Elkonin Sound Boxes: An Evidence-Based Literacy Strategy

By Kim Greene, MA

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the smallest units of sounds (phonemes) in words. Research has shown that using Elkonin sound boxes can help students develop phonemic awareness.

This strategy focuses on two of the most important phonemic awareness skills: segmenting and blending. Segmenting is breaking a word apart into its individual sounds. Blending is putting together the individual sounds to say the word.

Watch: See the Strategy in Action

Download: Use a Printable Resource

Elkonin Sound Boxes PDF

Read: Learn How to Use the Strategy

The challenge: Many students with learning differences like dyslexia struggle with phonemic awareness. Because phonemic awareness is a foundational literacy skill, students who lack these skills often have difficulty with reading.

Objective: Students will use Elkonin sound boxes to break 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 group

  • Individual

How to prepare:

Gather materials. Give each student the Elkonin Sound Boxes download and five counters, coins, tiles, or other small objects. For students who struggle with fine motor skills, consider using larger objects that they can more easily 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 three sounds and digraphs (two letters that make one sound): tooth, fish, chime

  • Words with three sounds without digraphs: hop, geese

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

  • 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 first set of boxes on the page 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 counter 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.

4. Reflect. Wrap up by asking students to summarize 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.

For English language learners: Learning English can be difficult for some students because there are sounds in English that may not exist in their native language. For instance, English has many more vowel sounds than Spanish. Elkonin sound boxes are useful because they give students practice with hearing unfamiliar sounds. To support English language learners in using Elkonin boxes, 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 native language.) After students say the word in English, segment the sounds together. By doing so, you’ll help students build vocabulary by connecting the word with its meaning.

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Research behind this strategy

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