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.
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.
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.
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).
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
Supports for English Learners
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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