What are Elkonin boxes?
Elkonin boxes (or sound boxes) are a useful teaching resource in which each box represents a single sound (or phoneme) contained in a word. They are named after a Russian psychologist D. B. El’konin who first used them in the 1960’s to help students segment spoken words into sounds. Today, the same principles that applied to the Elkonin boxes in the 1960’s are applied to Structured Synthetic Phonics (SSP) programs with students asked to write letters into the sound boxes.
Why use Elkonin boxes in Structured Synthetic Phonics (SSP) programs?
Researchers constantly remind teachers of the importance of phonemic awareness (the awareness of the sounds in words) for the development of strong literacy skills. Elkonin boxes provide a practical teaching tool which forces students to focus on the phonemes in words and then how these phonemes link to letters or letter combinations (sound-letter correspondence).
Step 1: Sound out the word into phonemes orally
Before commencing an Elkonin Box spelling task it is always recommended that the teacher prepares the students for the task ahead by ‘sounding-out’ or segmenting each list word into its phonemes. It is not uncommon for both teachers and students to feel challenged in this process. To assist both parties, PLD recommends that teachers prepare the list words in a colour-coded manner so that the phonemes are clearly identified by alternating colours. The alternating black/grey/black/grey colours demonstrated below, assist the teacher and student in the ‘sounding-out’ process. It is not uncommon for teachers to lack confidence or to inaccurately colour code the list words. To read further about spelling and colour coding your sound out strategy click here and here. PLD recommends that literacy coordinators in schools adopt the role of ‘coaching’ teachers in the colour-coding process. Without clarity on how words are to be segmented into phonemes, the application to the Elkonin boxes will be flawed.
Step 2: ‘Sound-out’ as your spell the word, making sure that each sound is represented in a different box
To further strengthen the potential learning, at PLD we recommend applying alternating colours to the Elkonin boxes. The alternating colour technique tends to slow students down to focus further on how the phonemes in words match to letters. Examples of the alternating colour coding applied to Elkonin boxes occur below.
But what happens when students progress from spelling in individual phonemes?
Yes, it is true that Elkonin boxes were only designed for mapping individual sound units to letters. This individual sound spelling strategy fits in very well with PLD’s Stage 1 and 2 phonic progression and synthetic phonic theory.
However, from PLD’s Stage 3, students progress onto increasingly complex word and phonic concepts. At this stage, PLD describes this phase of learning as ‘synthetic phonics and beyond’ in which the sounding of words in phonemes is still relevant, but sometimes sounding words in larger sound units may be more relevant.
PLD’s approach to Elkonin Boxes – teaching spelling by segmenting words into sound segments
Regardless of the sounding-out strategy, PLD’s approach will emphasise the sound structure of the words and facilitate the development of strong mental representations of words (orthographic mapping). The three main sounding-out strategies are outlined below.
- Example 1: Phonemic Spelling Strategy – each box holds one phoneme or sound.
- Example 2: Onset-Rime Spelling Strategy – the first box holds the onset (it may be a single sound or a blend) and the second box holds the rime (the rest of the word).
- Example 3: Syllabic Spelling Strategy – each box holds one syllable. This is particularly helpful for students learning to spell more complex words where attention to syllable units can assist in developing strong orthographic maps or visual representations of the word.
Sound Pyramids activities, as found in PLD’s Spelling Activities for the Junior Primary and Spelling Activities for the Middle and Upper Primary, utilise a type of Elkonin boxes where words are written in steps. Each step adds another sound unit. Once again these templates can be used for phonemic spelling, onset-rime spelling and syllabic spelling (see examples).
Double or Triple Time activities, as found in PLD’s Spelling Activities for the Junior Primary and Spelling Activities for the Middle and Upper Primary, utilise a type of Elkonin boxes in a simple grid. These templates can be used for phonemic spelling, onset-rime spelling and syllabic spelling (see examples).
At PLD Elkonin boxes are one of our most strongly recommended tools when teaching phonemic segmentation and then spelling. Why? Because they are simple but very effective in drawing a child’s attention to the sounds in words while subsequently mapping spelling patterns.
We hope you enjoyed this blog. At PLD we are always available to help you achieve the best possible literacy outcomes for your students. If you have any questions about PLD’s Elkonin boxes resources or anything else we do here at PLD get in touch with us through our chat icon in the bottom right of the screen or to [email protected].
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