Irregular Words and Orthographic Mapping

When learning to read, it’s especially important to master words that you encounter frequently but that don’t follow the normal rules of English pronunciation. Take the words who, once, and cough, for example—these words just can’t be sounded out using simple phonetic clues. Ensuring that these words become sight words is an essential part of teaching reading.

Fortunately, developing sight word vocabulary is a natural outcome of decoding, even for words with irregular patterns of pronunciation. And, we can help teach them through direct instruction reinforced by repetition (that is, by encountering these words over and over again in books, newspapers, magazines, and online).

The technical name for what we’re teaching is orthographic mapping. Orthographic mapping happens when a student’s brain immediately connects the complete spelling of a word to the word’s pronunciation and meaning. This is much simpler with the word “to” than it is with the word “though.” Students need extra help and attention to orthographically map irregular words, but the process is the same as for words that follow regular patterns of pronunciation.

To help with orthographic mapping, we use phoneme-grapheme correspondences (like we taught in the previous unit using Elkonin boxes). For words with irregular pronunciation, however, it’s especially important to draw attention to both the regular and irregular parts of the word and to always move from the sound to the symbol.