Orthography: An Anchor Concept for Word Study


Word’s Their Way Author Donald R. Bear gives us a fun lesson on the word and concept of orthography, followed by a discussion of it’s importance to language and literacy educators.

Is the word orthography in your professional vocabulary? Orthography is the knowledge we have about how words are spelled, their structure and meaning. Orthographic knowledge is an essential component of successful word recognition, reading, decoding, and spelling.

Guided Word Study – Orthography

Here’s some fun word study to introduce the term and even if you already know orthography, you may enjoy digging a little deeper. Begin with the related words:


And to make the meaning connection of ortho across related words:

What does an orthodontist do?
Makes your teeth straight.
How about an orthopedist?
Makes your bones straight.
And if you’re orthodox?
You’re pretty straight.

The meaning connection for ortho is correct or straight. We can unpack the meaning underlying the word parts, the root ortho and the base word graph with the suffix -y:

ortho – graph – y:
correct writing characterized by
root – base word – suffix

orthography – straight writing

Two Components of Orthographic Knowledge

The concept orthographic knowledge is so important that it is a key term—an anchor word—when we plan word study instruction for phonics, vocabulary and spelling. There are “two components: memory for the spellings of specific words, and knowledge of the patterns that govern spelling in general.” Readers detect the patterns that underlie words to learn more words.1

Ben Jonson wrote in 1637 that orthography runs through language “like the blood and spirits through the whole.”2 Orthographic knowledge, our knowledge of words is deep and touches our senses, emotions and thoughts3. Research in psycholinguistics, anatomy, neurolinguistics, and speech and language makes it clear that underlying reading and spelling is this shared foundational knowledge4. Teachers and researchers know that reading and writing are reciprocal processes5 and can be integrated in instruction. Understanding orthographic development is a passion for us because it is the foundation for planning word study instruction.

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  • Templeton, W. & Bear, D. R. (2018). In Lapp, D. and Fisher, D. (Eds.), Handbook of Research in the Teaching of English, 4th ed. (207-232). NY: Routledge. www.routledge.com/cw/lapp ↩

  • (OED, p. 1492; see Bear, 1992/2012; see the blog at www.donaldrbear.com). ↩

  • (Hruby & Goswami, 2011).↩

  • (Beeson, Rising, Kim, & Rapcsak, 2010; Cutler, Treiman, & van Ooijen, 2010; Perfetti, 1997; Rapp & Lipka, 2010)↩

  • (Ehri, 2014; Graham & Santangelo, 2014)↩

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About the Author

Donald Bear

Literacy Author, Professor at Iowa State University