Elkonin Boxes for Phonemic Awareness
Just the other day, an advocate friend of mine was in an IEP meeting with a young-ish School Psychologist. And, this person said during the meeting that “you can’t test for dyslexia until the child is in 3rd grade.” It amazes me that myths and misconceptions like this are still so pervasive in public education.
First, no, not true. Second, we also know that if you suspect dyslexia or another reading disability and wait, the problem is only going to exacerbate due to the Matthew Effect.
When a child struggles with reading skills, it is not enough to say “struggles to read” or “reading disability.” The data is clear–half of the US prison population is functionally illiterate. 1 in 5 kids has a learning disability or reading disability. We just know so much more about these kids than we did just a few decades ago.
Including–having to pinpoint the specific issues and providing interventions sooner rather than later. When I say pinpoint, I mean we have to identify and define the specific lack of skill that is preventing the child from being a proficient reader, and then teaching that skill.
Skills like: phonemic awareness, reading comprehension, decoding, blending, sounding, and phonological awareness.
One simple technique to implement at home or at school is Elkonin boxes.
What are Elkonin Boxes?
Elkonin boxes are an instructional method or intervention used for early readers and beginner reading skills. They can help children with reading difficulties build phonemic awareness by segmenting words into individual sounds.
They are named after D.B. Elkonin, the Russian psychologist who developed the concept. But my guess is that his were not Pinterest-worthy.
The boxes are squares drawn on a piece of paper or a whiteboard, with one box for each sound or phoneme. (photo above) I have provided some free Elkonin box PDFs for you to print and use, but you can also find them on Pinterest or TeachersPayTeachers.
To use Elkonin boxes, the student listens to a word and moves a button or token into a box for each sound or phoneme. In some cases different colored tokens may be used for consonants and vowels or just for each phoneme in the word.
What do Elkonin Boxes teach?
• Phonological Awareness: By segmenting words into sounds or syllables.
• How to Count the Number of Phonemes: This can help them grasp the concept that the number of sounds is not necessarily the same as the number of letters.
• Decoding and Spelling: And they can help students better understand the alphabetic principle.
Alphabetic principle is the idea that letters and letter patterns represent the sounds of spoken language.
A phoneme is any of the perceptually distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another, for example p, b, d, and t in the English words pad, pat, bad, and bat.
A Multi-Sensory Approach to Reading
Many literacy experts agree that a multi-sensory approach to learning how to read works very well for most students. Elkonin boxes do this–a student must use multiple senses when doing an Elkonin Box activity.
A child must use vision/sight, sound and fine motor to complete the skill.
During the activity, students are given some type of manipulative such as bingo chips, pom poms,
or pennies. These are the little things they can put in the box.
To make it even more fun, consider using M&Ms or jellybeans.
Depending upon what skill the child is learning, kids are given a word orally or
shown a picture of an object they are familiar with, such as a bike or book, and are asked to
move up one token per box for each “thing.” Here you would state whatever directions would
be appropriate for your skill.
When working with phonics skills, learners are asked to move letter tiles into appropriate boxes. You can find letter tiles in the Amazon list I gave you above, or look on TeachersPayTeachers.
How to use Elkonin Boxes
- Pronounce a target word slowly, stretching it out by sound, paying attention to your articulation.
- Ask the student to repeat the word.
- Draw “boxes” or squares on a piece of paper, chalkboard, or dry erase board with one box for each syllable or phoneme.
- Have the child count the number of phonemes in the word, which is not necessarily the number of letters. For example, book has three phonemes and will use three boxes. /b/, /oo/, /k/ But it has 4 letters.
- Direct the child to slide one letter or token in each empty box of the Elkonin box drawing as he/she repeats the word.
Elkonin Boxes Activities
It’s one of the best dyslexia interventions for phonics and decoding that all students can use. It’s simple to set up, doesn’t require expensive materials and all kids can benefit from their use.
Elkonin boxes provide a great visualization for students to blend without pausing between the letters and break words up into phonemes.
These activities can be done as a whole class activity, small group or even during 1:1 interventions. It also is easy to replicate at home for parents to continue practicing.
- Segmenting: Have the student listen to a word and place a tile/letter in each box for each phoneme as they sound out the word.
- Blending: Write or place phonemes in each box and child uses tiles or finger to sound out each phoneme and blend the sounds together. I like using color-coded letter tiles for this as well. You can easily use this as an independent activity for sounding out words.
- Spelling: Child listens to a word and writes the correct phoneme in each box.
Adapting Elkonin Boxes for Older Kids
If you look at most of the examples of Elkonin Boxes online, you will see that the drawings are pretty juvenile. This is because they are designed to work on beginning reading skills, presumably with little kids.
Too often, we find kids who lack these foundation skills, and they might be 10, 12, even 15 years old! It’s crazy, right? But, we still have to meet them where they’re at. And no teenager wants to learn to read with babyish pictures.
Easy to fix–just implement these simple adaptations.
- Instead of looking for Elkonin box worksheets that are ready to print, look for blank ones that can be changed. (such as the ones shown in the Amazon list above)
- Find pictures online or from a magazine of the child’s interest. Think Sports Illustrated, Teen Fashion Magazines, gaming zines or comic books, or heck even something like an Eastbay catalog that will show all the hottest jerseys and sneakers. Cut pictures out and use these in lieu of the drawings you usually find.
- Use different tokens too, something more age appropriate.
The student can then continue to work on these reading and literacy skills, using materials that are more age appropriate. Because, let’s face it–sounding out Nike is way cooler than sounding out bike.
Good luck and feel free to use these!
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