Orthographic mapping (Ehri, 2014) is essentially alignment work. It is the brain making sense of, or proving, how the sounds in a spoken word (phonemes) match up with the series of sound-spellings in the same word (graphemes).
So, if orthographic mapping is truly an “in-the-brain-process,” what can we do in the classroom to set the reading brains of young children up for success with this internal process?
Well, one of the best tools we know of–our go-to for scaffolding orthographic mapping–is sound boxes, or Elkonin boxes (Elkonin, 1973). The beauty of sound boxes is that they provide a concrete tool for communicating and reinforcing what can otherwise be very abstract work.
In the numbered list below, we offer four simple but powerful steps for using Elkonin boxes to scaffold orthographic mapping from the OUTSIDE to increase the likelihood that it happens on the INSIDE! We demonstrate this series of steps using the word sheep.
So, here’s how you can put sound-spellings in their place!
1. Decide how many boxes are needed. To get started, simply provide or create a long, rectangular box and divide it into the number of sub-compartments that matches the number of individual sounds in the word. So the word sheep needs three sections for its three sounds, or phonemes (/sh/ /ē/ /p/).
2. Put one grapheme in each box. Now you’re ready to use one box to hold the grapheme for each phoneme in the word. We sometimes describe Elkonin boxes to children as a house with multiple rooms; each room gets one sound. Of course, some sounds are represented by graphemes that have more than one letter, such as the /sh/ sound in sheep. When one sound is spelled with two (or more) letters, then all of the letters in the grapheme go into the same box or room. In the example below, you can see that sheep has two sounds that are spelled with graphemes that have more than one letter. In the first box, the S and the H are roommates representing the single sound /sh/. And in the middle box, the letters E and E are roommates, spelling the single sound /ē/
3. Carefully analyze the alignment. Support students in blending the sounds and noticing the way the individual sounds match up with their individual spellings. This alignment work glues the sound-spellings–in their meaningful sequence–to the matching sequence of the individual sounds in the spoken word. And this is how words are stored in the reading brain, so this is the critical work that helps lock the word into memory.
4. Write the word outside the boxes. To seal the deal, have children pull the word back out of the boxes and write it for themselves. Writing it a few times – referring to the sound boxes and saying the sounds as they write the letters or letter combinations (graphemes). This careful attention to the sounds that go with each grapheme really supports getting the word stored in memory. You can have children write the word a couple of times while sound-saying and using the sound box as a support. And then have children write it again–still sound-saying–but from memory.
Elknonin boxes are a versatile tool with countless applications in the literacy classroom. For instance, they can be used to:
Enhance phonemic awareness instruction.
“Three sounds in sheep, so three sound boxes. Touch each of the boxes as you say the sounds in sheep.” ,
Scaffold word learning.
“The word sheep has three sounds but five letters. Let’s think about (look at) how the sounds and spellings match up.”
Support students who are trying to work out the spelling of a word.
“You’re trying to spell sheep? How many sounds do you hear? Right, three. So let’s make three boxes. Now, touch each box as you say the sounds again. What spellings do you expect for the first, middle, and last sounds in sheep? Write them in the boxes.”
If you’re committed to scaffolding the in-the-brain process of orthographic mapping with outside-the-brain instructional routines, getting comfortable with Elkonin boxes is definitely worth the investment of time and energy. They provide an affordable, visual, brain-friendly, effective, reliable, and accessible tool. 😊
If you’re ready to dig deeper into the ways you can use Elkonin boxes to make word learning easier for children, you can check out Sight Word Success, our on-demand mini-course that teaches all about orthographic mapping, including more tools to support it!
Linnea C. Ehri. 2014. Orthographic Mapping in the Acquisition of Sight Word Reading,
Spelling Memory, and Vocabulary Learning, Scientific Studies of Reading, 18:1, 5-21. https://registrar.ecu.edu/wp-content/pv-uploads/sites/257/2019/07/ehri.pdf
Elkonin, C. (1973). Methods of teaching reading. In J. Downing (Ed.), Comparative reading:
Cross national studies of behavior and processing in reading and writing (pp.
551-579). New York: McMillan.