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Mass Literacy

Automatic Word Recognition

Reading is the act of processing text in order to derive meaning. To learn to read, children must develop both fluent word reading and language comprehension (Gough & Tunmer,1986). Fluent word reading stems from underlying skills: phonological awareness, phonics and decoding, and automatic word recognition.

What Is Automatic Word Recognition?

Word recognition is automatic when the process takes very few of the attention resources available to the brain at any one time (Wolf, 2018). When word recognition is automatic, reading can be fluent, accurate, and expressive.

How Automatic Word Recognition Contributes to Reading Development

All fluent readers can instantly and automatically recognize a large number of words, which researchers call the "sight vocabulary." "[W]hen a reader has learned a 'sight word,' she can retrieve the spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of that word as soon as her eyes alight upon it" (Pace Miles & Ehri, 2019). For proficient readers, practically all words are read from memory by sight (Apel, 2011; Ehri, 1997, 2014). These readers are proficient because pronunciations and meanings come to mind automatically and instantly when written words are seen (Henbest & Apel, 2018; McCardle, Scarborough, & Catts, 2001). With limited sight vocabulary, reading is slow, laborious, and dysfluent. Readers who have to decode numerous individual words while reading are not able to read texts fluently and with expression.

How Automatic Word Recognition Develops

The mental process that we use to store words so they can be automatically recognized is called orthographic mapping. Orthographic mapping is what allows a proficient reader to instantly read any familiar word (instead of having to decode it). By promoting long-term memory of words, teachers can help students rapidly improve their fluency in increasingly complex texts. Orthographic mapping happens when a reader connects the sounds in a word to its spelling and its meaning. When a reader encounters a new word, decodes it by associating its spelling with its sounds, and thinks of its meaning, this promotes orthographic mapping of the word. After several exposures to reading the word this way, the word will be stored in long-term memory for immediate, effortless retrieval.

Promoting Automatic Word Recognition in the Classroom

Reading practice is a key ingredient to develop fluent word recognition because orthographic mapping happens through reading practice. When a reader repeatedly encounters, decodes, reads, and understands a word, it is added to the reader's sight vocabulary (Henbest & Apel, 2018). A word of caution: this process only initiates once children become somewhat skilled at decoding and are able to connect a word's spelling to its sounds and its meaning. Linnea Ehri has developed a well-known theory of the developmental phases of word reading .

A reader must be able to decode a word and connect the spelling to its sound and its meaning, to add it to long-term sight memory. Thus, orthographic mapping is not possible without some phonics and decoding skills. Decoding ability, in turn, is built upon phonemic awareness. This is why children need some phonemic awareness and phonics and decoding skills before they start to automatically recognize many words (Kilpatrick, 2016).

Learn More About Automatic Word Recognition

Considerations for Students Learning English

English learners should have equal opportunity to meaningfully participate in all foundational skills instruction. These recommendations and resources will further support English learners to develop automatic word recognition. Also, please refer to WIDA Can Dos and WIDA Instructional Supports.

Taking Bilingualism into Account

  • Fluency is not just speed but also expression. Reading that is rapid but lacks expression and comprehension is not fluent. "Even though fluency instruction is important, teachers must remember that many ELLs can be deceptively fast and accurate while reading in English without fully comprehending the meaning of the text they are reading. That is because reading comprehension depends upon a variety of complex skills that are not as important to word reading. These include deep vocabulary knowledge, syntactical knowledge, and background knowledge of the subject discussed in the text" (Colorín Colorado **).

Supports for English Learners

  • Repeated oral reading activities with feedback and guidance provide English learners with practice to develop word recognition and confidence (Linan-Thompson & Vaughn, 2007).
  • Allow students to practice reading along with a recorded text; build background knowledge to support comprehension and vocabulary; use questions after reading to process information (Colorín Colorado **).


Apel, K. (2011). What is orthographic knowledge? Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools.

Ehri, L. C. (1997). Learning to read and learning to spell are one and the same, almost. In Perfetti, C. A., Rieben, L., & Fayol, M. (eds.), Learning to spell: Research, theory, and practice across languages (p. 237–269). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Ehri, L. C. (2014). Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18(1), 5–21.

Ehri, L. C., & Snowling, M. J. (2004). Developmental Variation in Word Recognition. U: Stone, CA; Silliman, ER; Ehren, BJ; Apel, K.(eds.) Handbook of Language and Literacy.

Gaskins, I. W., Ehri, L. C., Cress, C., O'Hara, C., & Donnelly, K. (1996). Procedures for word learning: Making discoveries about words. The Reading Teacher, 50(4), 312–327.

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, Reading, and Reading Disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6–10.

Henbest, V. S., & Apel, K. (2018). Orthographic fast-mapping across time in 5-and 6-year-old children. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 61(8), 2015–2027.

Kilpatrick, D. (2016). Equipped for reading success: A comprehensive, step by step program for developing phonemic awareness and fluent word recognition. Casey & Kirsch Publishers.

Linan-Thompson, S. and Vaughn. S. (2007). Research-based Methods of Reading Instruction for English Learners, Grades K–4. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

McCardle, P., Scarborough, H. S., & Catts, H. W. (2001). Predicting, explaining, and preventing children's reading difficulties. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 16(4), 230–239.

Miles, K.P., & Ehri, L.C. (2019). Orthographic Mapping Facilitates Sight Word Memory and Vocabulary Learning. In Kilpatrick, D., Joshi, R., & Wagner, R. (eds). Reading Development and Difficulties. Springer, Cham.

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Last Updated: December 18, 2020

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