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Word Learning in the Brain

In order for the unnatural process of reading and writing to occur, these four centers in the brain must all be activated and working together for word learning to occur.

The Phonological Processing Center

This center in the brain begins developing naturally from birth as we hear and say new words. Between 18-36 months, a toddler learns about 8 new words a day..they are learning to say words like mama, dad, dog, milk, juice, Grandma, night-night, book, etc. At the same time, they are learning to say these words they are activating center #2.

The Context & Meaning Center

This center makes a physical, abstract or emotional association with the new word so when you are learning the word dog, you associate it with the pet/animal with fur, a wiggly tail and barks. Think of this area as the Vocabulary Center.

The Phonics Center

This is the decoding center, it translates printed text into speech as spoken language. It associates symbols (graphemes) with sounds (phonemes). A reader sees the word DOG and blends the individual sounds in /d/o/g/ as /dog/. Think of this area as the Sound-Symbol Connection, and this center really needs a reader to be solid in the phonemic awareness skill of blending AND the Alphabetic Principle (letters & combinations of letters are the symbols used to represent speech sounds = letter-sound knowledge) for the center to work effectively.

The Orthographic Processing Center

This center helps a reader spell. It associates words we can read into words we can spell. This center really needs a reader to be solid in the Alphabetic Principle and the phonemic awareness skill of segmenting. Think of this center as the Encoding Center.

This graphic really shows how important all four areas are and how they work together in order for word learning to occur and stick. This is why Orthographic Mapping (which is this process in the brain) needs all four of these steps to Sound-Symbol Map a word (hear it, say it, think about it, tap it, write it, read it).

The graphic of the brain shows the evidence of why orthographic mapping new words is superior to memorizing new words. For a typical reader, mapping a new word to long-term memory can occur in as little as 2-5 exposures or occurrences of mapping the word and then it becomes a sight word stored for easy retrieval when needed. Memorizing words does not activate all four areas of the brain because a reader is only trying to remember what the word looks like. This word learning method is not effective or efficient because the word storage area will run out of storage and it takes lots and lots of exposures to memorize a word…up to 75.

Graphic by

Orthographic Mapping Source (Kilpatrick, 2019)

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