Project Brief

Partnering with Wheeling Country Day School, project WordCraft aims to present an immersive technology-based solution to facilitate the in-class learning experience for students with dyslexia. The cross-disciplinary team from CMU delivered the solutions of an interactive digital Elkonin Box exercise and a phonics memory game which are currently used in the school as the class warm-up sessions. This project is from Feb 2019 - May 2019 (4 months).

​Compared to conventional teaching practices, wordcraft is exploring a transformational education by bringing learning by playing and collaborative problem solving into our project. Especially for student with dyslexia. We hope to create a friendly environment where the whole class is involved, fostering learning, and self-achievement.

My Role

UX Designer, Game Designer


Jett Lee (Software Engineer)

Patrick Lyu (Software Engineer)

So Young Han (Designer)

Rebecca Cui (Producer)


Figma, Photoshop, Unity, Maya


Wheeling Country Day School

The school is located in West Virginia and the teacher there have expertise in teaching students with dyslexia 



The Given Task

According to our client, we are aiming to design and develop an interactive and collaborative language learning experience for students with dyslexia by digitizing the Elkonin Boxes tool, which is a validated method to enhance the language learning for people with dyslexia, but usually conducted with paper, marbles, and pens.


This exercise is already widely used in the schools to help the language education and welcomed by a lot of teachers and students. However,  there are still some limitations brought by the nature of physical tool which constraints the development of ideal teaching and learning experience. In this case, our given task is to explore a proper way to digitize the Elkonin Boxes Exercise utilizing the actual class environment and technical settings in the client school.

The Platform


Touch-based laptop

Promethean Board

Multi-player display board

Our product should be launched on the Chromebook and Promethean Board, which are the standard classroom device-setting in the client school. 


Promethean Board

Demo: Digital Elkonin Boxes

Demo: Phonics Memory Game

Solution Overview

Digital Elkonin Boxes for students

+ Separate management application for teachers

Individual learning without interference

Immediate correction feedback

Organized performance records 

Phonics Memory Game for students

+ Embedded management system for teachers

Entertaining - learning by playing 

Collaborative learning with teamed up

Customized content decided by teachers

Product Delivery

Students doing the digital Elkonin Boxes Exercise

Students playing Phonic Memory Game in the class

Currently, the Digital Elkonin Boxes Exercise and the Phonic Memory Game is used as a class warm-up session and class-break activities in the Wheeling Country Day school.

* All the photos and videos in this project are approved to show properly, thanks to all the lovely volunteer students in the school.



What is Dyslexia?

Getting to understand our target user is a crucial step in this project with an educational purpose, especially for the special group of students with dyslexia. We should try to empathize with them, understand their needs, catch on their feeling, and realize their difficulties.

Literature Review + Expert Interview

We searched related literature and conducted interviews with 3 expert teachers from the client school, who have the rich experience of teaching students with dyslexia.

In simple terms, dyslexia is a common learning disorder that makes it difficult to read, write, and spell due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words (decoding), in spite of normal intelligence and adequate instruction. It is caused by the brain’s inability to process information received from the eyes or ears into understandable language. It does not mean that these students are lazy, or not trying hard, or not intelligent. It just means that they need to be taught in a different way.

Some typical difficulties:
Lack of Phonological Awareness, Poor Working Memory, Auditory Processing difficulties, Visual Processing difficulties, etc.

Dyslexia Simulation

Suggested by the expert teachers, our team went to an interesting activity called dyslexia simulation, where we participated in a series of language learning exercises including reading abnormal written texts,  listening tests with noises, reading books backward, and getting pressure from teachers and peers. Those exercises vividly simulated the feeling of anxiety and frustration the students might experience if they have dyslexia, which helped us a lot to build empathy with them.

Major Pain Points of Students with Dyslexia

Based on the findings we learned from the research, we validated with the teaching expert in the client school and synthesized the key points that are most relevant and beneficial for our future design:

Students with Dyslexia

Lack of phonological awareness

Poor working memory (short time memory)

Easily get distracted (visual, audial stimuli)

Easily discouraged and low confidence in learning

What is Elkonin Boxes Exercise?

