Elkonin boxes (also known as ‘sound boxes’) refer to a method of instruction used to build phonemic awareness in early elementary grade students. Elkonin boxes help to increase reading skills by challenging students to segment words into their individual sounds and syllables. Boxes are drawn on a piece of paper, dry-erase board, or chalkboard and students are asked to listen to a word and mark a single box for each phoneme heard.
Elkonin boxes were first used by Russian psychologist D.B. El’konin in the 1960s. El’konin studied young children (5 to 6 years old) and created the method of using boxes to segment words into individual sounds, which proved to be an effective strategy in improving reading capabilities.
Phonological awareness can be created by identifying, separating, comparing, and generating sounds. The development of phonological awareness is similar across various languages and it progresses from large to small units of sounds (from words to phonemes and syllables), and the tasks which are used to improve phonological awareness follow specific sequences to enable young minds to identify various sounds. Using Elkonin boxes helps to specifically increase children’s understanding of phonemes. Each square in an Elkonin box represents a phoneme or sound in that word. For example, the word “sheep” has five letters, and can be segmented into three sounds – /sh/, /ee/, and /p/. In this example, children would mark off three boxes.
Teachers can start off an Elkonin boxes lesson by having students stretch a few words out into their different sounds. Students can then be asked to try to spell the given word. Next, students can be asked to listen carefully to each word again and move a token into each box for each phoneme in the word. As a variation, the teacher can give a word to students and challenge them to mark the box(es) corresponding to a specific phoneme. For instance, the teacher says a word which has a particular sound either at the start, in the middle, or at the end of the word. The children will listen to the sound (/m/) and place a marker in the box where they hear the sound (in the word ‘ham’, students would segment /h/ /a/ /m/ and mark the third box, which has the /m/ sound).
The Elkonin boxes technique is considered to be incredibly valuable for teachers who teach reading because it helps to fix the phoneme-grapheme structure in the minds of children. In this way, children will improve their spelling, writing, and reading skills. Though it is simple to use, the Elkonin method provides a lifetime benefit to children who might otherwise struggle with acquiring phonological awareness.
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