelling patterns. In addition, they have a large bank of sight words to pull from when reading and the phonetical skills to decode new words when needed.

If reading instruction is not given correctly at these three stages, students may struggle to develop these skills and become efficient readers. These struggles extend into middle and high school and can put otherwise bright students at a severe disadvantage because of how essential reading is. You might also be interested in our explainer on what is mapping in writing.

Phonemic Awareness and Orthographic Memory

When young readers learn to read, they break the word down into phonemes or individual sounds. Once they connect those sounds to a known word and idea, they do not have to sound out the word anymore. However, phonemic awareness is essential to the process because the reader can’t learn how to speak a written word without the ability to break it down into its parts. For young readers without learning disabilities, this process seems to happen almost automatically.

After they read via sounding out a word one to four times, that word becomes permanently stored in the orthographic memory. It becomes a sight word, which means they no longer have to use decoding skills to remember it. Skilled readers see the whole word and can say it or pull up a mental image of the thing the word describes. Phonemic awareness and its connection to orthographic memory are also essential to spelling. Once a child uses orthography to recognize a word based on its letters, they are more able to spell it correctly.

Orthographic Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a learning disability that challenges students because they have trouble reading fluently. This is often understood as difficulty decoding the parts of words, including the letter symbols or reversals of letters within words. However, orthographic dyslexia is a unique form of the disorder.

When a student has orthographic dyslexia, they can decode words phonetically. They can also spell words phonetically because they have good phonological skills. However, irregular words present a challenge, where difficulty occurs. They often do not test as dyslexic because their deficiency is not where most dyslexic students have problems.

When a student needs to spell a word that is not phonetic, like the word “who,” and they have orthographic dyslexia, they cannot do it. They can only spell words that work using phonics rules. Even high-frequency words do not become part of their long-term memory, and thus they have spelling errors and reading difficulties. Readers with this disorder must read slowly because they are sounding out most words rather than pulling them from their memory banks.

Helping Students with Poor Orthographic Mapping Skills

If a teacher or parent has a child who seems to have poor orthographic skills, they can take measures to help them overcome this impairment. First, they need to ensure there is no problem with past instruction. If there is, then re-teaching some of these skills is essential.

If the past instruction seems solid, the problem may lie in orthographic and phonemic awareness due to the student’s unique neurologic makeup. Some strategies that can help include these:

  • Structured instruction on spelling patterns and rules, so students can better spell and decode common words. Carefully choose spelling lists to highlight these spelling patterns.
  • Teaching syllable division patterns.
  • Allowing extra practice reading and spelling high-frequency words with irregularities in their spelling while using tools to highlight these irregularities. Frequency can turn these unfamiliar words into familiar words and improve reading fluency by putting them in long-term memory.
  • Study root words to build a sight-word vocabulary, then teach the spelling rules that apply when adding suffixes or prefixes to these words.
  • Connecting word reading to the writing system in instruction, so students learn the correlation between the written word and spoken word.

The sooner these strategies can be implemented, the better the outcome in comprehensive reading instruction and the student’s ability.

If you want to use the latest grammar software, read our guide to using an AI grammar checker.

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  • Nicole Harms has been writing professionally since 2006. She specializes in education content and real estate writing but enjoys a wide gamut of topics. Her goal is to connect with the reader in an engaging, but informative way. Her work has been featured on USA Today, and she ghostwrites for many high-profile companies. As a former teacher, she is passionate about both research and grammar, giving her clients the quality they demand in today's online marketing world.