Another important part of our research is to understand the tool we are going to digitize: Elkonin Boxes Exercise.  

How does this exercise run?  - In what flows and what context?

How does this tool come from? - Is it a widely used validated tool or an experimental tool?

Is there anything not going well with the current physical version? - For both students and teachers.

Are there any important mechanisms or feature to keep in mind when digitizing it? - what could not be changed?

Elkonin Boxes Setting

The process of Elkonin Boxes Exercise

Key Points of Elkonin Boxes Exercise

A validated tool to help build phonological awareness by segmenting words into individual sounds/phonemes.

Widely used in schools with traditional physical format.

The action of picking the right marble and move it to the box is a physical reinforcement of segmenting the sounds.

Current physical method is doing well in engaging the students into the process and provide physical interactions, but limited in scalability and records racking.

How is Elkonin Boxes Tool Currently Used?

To learn about the actual using scenarios of the Elkonin Boxes, we went to the wheeling country day school to observe and participate several sessions with teachers and students, which is a memorable and fun experience to learn together with the lovely students.

Classroom Settings

Contextual Inquiry of The Elkonin Boxes Exercise

We participated several sessions where teachers and students are doing the Elkonin Boxes Eercises to observe the actual class dynamics and behaviors & interactions of teahcers and students.

We found:

All the activities are held in small groups with 1 teacher and

3-5  students.

There are complex social dynamics happening:

- Students would help others when they finish their own tasks, and sometimes refer yo other's answers.

- The teacher will give feedback on each student's work one by one and encourages them a lot.

What are the painpoints of teachers?

Another major user of our product would be the teachers - we interviewed 3 teachers who conduct Elkonin Boxes Exercise frequently in thier classes.


" It's hard to keep tracking each students' performance over time using the on-time paperwork."

" When we holding more than 4 students, it's hard to check each one's progress and give feedback in time. But scalability is needed sometimes."

" Students will interference with each other because of different progress on the tasks, which is tricky for teachers to handle."

"It would be great to provide a fun experience for students to help them be more motivated and encouraged."



Client Request
Given Task & expected outcome
Technical constraints
Design Decisions
User Needs
User Research
Insights from iterative playtests

Synthesize the Needs of Two User Groups

Group 1

Students with Dyslexia

Group 2


Need more motivation and encouragement in the learning experience.

Need to be more concentrated on the exercise: decrease peer interference and other distractions.

Keep the social element in the experience: peer-study, collaboration, interaction with teachers, etc.

Extend class scalability.

Track student's performance over time.

Flexibility in manage class content.

Keep and emphasized the educational value of the digital version.

Define Design Pillars

Based on the client requests and user studies, we synthesized the design pillar to guide our educational game design:

Design Pillar is a widely used method in the game design, which could help the whole team to keep on the same page towards the agreed project goal and work as a filter that only allows the ideas that follow the direction the game focused on. 

Specify the Design Questions

How might we digitize the Elkonin Boxes tool while maintaining the education value from the original physical version?

How might we take advantage of the digital solution to enhance the learning experience and education purpose?

How might we provide students more encouragement and rewards to help them build confidence in language learning?

How might we create an engaging & fun experience for students while keeping them concentrated on learning?

How might we create an opportunity for students to learn language collaboratively and give mutual support?

How might we address and fulfill the needs from both of our target audiences: students and teachers?

How might we avoid or limit the level of competition among students to decrease the peer pressure?

Here Comes the Challenges

The Solution Mapping

Digital Elkonin Boxes for students

+ Separate management application for teachers

Phonics Memory Game for students

+ Embedded management system for teachers

That’s how we come up with the idea of bringing this experience into two products, and they could be used in sequence or used separately according to the teacher’s needs.

Design - Digital Elkonin Box


Designing for the digital version of Elkonin Boxes Exercise, there are two major parts to consider:

One is to carefully "translate" the flow and the rules of the original Elkonin Boxes into a frictionless user flow of in the digital product, and keep the educational values.

- Individual Learning without interference

- Limited Gamification

Another is to design and embed the teacher's system into the Elkonin Boxes flow.