Sharing the Wealth: Elkonin Boxes

As reading teachers we all have our favorite ways of teaching a specific skill–whether it is a “go to” book, youtube video, or game.  I first began to feel like a veteran of the trade when I realized I had amassed a treasure trove of these jewels to be shared whenever a colleague came knocking.  I love sharing lessons that have gone well and hate recreating the wheel so this has become a super common part of my everyday job as a reading specialist.  I get emails daily saying, “What book do you suggest to introduce inferring?” or “Do you have a cutesy way of explaining how to add details in writing an informational paragraph?”  If I don’t have a ready answer, I can usually find one from my favorite gurus or Pinterest and love to shower these ideas on my teachers.

In this way, I firmly believe that teaching should be a sharing and open community–not a competitive one.  Writing on this blog, creating apps with my husband, selling on teacherspayteachers, and even just taking the time to create a bin of favorite read alouds for various topics in our school book room are all ways that I live out this idea.  It fascinates me that no one way of teaching reading works for every kid.  It is something so unique to our profession (and so very difficult!) that we need so many different ideas to meet the needs of every kid in front of us.  This is why it is vital to over-share!  So, in the spirit of passing on best practices, my techie husband and I have finished our first truly collaborative app and I’d love to share the wealth with you.

As both a former kindergarten teacher and a coordinator for interventions, I have used a variety of different games and songs to teach the skill of segmentation.  It is one of the higher level skills of phonemic awareness and requires a learner to be able to break a work into each of its individual phonemes.  Once a child has mastered rhyming, syllabication, identifying first and last sound, and blending sounds together to make a word, they are usually ready to try segmenting a word into its most basic parts.  Beginning with short words like go, a student must break the word into individual sounds by saying /g/-/o/.  They then advance to basic Consonant-Vowel-Consonant (CVC) words like cat or dog.  Again, this is an oral skill so they must be able to hear the word and then say /c/-/a/-/t/ or /d/-/o/-/g/.  This lays the foundation for being to spell these words later on when we practice connecting those sounds to the printed letter–when we bridge from phonemic awareness to phonics practice.

While many kinesthetic activities like tapping along the arm or on the table, touching head, shoulders, knees and toes, or pretending to jump rope for each individual sound are engaging, one of the most common segmentation activities is a strategy called Elkonin Boxes.  Named for their inventor, this method presents a learner with a set of boxes underneath a picture.  The number of boxes match the number of phonemes in the picture name.  The child is told the name of the image, says the word and then pushes a small object (coin, plastic marker, pebble) into each square as they say each of the individual sounds they hear.  They key to remember is one push for one sound, even if the sound is a digraph, diphthong or r-controlled vowel that is represented by more than one letter.  The number of boxes helps to guide and self check the student’s segmenting.

Creating the materials for this activity can be time consuming (and tough to keep nice!) but the concept is so simple it seemed the perfect game for an iPad, iPod, or iPhone.  Because the activity is easy for kids to do on their own once they understand the premise, it also seemed a user-friendly app for more educational screen time at home.  We wanted to go beyond what the paper version would be able to offer in creating the app, so we also built in multiple levels of practice in a few different ways.

To begin, the app has 3 levels of words for students to advance through–and there are over 100 in each category.  Often the hardest part of segmentation practice is coming up with the words to say!  Level 1 contains 2 and simple 3 phoneme words like tea, man, and top.  This is a great place to introduce the skill.  Level 2 has a mix of 2, 3 and 4 phoneme words ranging from hay to beach to crab.  Remember that while the “ch” in beach counts as a single sound in this activity, the consonant blend “cr” is two sounds because you can still hear both phonemes.  It is much more difficult for a child to hear both sounds in a blend and that is why this practice is so important.  Often a beginning writer will spell stop as sop or frog as fog.  Elkonin boxes help students to notice that they are missing a sound.  Level 3 contains the most difficult beginning and end blends as well as trickier vowel patterns in 3, 4 and 5 phoneme words.

In addition to progressing through increasing difficult words, users can also choose between Practice and Quiz modes.  In Practice mode, the number of boxes match the number of sounds exactly, so a child simply needs to touch each button as they say the sounds to move to the next word.  In Quiz mode, there are five boxes shown for every picture so that the student has to tap the number of phonemes they think might be in the word and then choose Submit to find out if they correctly segmented the word.  This allows the teacher or adult an opportunity to see if the learner can practice the skill accurately without the scaffolding of the boxes.  An additional support option is available in Practice mode.  To introduce the skill to beginning users, a teacher can choose to have the sounds said aloud as the child taps each block.  This allows the child as many examples as needed for them to grasp the concept.  If they are not quite ready to segment on their own, the act of tapping and listening allows them to hear the skill modeled repeatedly.  This feature is great for independent play as well–no additional adult support is required.

In building in such scaffolding and providing a multitude of words in which to engage with this practice, we are working to provide students with both supports and challenges where needed so that children of all levels can engage with this app.  It is a simplistic design that is very intuitive and can easily be used by children preschool age and above.  To check out the app for yourself, search for Elkonin Boxes in the App Store or follow this link.  Feel free to comment here with feedback or leave a review if you find it useful in your classrooms or at home!  If you do not have the technology to use such an app in your classroom–we have made a multi-leveled kit on teacherspayteachers as well.  So whether old school or new school, keep on sharing the wealth!


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