What is Orthographic Processing? - Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:01 Definition of…
  • 1:09 Development of…
  • 2:08 Underdeveloped…
  • 3:29 Signs of Processing Trouble
  • 4:38 Skill Development Help
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sharon Linde
How does your brain remember information and recall it later? In this lesson, you'll look at the steps your brain takes as it processes information from short-term memory and stores it as long-term memory to use later for reading and writing.

Definition of Orthographic Processing

Have you ever thought about how much goes on in your brain when reading and writing? Literacy is a process that uses several complicated systems, like visual, auditory, and cognitive. Think of a time you had to spell a complicated word. What strategies did you use? You may have closed your eyes to try to 'see' the word, or perhaps you actually wrote it out several different ways. Maybe you even imagined writing the word in space. If you used any of these methods, you were accessing your visual memory of the word, trying to see which one looked right in print.

This is called orthographic processing, or using the visual system to form, store, and recall words. Readers look at letters and words on the page and use their knowledge of sound/symbol relationships to sound out tricky words. Eventually the visual memory of this word makes it a solid memory in the brain to be called on later. A word memorized in its entirety is called a sight word. Otherwise, every word we read or write would have to be sounded out, meaning that reading and writing would take a lot longer.

Development of Orthographic Processing

When you began to learn to read, you may have noticed the spelling of words often had patterns or rules. We teach young children sound relationships, or phonological knowledge, to help them learn the system of sounds in language. When asking them to read, we want them to use these skills to sound out words. For example, a student will easily sound out a word such as 'hat' and recognize the letters and sounds associated with them because each letter and sound is reasonably straightforward in that word.

What about other high frequency words early readers encounter which are not so easily sounded out, such as 'the' or 'of'? For these words, students rely on their visual memory - their orthographic processing - to remember words and recall them later when reading and writing. The orthographic process develops side by side with phonological skills gradually and over time, until a student has a solid base of words stored in long term memory that are easily read without sounding out.

Underdeveloped Orthographic Processing

For most students, the process of learning and remembering words by sight is simple. While it may be confusing and at times frustrating trying to remember the vast amount of rules involved in the English language, the majority of children will be able to learn to discriminate and decode differing sounds.

Some children, however, have difficulty developing the visual memory necessary for these irregular words and spelling patterns. The confusing rules about the letter 'g', for example - sometimes hard, as in 'girl', and sometimes soft, as in 'giraffe', silent as in the word 'though', or even paired up to make a completely different sound as in the word 'laugh' - can be overwhelming as they attempt to rely on the rules of phonics alone.

Students with weak orthographic processing skills aren't able to make a mental picture of words in their brains. The skill of writing words in the air or visualizing them in the mind isn't developed, and these students rely completely on phonics to read and write words. Because they decode all words instead of learning words by sight, their reading sounds choppy and is not fluent. Even letter shapes can be easily confused because their brains don't retain the memory of specific letter forms. They may mistake 'b' and 'd' often, or read the word 'when' as 'with' even though they read it correctly earlier in the day, because they are relying on the first 'w' to guess the word.

Signs of Processing Trouble

How do teachers know if a child has an orthographic processing issue? Educators can look for some tell-tale signs of orthographic processing issues, such as:

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