Elkonin sound boxes: An evidence-based literacy strategy

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the smallest units of sounds (phonemes) in words. Many students with learning differences like dyslexia struggle with phonemic awareness. Because phonemic awareness is a foundational literacy skill, students who have trouble with this skill often have difficulty with reading.

Elkonin sound boxes can help students develop phonemic awareness by focusing on segmenting and blending the sounds in words. Segmenting is breaking a word apart into its individual sounds. Blending is putting the individual sounds together to say the word. Read on to learn how to use Elkonin sound boxes to teach these important skills.

Watch: See Elkonin sound boxes in action

Download: Printable Elkonin sound boxes

Elkonin sound boxesPDF - 40.4 KB

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Read: How to use this strategy

Objective: Students will use Elkonin sound boxes to segment words into phonemes and blend them back together.

Grade levels (with standards):

  • K (Common Core ELA Literacy RF.K.2: Understand spoken words, syllables, and sounds)

  • 1 (Common Core ELA Literacy RF.1.2: Understand spoken words, syllables, and sounds)

Best used for instruction with:

  • Small groups

  • Individuals

How to prepare:

Gather materials. Give each student an Elkonin sound boxes printable and five counters, coins, tiles, or other small objects. For students who struggle with fine motor skills, consider using larger objects that are easier to handle.

Choose words to practice. Prepare for the lesson by choosing words for your students to practice. Depending on your students’ needs, you might focus on any of the following:

  • Words with two sounds and two letters: it, no

  • Words with three sounds and three letters or with three sounds and four letters ending in a ‘silent e’: hop, cat, game

  • Words with three sounds and one or more digraphs (two letters that make one sound): fish, tooth, chime

  • Words with four phonemes and blends (two or more letters that blend together but that have separate sounds): crab, skip, trade

  • Words with five phonemes and blends: street, crust, blend

How to teach:

1. Review sounds in words. Remind students that words are made up of sounds. Explain that they will practice hearing all of the sounds in a word. Be sure to emphasize that they should focus on the sounds they hear, not the letters they see.

2. Model. Point to the set of boxes that has two squares. Explain that students will move one counter into one square for each sound they hear. Model how you’ll do that by lining up two counters above the squares. Say the word it. Pull down one tile into the first square as you say /ĭ/ and the second tile as you say /t/. Then run your finger along the arrow underneath the box to blend the sounds back together: it.

3. Practice and give feedback. Invite students to practice another word with you. Depending on your students’ needs, you might use the sound box with three squares and the word hit. Support students as they pull down one tile for /h/, one for /ĭ/, and another for /t/. Then blend the sounds back together to make hit.

Repeat the activity with several words that have two, three, four, or five sounds (as appropriate for your students). Provide feedback as students segment and blend the sounds.

For English language learners (ELLs): Hold up a picture of the word you are asking students to segment. Say the word and have students repeat it. (If the word is a cognate, say the word both in English and in the student’s home language.) After students say the word in English, segment the sounds and then blend them together. By doing so, you’ll help students build vocabulary by connecting the word with its meaning.

4. Reflect. Wrap up by asking students to tell you how the boxes helped them to hear the sounds in each word.

Understand: Why this strategy works

All students — and particularly students who learn and think differently — benefit from explicit instruction in literacy. The visual element of the sound boxes helps students to segment each sound separately. Similarly, moving the tiles and dragging their finger along the word helps to engage students in multisensory learning.

Elkonin sounds boxes are especially useful for ELLs. Learning English can be difficult for some students because there are sounds in English that may not exist in their home language. For instance, English has many more vowel sounds than Spanish. Elkonin sound boxes give students repeated practice with hearing unfamiliar sounds. 

Share this resource with families to help them understand the importance of phonemic awareness and other phonological skills.

Research behind this strategy

“The elusive phoneme: Why phonemic awareness is so important and how to help children develop it,” from American Educator

“Using word boxes as a large group phonics approach in a first grade classroom,” from Reading Horizons

“Word boxes improve phonemic awareness, letter-sound correspondences, and spelling skills of at-risk kindergartners,” from Remedial and Special Education

“Supporting phonemic awareness development in the classroom,” from The Reading Teacher


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