A spelling bee champion can often be seen writing on his hand with a finger as he tries to work out the spelling of a particularly challenging word. You’ve probably done something similar when asked how to spell a word like ‘receive’. You might have written the word out a couple of different ways to see which one looked right. By determining which variation of the word appeared correct you accessed your visual memory for the word.
Successful readers and spellers have well developed phonological processing. They find it easy to “sound out” unfamiliar words. They then use visual memory, or orthographic processing, to retain the way words look in print so they can read fluently. They need to sound out words less frequently because they recognize them from previous exposure. Successful readers can even apply their knowledge of a word like ‘behave’ to attempt a variation of the word, like ‘behavior,’ despite not having seen it before. They also utilize their imagery for words to accurately spell words like ‘beautiful’ that do not follow phonetic rules.
As a student’s reading and spelling skills develop, he will begin to see that words tend to follow regular patterns. For example, he will notice that the letter ‘e’ stands for the /e/ sound like in the word ‘bed.’ The new reader doesn’t really need to visualize the letter pattern in ‘bed’ because he can sound it out. However, even simple sentences and stories contain irregular words like ‘of’ or ‘does.’ In these words, the sounds of the spoken word do not logically correspond with the letters in the word. The student needs to use orthographic processing to store these letter patterns in his visual memory.
Because English is comprised of both regular and irregular words, learning to read can feel very frustrating. The ‘o’ in ‘home’ is not pronounced the same way as the ‘o’ in ‘glove’. In fact, research shows that the difficulty of developing a strong visual memory for irregular words actually undermines the students’ ability to decode phonologically sound words as well. While it is estimated that about 80% of the English language follows phonetic rules, students with weak orthographic processing begin to distrust all words.
Effects of underdeveloped orthographic processing
When a student has difficulty visualizing letter symbols in her mind’s eye, reading and spelling become extremely challenging, even when the student has strong phonological processing for letter sounds. For example, the student might be told that ‘though’ says /thoe/, but she does not easily make a mental picture for this irregular orthographic pattern. She will not retain the information long term and must relearn it over and over again.
In addition, students with weak orthographic processing will rely heavily on sounding out very common words that should be in memory, leading to a choppy, halting style of decoding sometimes called “spit-and-grunt” decoding. They will likely confuse simple words like ‘it’ and ‘on’, and may not be able to apply their knowledge of root words to decode a variation of the word. The student’s ability to image individual letters is linked to orthographic processing as well. If the shape and orientation of a letter is not firmly rooted in the student’s visual memory, she may reverse letters and not notice that they look wrong.
Development of orthographic processing
Targeted instruction that stimulates the brain’s ability to visualize the letter symbols in words can improve a student’s reading and spelling. Applied Learning Processes uses methods based on Seeing Stars®*, developed by Nanci Bell, to develop the brain’s ability to image, hold, and retain letter symbols in words. This approach starts with the most basic pieces of words, individual letters, and systematically strengthens the student’s orthographic processing for reading and spelling single syllable words as well as complex multi-syllable words.
This approach works well in tandem with instruction in phonological processing. As students begin to trust the regular patterns found in most words, they can also begin to develop the ability to image common orthographic patterns.
Results of stimulating orthographic processing
As the student strengthens her orthographic processing, she begins to learn and retain sight words and to notice when her spelling is incorrect. She also begins to apply common orthographic patterns to new and unfamiliar words such as the ‘ight’ in ‘light.’
In addition, this ability to see the letters in the mind’s eye allows the reader to more quickly decode regular words like ‘cat’ or ‘card,’ and reading fluency improves. The student will spend less time trying to decode and more time focusing on the text’s meaning.
Because readers need to recognize words automatically, they rely heavily on their orthographic processing for fluency. They also turn to it first when they believe they’ve made a mistake. If a student misreads a word, she will likely scan back over the sentence to find the mistake. She then compares what she sees to what she pictures for the word she thought she read. She can then correct herself and resume reading.
This ability to automatically utilize sensory information (the image of the word) develops the student’s confidence in his thinking and allows him to be a more independent reader. The student uses what he sees to confirm that he read the words correctly, rather than needing someone to point it out and assist him. He also has the tools to identify the error and correct it himself. Much of the guesswork and frustration of reading has been eliminated.
Indications of weakness in orthographic processing
- difficulty retaining sight words
- spelling words as they sound rather than as they should look (srkoll for circle)
- guessing on simple words like ‘it’ and ‘on’
- reversing letters (b vs. d)
- reversing the order of letters (from vs. form)
- sounding out every word, even irregular sight words (of, was, light)
- unwillingness to attempt reading aloud due to reduced fluency (“spit-and-grunt” decoding)
- underdeveloped writing due to fewer words to access from visual memory