The Letterbox Lesson

You can now read about the letterbox lesson in the March 1999 issue of The Reading Teacher.   Look for Murray, B. A., &  Lesniak, T. (1999).  The letterbox lesson:  A hands-on approach for teaching decoding.  The Reading Teacher, 52, 644-650.

        The letterbox lesson is a phonics lesson in which children are led to analyze the phoneme sequence in a word, first by spelling the word and then by reading it.  The lesson can be taught to one student or to a class.  There are always two parts to a letterbox lesson:  spelling words and reading them.

        Rationale.  Children need to understand the alphabetic principle that spellings map the phoneme sequence of spoken words.  A clear demonstration of this principle is in learning to spell words before learning to read them.  Children usually pay closer attention to letter-phoneme correspondences when spelling words than when reading them.  In the letterbox lesson, they spell the words before they read them in order to transfer this sounding-out strategy from spelling to reading.  This helps them learn words thoroughly enough to remember them as sight words.

        Materials.  Letter manipulatives can be cut from card stock, printed on paper and laminated, or purchased as wooden, plastic, or magnetic letters.  Each student will need a complete set of capital and lower case letters, with extra copies of lower case vowels and common consonants.  Laminating paper manipulatives will make them more durable.  Class letter sets may be stored in zipper bags.
        Elkonin boxes (here called letterboxes) are rows of squares that indicate for the student the number of phonemes (not letters) in the words to be spelled.  Each student will need letterbox sets ranging from two to six columns in a single row.   Hinged letterboxes are easily made by cutting 4-inch (10 cm) squares from colored card stock, outlining each square with a marker, and then taping together a series of squares horizontally.  By this means, you can unfold the correct number of cells for each word.  However, students will need a separate two-phoneme box, because it is awkward to fold six boxes down into two.

        Designing the lesson.   Design your lesson around one new correspondence, usually a vowel.  For an early lesson, choose a single short vowel (short i or a would be good for starters).  Select words with simple known correspondences.
        Make a list of simple, regularly spelled words that illustrate the correspondence you are teaching.  For example, if the student knows the consonants d, m, n, p, and s and the short vowels a and i, you could form the words in, if, at, pin, sit, fat, sand, and skip.  Regularly spelled proper names like Sam are also fair game, and they provide an opportunity to teach the convention of capitalizing the first letter. Word family lists are extremely helpful in choosing words.  Effective lessons include review words with previously taught correspondences so that the student must select the vowel for each word.
        In choosing words, don't stick with one spelling pattern.  For example, if you give bat, cat, fat, and hat, students can simply swap first letters without looking further into the spelling.  Use a mix of spelling patterns (e.g., cab, mad, rag, pal, fan, and rap) so that students are required to look beyond the initial letter.  Select 3-12 words from among the words that are possible.  It is better to plan a couple of extra words (which you can omit if students are struggling) than to have too few.  However, it is important to limit the word set so that students can experience success and move on to other activities.
        Put the words you have chosen in sequence from two-letter words that start with a vowel, to three phoneme CVC words, and to longer words of 4, 5, and 6 phonemes if the student can handle them.  But stay with words of one syllable, and above all, stay with regular spellings.  The letterbox lesson is not designed for exception words.  Look on this page for a list of 4-, 5-, and 6-phoneme example words for your letterbox lesson.
        Check your phoneme count.  If you provide the wrong number of letterboxes, you are going to frustrate and confuse your students.  For help getting an accurate phoneme count, read my explanations, models, and exercises on "How to Count Phonemes."

