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One Thing You Might Try...Six Ways to Use Elkonin Boxes Across Your Literacy Block

Posted on: March 14, 2024

By Susan Vincent

The One Thing You Might Try... blog series presents you with easily implementable new ideas to try out in your classroom, straight from Stenhouse authors and expert guest contributors. 

In this One Thing You Might Try...blog post, Susan Vincent, coauthor of Intentional From the Start, shares six practical ways to integrate Elkonin sound boxes into literacy instruction with early readers.

On my kitchen counter sits a lovely butcher block knife set. It holds a large selection of knives meant for a variety of culinary purposes. Most have not been removed from their slot for years, because I always seem to grab one favorite knife. I love this workhorse knife because it efficiently handles most of my tasks and is easy to handle.

I feel this same love for workhorse instructional tools that serve multiple purposes. Teachers of early readers are always looking for ways to embed explicit foundational skill instruction into authentic literacy experiences. Elkonin sound boxes are one of those efficient, effective tools that you can seamlessly include in your existing classroom structures. They support both phonemic awareness and phonics development and can be used flexibly.

What are Elkonin Boxes?

First, in case you are new to Elkonin sound boxes, here’s a quick summary of what they are and why they are so powerful.

  • Elkonin boxes help children develop phonemic awareness skills. Children touch or push counters into boxes for each sound in a word, as they slowly articulate the word, stretching out the sounds.
  • Elkonin boxes also develop phonics skills. Once children have attended to each sound in a word, they link those sounds to letters, writing them in the corresponding boxes.
  • Including letters (print) with phonemic awareness instruction has a greater effect on both phonemic awareness skills and spelling skills than just phonemic awareness instruction alone. Elkonin boxes are a simple tool which includes both.
  • Elkonin boxes harness multisensory learning as children link what they are seeing, saying, and touching.

Let’s look at six ways you might use these little workhorses across your literacy block.

1. Shared Writing 

During Shared Writing in whole-class or small-group, compose a sentence with words that will give your students practice hearing sounds in words and linking them to letters (encoding). Incorporate words that follow the phonics skills you’ve been teaching. Then prepare your large writing surface with well-spaced lines for words and a few Elkonin boxes for words to practice encoding. I use either a white board or chart paper. Use yellow or a light color for the lines and boxes, then black for the writing, so the print pops.

Share the task with your students by modeling how you stretch the sounds of the target word and touch each box. Have a volunteer come up and try it. Your children can all participate by stretching the sounds and tapping imaginary boxes as you guide them. Next, begin matching those sounds to letters and filling in the boxes. As you fill in the letters, left to right, model blending the sounds together from the beginning each time. This practice will support their decoding skills. In the Guided Release Model, this is the “I Do” and/or “We Do” phase, preparing children to do this on their own in other contexts.

2. Small Group Writing Journals 

Use Elkonin Boxes for dictated sentences in your small-group writing journals. Here, children will use the boxes mostly on their own, but with your support when needed. I prepare the journals ahead of time with the light color frames for words and boxes. (It doesn’t take that long!) I then dictate a sentence for the group and let them write as independently as possible with the boxes as a scaffold.

3. Independent Writing 

Once writers know how to use boxes as a scaffold, make them available to use when needed on their own. You might have some pre-marked whiteboards available, or I’ve seen some teachers tape boxes of various lengths to student tables. Writers can use a manipulative like a pop-it, to segment and count the sounds, then boxes to match those sounds to letters.

4. Digital Elkonin Boxes for Centers 

For Center Time, a digital Sound Box option is a good chance for practice and is also fun. Several websites have easy-to-use boxes, such as Really Great Reading Letter Tiles and Toy Theater’s Elkonin Boxes. You can provide picture cards and let your children use the digital tools to encode the words.

5. Word Work Time

Use boxes (or just draw lines) on magnetic boards and use magnetic letters to practice both encoding and decoding during your phonics lessons. Dictate a word for students to build (encode), or spell a word for them to build and then decode, by blending the sounds together, just as they have practiced before. I sometimes have children work with partners, with one child building (encoding) words and the other checking them (decoding), then switching. It’s fun and good practice to go back and forth from speech to print and print to speech.

6. Decoding Scaffold 

Boxes are a great way to help students understand the reciprocity of reading and writing. This tool can help writers link speech to print, but also can help them link print to speech. When children are reading books and get stuck on a word, you can write the word in boxes. Ask them to successively blend the sounds. Students can even learn to do this for themselves. I keep laminated tens-frames (used for math) as ready-to-use sound boxes for blending.

What a simple, handy tool D.B. Elkonin created with sound boxes! You have many instructional strategies to build phonemic awareness and phonics skills, but like my favorite kitchen knife, sound boxes are a great go-to option.

About the Author 

Susan Vincent has worked in the field of early literacy for thirty years as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, literacy coach, and instructor of pre-service teachers. She currently is a manager of partnerships at the Center for the Collaborative Classroom. Susan is the co-author of Intentional From the Start: Guiding Emergent Readers in Small Groups. You can connect with Susan on Twitter @ssvincent.