Segmenting Sounds using Elkonin Boxes

12 Feb

“Babies are born with the instinct to speak, the way spiders are born with the instinct to spin webs. You don’t need to train babies to speak; they just do. But reading is different.”     — Steven Pinker


Phonemic awareness is the ability to examine language independently of meaning and to manipulate its sounds (Griffith, 1992).

Segmenting sounds is important because children need to blend sounds when using letter-sound correspondences to read new words.  Phonemic awareness is a powerful predictor of later reading achievement (Griffith, 1992).  Segmenting isolates the sounds in spoken words by pronouncing each one in order (Ellis, 1997).  Learning to differentiate sounds in words is confusing for some students.  Differentiating sounds is an auditory process, but with the scaffolding of a kinesthetic method such as sound boxes help students manipulate those sounds (McCarthy, 2008).


Phoneme Awareness Activity Guidelines

  1. Identify and focus on a phoneme awareness task.
  2. Use phoneme sounds (/ /), not letter names.  Remember: some sounds are represented by two or more letters (/sh/).
  3. Teach the following sequence: consonant vowel pattern (CV), vowel consonants (VC), and the consonant vowel consonant pattern (CVC). (Ellis, 1997)

As a rule, most activities should not exceed 15-20 minutes.  Words used should be chosen from the curriculum being taught. (Ellis, 1997)

Elkonin Boxes

A great segmenting activity is the use of Elkonin boxes or sound boxes.  A card is presented to the child.  On top is a picture of a simple word. (Ellis, 1997)  The picture helps students remember the word being stretched, allowing for independent refocus (McCarthy, 2008).  Below the picture is a series of boxes, one for each sound (phoneme).  The teacher articulates the word phoneme-by-phoneme, while pushing a counter into each box for each phoneme.  Eventually, the child will “say it and “move it” independently.  Overtime, the picture and boxes are eliminated.  Students will be able to segment the words without visuals. (Ellis, 1997).


Elkonin boxes help the students hear the sequence of phonemes in words.  They verbally stretch the word’s sounds while pushing a counter into boxes, one for each sound heard. (McCarthy, 2008)  This method helps them think of the order of spoken sounds in words (Griffith, 1992).

When you first teach this process start with three phonemes and a continuous initial consonant sound (flow of breath is not constricted, /s/, /f/, /m/).  Students are able to use one continuous breath to stretch the words.  Once successful, move to initial stop consonants (/d/, /k/, /t/), then use words that segment phonemes with blends at the initial and/or final position (/bl/, /mp/). (McCarthy, 2008)

Teaching Sound Segmentation

  1. Explicit modeling of stretching the word out into phonemes.  Have students repeat after you.
  2. When students can stretch the words explain and model sound boxes.
  3. Students practice stretching words and using sound boxes simultaneously until they achieve independence. (McCarthy, 2008)


Research links some reading failure to insufficiently developed phoneme awareness skills.  These skills should be a part of the daily kindergarten and first grade reading program.  This can easily be done through phonemic awareness training activities.  It should be a natural extension of the lesson. (Ellis, 1997)

Positive results in one study show students who received training in phonemic awareness outperformed the students in the control group (NRP).  Studies have also shown phonemic awareness training is a better indicator than measures such as IQ.  Poor readers who enter first grade phonemically unaware are likely to remain poor readers at the end of fourth grade. (Griffith, 1992)

It is essential for student at risk for reading difficulties to receive training in phonemic awareness (Ellis, 1997).


Students with learning disabilities have difficulty learning how to relate lettsers to sound.  It benefits all students to receive explicit instruction in phonemic awareness.  Teachers need to use a variety of research based techniques to help children learn to read.  Teachers should provide explicit instruction, lots of modelling of strategies, guided practice, and independent practice.  Students should be given the opportunity to practice these skills.

Developing Phonemic Awareness

Teachers can:

  • Expose students to literature that plays with sounds in language (rhyming, alliteration).
  • Provide extensive writing experiences (invented spelling)
  • Provide explicit instruction in sound segmentation. (Griffith, 1992)



Phonemic Awareness Blog,


Ellis, E.S. (1997). How now brown cow: phoneme awareness activities. Reading Rockets.  http://www.reading

Griffith, P.L. & Olson, M.W. (1992). “Phonemic awareness helps beginning readers break the code.” Reading Teacher, 45(7), 516-522.

McCarthy, P.A. “Using sound boxes systematically to develop phonemic awareness.” Reading Teacher, 62(4), 346-349.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

1 Comment

Posted by on February 12, 2011 in Uncategorized


One response to “Segmenting Sounds using Elkonin Boxes

  1. Tara MacDonald

    February 23, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    Hi Michael,
    Phoneme Awareness is very important. You have really covered the information about Elkonin Boxes and the importance of segmenting sounds. This reminds me of the program Soundations!. According to Soundations!, research has shown that phoneme awareness results in better reading skills. Students make the connection between spoken words and written words when they understand that the sequence of letters in a written word represents the sequence of sounds in a spoken word. (Smith, 2006) Some of the activities in Soundations! uses something like Elkonin Boxes.
    According to Laternfish, Elkonin Boxes were not intended to help teach spelling but can be used to practice spelling from a synthetic phonics point of view. (Laternfish, 2006)
    Elkonin Boxes are a multisensory technique for teaching literacy skills. This is also something that one can make on their own, which is a nice and easy task to help students learn phonemic awareness skills better.
    There are a few websites that I have found that are interesting to go along with the theme of Elkonin Boxes. They are as follows: Phoneme-Segmentation-Activities-And-Games and Florida-Center-For-Reading-Research.
    “Effective phonemic awareness instruction teaches children to notice, think about, and manipulate sounds in spoken language.” (Beller, 2006)

    Beller, Laura. “Elkonin Boxes: A Multisensory Technique for Teaching Literacy Skills”. T-TAC Network News
    Laternfish. “Elkonin Boxes Resources”.
    Smith, Margaret T. “SOUNDATIONS! Phonological Awareness Games and Activities”.


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