Elkonin Boxes

Elkonin boxes build phonological awareness skills by segmenting words into individual sounds, or phonemes. To use Elkonin boxes, a child listens to a word and moves a 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.

How to use: Individually With small groups Whole class setting

Why use Elkonin boxes?

  • They help students build phonological awareness by segmenting words into sounds or syllables.
  • They teach students how to count the number of phonemes in the word (not always the number of letters).
  • They help students better understand the alphabetic principle in decoding and spelling.


How to use Elkonin boxes

  1. Pronounce a target word slowly, stretching it out by sound.
  2. Ask the child to repeat the word.
  3. Draw boxes or squares on a piece of paper, chalkboard, or dry erase board with one box for each syllable or phoneme.
  4. Have the child count the number of phonemes in the word, not necessarily the number of letters. For example, wish has three phonemes and will use three boxes. /w/, /i/, /sh/
  5. Direct the child to slide one colored circle, unifix cube, or corresponding letter in each cell of the Elkonin box drawing as he/she repeats the word.

The example below shows an Elkonin box for the word sheep, which consists of three phonemes (sounds): /sh/ /ee/ /p/

Elkonin Boxes

Extension: pairing with print

Although Elkonin boxes are mostly used with spoken words, you can increase the intensity of the lesson by asking children to write the letters for each sound in the boxes after segmenting orally.

Do steps 1-5 above but ask the child to pick up a pen and write the grapheme/s (letter/s) in each box. Each box holds one sound. This extension allows children to match the letters to the sounds in each word. A child can write the letters in the boxes OR use letter tiles.

For sounds spelled with more than one letter, write all the letters for that sound in a box.


Write the letter for each spoken sound in the word in each box.

Elkonin box for stop
Elkonin box for sheep

Silent letters or vowel teams can be written together in a single box.

Elkonin box for lake

Letters like ‘x’ in that make two sounds (/k/ and /s/) can straddle two boxes.

Elkonin box for tax

Elkonin sound boxes (small group)

A first grade teacher demonstrates the use of Elkonin sound boxes and talks about how this research-based strategy helps build phonemic awareness skills. (Understood)

Elkonin sound boxes (small group)

Watch this teacher help two children strengthen their phonemic awareness skills by practicing with Elkonin sound boxes. (Rollins Center for Language and Literacy)

Elkonin boxes with letters (small group)

Watch this one-on-one demonstration of how Elkonin boxes can be used to promote phonemic awareness, as well as encoding and decoding skills. (University of Florida Literacy Institute)

Collect resources

These example shows several ways teachers can use Elkonin boxes to teach phonemic awareness:

This website offers teachers several Elkonin box templates for various target words.

Elkonin box word templates ›

Teachers may wish to use the blank templates found on this website to accompany a segmenting task and provide students the opportunity to practice writing. Students can write each sound represented in the target word and then write a short sentence using the word.

Elkonin box and writing template ›

Differentiate instruction

for second language learners, students of varying reading skill, and for younger learners

  • Ideas for using Elkonin boxes with Spanish speaking students.
  • Have more advanced students write letters in the boxes as you dictate words.
  • Teachers can use this strategy in the following ways to meet each student's individualized reading level:
    • Words with pictures and only two boxes
    • Words with pictures and three boxes
    • Words with no pictures and up to four boxes

Related strategies

Find more activities for building phonological and phonemic awareness in our Reading 101 Guide for Parents.

See the research that supports this strategy

Blachman, B. A., Ball, E. W., Black, R., & Tangel, D. M. (2000). Road to the code: A phonological awareness program for young children. Baltimore: Brookes.

Clay, M. (1993). Reading Recovery: A Guidebook for Teachers in Training. NH: Heinemann.

Elkonin, D. (1971). "Development of Speech". In A.V. Zaporozhets and D. B. Elkonin (Eds.). The Psychology of Preschool Children. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.

Ellis, E. (1997). How Now Brown Cow: Phoneme Awareness Activities.

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.

Children's books to use with this strategy

Mom and Dad Are Palindromes

Mom and Dad Are Palindromes

By: Mark Shulman
Genre: Fiction
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

When a boy learns about palindromes, he begins to see them everywhere. The humorous tale introduces words and phrases that are the same when spelled — and pronounced — forward or backward. Palindrome riddles are presented in Too Hot to Hoot: Funny Palindrome Riddles by Marvin Terban (Sandpiper). Both books have strong visual clues.

Hamsters, Shells, and Spelling Bees: School Poems

Hamsters, Shells, and Spelling Bees: School Poems

By: Lee Bennett Hopkins
Genre: Poetry
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

Familiar subjects are presented in short poems by a range of writers. These easier-to read works are just right to encourage careful listening.

Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook

Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook

By: Shel Silverstein
Genre: Poetry
Age Level: 6-9
Reading Level: Independent Reader

Runny Babbit talk is created by spoonerisms, switching the first sound in a pair of words, so a "silly book" becomes a "billy sook." Kids build their phonemic awareness without even trying! The audio book narrator's slightly gravelly voice is ideal for sharing these funny poems (completed though not published before the popular poet's death in 1999).

Go, Dog, Go!

Go, Dog, Go!

By: P.D. Eastman
Genre: Fiction
Age Level: 3-6
Reading Level: Beginning Reader

Big dogs, little dogs, and all kinds of dogs are on the go throughout the pages of this surprising and funny classic easy reader. Illustrations use strong lines with muted colors to show playful mutts of all sizes in outrageous activities that keep beginning readers reading.


Thank you for sharing. Now I know I can use Elkonin box strategies with older kids I work with. Multi syllables strategy and sounds and phonics that would be helpful to readers who struggles. I also like the visual term and rhyming words display. Will definitely use it in our classroom.

I love the idea of using objects to match sounds. I can help teach children who may struggle with letters by focusing on sounds. This is a great tool! Thank you!

These are very useful in teaching a visual approach to words that rhyme. Using the same color(s) for the letters that represent the rime and a different color (marker, card, button magnet,) as the beginning sound.

I use them for sounds to hear sequentially. One box for each sound. After, the student has advanced, we use them to understand how words look, ea, ai, cr, etc. One box for each letter.

I have been using these for sounds/phonemes for reinforcement, and I have already seen the improvement in my students.

I use the Elkonin boxes for older students as well. Some of the middle school students I work with have trouble with multi-syllabic words. I use the Elkonin boxes with 3 or 4 boxes. After I introduce the boxes to the students, I also show them how to tap it out on their knee or under the table so no one can see them.

This is a prolific tool which can be used to empower my student's reading.

Thank you for sharing how you work with the older students using the Elkonin boxes and how you get them to tap out multi-syllabic words under their desks on their leg where no one can see. I will share that with my fellow teachers.

Actually they can be used for both. See Fountas and Pinnell's When Reader's Struggle, Teaching That Works for information on how to gradually transition students from sounds to letters.

I alsways used Elkonin boxes for the letters not the sounds. Now I know they are for the sounds/phonemes.

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