What is Orthographic Knowledge?
One of the main components of reading is the ability to decode and recognise words quickly. If students have trouble with the “look of words” then they will not be able to read with fluency and as a result will struggle with comprehension.
Orthographic knowledge is a visual skill involving letters patterns and knowing how words should look. Students with poor orthographic knowledge often have an over reliance on letter to sound correspondence (sounding out) when reading and can not edit their own work because they don’t know when a word looks right or not. Students with orthographic dyslexia also known as surface dyslexia will have trouble in storing strong mental representations of words, especially phonetically irregular words.
According to John Munro’s research about the representation of word knowledge by dyslexic readers there are four factors for changing a reader’s orthographic knowledge base. These concepts will help all readers to develop sound orthographic knowledge.
- Being taught to make analogies between words is more useful for students whose phonemic knowledge is better developed.
- After initial letter-sound mastery, teaching readers to link letter clusters rather than individual letters with their sounds has greater gain in orthographic knowledge and greater transfer to unfamiliar words.
- Building long-term memory strategies (such as visual imagery, or a kinaesthetic code and then recorded verbally) into the word recognition program improves retrieval and transfer of word knowledge.
- Having students reflect on how they learn written properties of words helps them form explicit concepts.
Implications for the Classroom
- Find out what students already know, phonemically and orthographically.
- Explicitly and systematically teach the links for the sounds in the spoken words and the letters that represent them.
- Keep meaning at the forefront by using whole words – students must be able to read and say the words and understand them.
- Use a multi-sensory approach that combines, visual, auditory and tactile elements in learning.
“Students need to see the words, utilise colour and patterns, they also need to say the word and hear it said and used in context, they also need to write the word to feel what it is like.” (Michelle Hutchinson: The Smart Spelling Approach)
Some Activities to Develop Orthographic Knowledge
Use onset and rime and build word lists with the same letter patterns. (Or use the Scope and Sequence guide from (Michelle Hutchinson: The Smart Spelling Approach) At least 6 words are needed to establish a pattern.
Throughout the week complete activities that help reinforce automatic recognition of the word list and other words that might fit into the same family.
*Meaningful sentences (written or recorded using an ipad for younger students) help establish meaning of the word in context.
Other activities could include breaking the word into *Syllables, *Colour Coding (consonants in blue, vowels in red) , *Fancy Writing, but each time it is important that the student 1: Say the word aloud, and 2: Write the word.
Add some Technology
An element of technology might add some interest for students who don’t particularly like homework or practising an activity that they have found difficult. Some apps that students could use to improve automatic recognition and long term retention could include the following.
VocabularySpellingCity is a software application that can be used for free on your desk top computer (there is also a paid version) or on your ipad. An adult or teacher will need to register to use the application but it has the ability to save a list of words and then use those words in a variety of games and tests. It recognises the words in lists and provides the meaning and age appropriate sentence for each one.
The A+Spelling App (free) for the iPad is a no frills way to practise spelling lists. You can easily enter your own lists with the recorded word for each one and then use one of the four activities (Practice, Unscramble, Ace It, Test) to work on spelling the words correctly. Feedback is provided for each activity.
There are many other phonic/spelling type apps available but it is important for students who are just developing orthographic knowledge, that the words lists are controlled to just one pattern at a time. Too much variety may be confusing and will not help the student see the letter sound pattern or enable them to extend the pattern in order to decode other similar words.
Munro, J. (1995). Explaining developmental dyslexia: Orthographic processing difficulties. Australian Journal of Remedial Education, 27, 1, 5-15.