        Working with students.  When beginning a series of letterbox lessons, explain that spellings are sensible ways to write down words.  Spellings are simply maps of the sounds in words.  When spellings make sense, they are much easier to read and remember.  Emphasize that an important part of the lesson will be to listen for the basic sounds in words and to learn how we use letters to make a map of these sounds.
        If students can't recognize a phoneme from the new correspondence in spoken words, teach the phoneme using the procedures in "Teaching Phoneme Identities."  For example, to teach short a, introduce the phoneme /a/ with an alliterative tongue twister (Adam asked for an African apple), use a page from an alphabet book (Aunt Annie's alligator), provide a meaningful representation (/a/ is the sound of a crying baby), and give practice finding the phoneme in word contexts (Do you hear /a/ in bee or antbat or ball? dog or cat?).  Procedures for teaching phonemes may be found in "Making Friends With Phonemes."  Tongue twisters from Wallach and Wallach are handy.
        Next, model how to spell a word and how to read a word.  To model, solve a problem while providing "play by play" that explains how you are getting the answer.  For example, to spell wind, put out four boxes, stretch the pronunciation, and spell it phoneme by phoneme, with a dialogue something like this:  "Let's see, /w/ is the first mouth move, that's letter w.  /wi/, the second sound is /i/.  I'll spell /i/ with an i by itself.  Wind, I hear /d/ at the end, that's d.  But there was something before the dwinnn . . . n goes in that third box."
        To model how to read a word, start with the vowel.  For example, to model how to read spill, you might say, "I'll start with the i; i by itself says /i/.  Okay, /s/, /p/, /i/, that much says /spi/.  No word yet. I'll add the ending; the two l's say /l/, just like one l.  /spi/, /l/, spill.  Oh, spill, like you spill milk, and then you have to clean it up."
        Have children unfold the correct letterbox set for each word.  The correct box is the one with the same number of cells as the number of phonemes in the word, not necessarily the number of letters.  For example, the correct set for the word fish has three boxes because the spoken word fish has three phonemes, /f/i/sh/.  Give students only the letter manipulatives to spell the words in your lesson.  Put away all your other letters.  Much time can be wasted searching through a mound of letters.
        Ask the students to spell the first word (e.g., am) by placing the letter manipulatives in the two cells of the Elkonin box.  When students are successful in spelling a word, congratulate them and move on to the next word.  Keep up a brisk lesson pace.  There is no point in asking students to read a word just spelled.  The difficult work of sounding out and blending is used to access an unknown word, not a known one.
       If a student has trouble spelling a word, don't ask questions.  Asking questions to draw out the correct spelling usually just adds to the confusion.  Instead, pronounce the spelling exactly as written, and ask the student to correct it.  If the student still can't spell it, model by saying the phonemes in order (/a/, /m/) and showing how to choose letters to spell each phoneme.  If the student needs modeling help, have him try it again later without the extra help.  Then move on to the next word.  Later, go through your list again until the students can spell all the words without special scaffolding.
        In part two of the letterbox lesson, the students read the words they have spelled.  Put away the letterboxes; these are used only for spelling the words, not for reading them.  Using the same list of words, begin again with your first word.  This time, the teacher uses the letter manipulatives to spell words for the students to read.  Say, "Now tell me the words I'm spelling."  To save time, the teacher may simply present the words on a list or chart.  Again, keep up a fast pace.
        If a student has trouble reading the words, guide him to blend vowel first.  Begin by having him sound out the vowel, and then blend the letters before the vowel to the vowel to make the chunk called the "body."  Make sure the student forms this chunk before moving on so he doesn't have to hold on to multiple chunks in memory.  Next have him blend in any letters after the vowel (the "coda").   Move the letters together to guide what is blended in each step.  After he blends, make sure he understands what the word is.  Blending will not always produce the exact pronunciation.  If he still doesn't get it, model blending for him, using the vowel first, body-coda sequence, explaining why you're taking each step.  Again, asking questions to draw out the correct reading is usually confusing and counterproductive.  If there were any problems, go through the words again until the student can read them without a mistake.

        Troubleshooting.  If students have trouble with the letterbox lesson, work on ways to make it easier for the next session.  For instance, use fewer letters, make simpler words, and teach the identities of the phonemes for each letter.  If it is as simple as possible and students still aren't catching on, your student probably needs more basic work on phoneme identities to gain alphabetic insight.  See my page on phoneme awareness for teaching suggestions.
        Once students have mastered short vowels, introduce consonant digraphs (ch, sh, th, ck, ng).   Then work with long vowels signaled by silent e.  Place the e outside the letterboxes at the right end to show how it signals the long vowel.  Work with short and long vowel words (e.g., pin and pine).   Later work on vowel digraphs (ee, oa, ai, ou, oi, etc.). Include words with consonant blends in every lesson (e.g., stand), and work toward more complicated words (e.g., splash).
        Sometimes students say they're bored with the letterbox lesson.  Usually they mean they're frustrated because the lesson is too hard, often because the teacher has not chosen the word list carefully or is omitting some important procedure.  When children experience success with the lesson, they usually enjoy it.

Summary of the Letterbox Lesson

  1. Design your lesson around a single new correspondence the child needs and is ready to learn, usually a vowel.
  2. Create a set of simple, regular words that illustrate this correspondence.  Omit words that involve irregular spellings or any correspondences your student doesn't know.  Add a few review words for vowel contrast.
  3. Place letters for the selected words before the student.   Put aside all other letters.
  4. For the easiest lessons, begin with 2-phoneme words that start with a vowel (e.g., up).
  5. Introduce the lesson by teaching the phoneme with tongue twisters, meaningful representations, and practice finding the phoneme in words.
  6. Model how to spell a word and how to read a word, providing play-by-play commentary as you solve these problems.
  7. Have students spell each word.  Give the correct letterbox set so that the student knows how many phonemes to represent.
  8. If a student is struggling to spell a word, pronounce what the student has written and ask for a correction.  If the student is unable to make the correction, model the spelling and come back to the word a few minutes later.
  9. In part two of the letterbox lesson, put away the letterboxes.  This time, you spell the words and ask students to read them.
  10. If a student can't read a word, help the student blend vowel first.  First have him sound out the vowel, and then blend the initial consonants to the vowel to make the body, and then blend the body to the final consonants.  If this fails, model vowel-first blending, and come back to the word later.

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