Collaborative Path To Literacy

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This entry is from Rotary Project Contact, Robin Jones, of the Rotary Club of Pretoria East in South Africa.

Collaboration Paves a Widening Path to Literacy

Children have eager minds! They love to learn. It is important to take advantage of that predisposition to learning in the early years by providing rich, life-related experiences in the classroom. One classroom option that builds early literacy skills is Souns for literacy.

Souns is a hands-on programme that was initially introduced to classrooms in Khayalitsha and Knysna through Rotary Clubs of Seapoint and Knysna over five years ago. The specific schools were the Ilitha School in Khayalitsha and preschools under the umbrella of Knysna Education Trust in Knysna. Success through the Souns programme led to further support in Knysna from DG Murray Trust and for foundation stage learners in Pretoria through the Rotary Club of Pretoria East. Collaboration has fuelled the path to learners to date and will hopefully provide access to even more learners in the future.

SOUNS is a simple, effective, user-friendly programme to ease learners along the first steps to becoming effective readers, opening the doors to a literate future. Children are first taught the sounds of the language, then, through engaging activities, they are taught the symbols associated with the sounds (letters), then once sufficient sound-symbol associations are known, they are taught to build words (phonetic writing). Once the learners are confident word builders (writers), they move naturally to blending symbols into words (phonetic reading).

Souns works so well that there is an initiative on several fronts to replicate the programme so that more children can have access to the materials. The programme currently reaches children across languages and in diverse learning environments from villages served by the Peace Corps to teacher training organizations reaching hundreds of classrooms in many provinces. Propelled by research based on years of using Souns, the Knysna Education Trust has developed a prototype – Fonix – that will be less expensive and therefore reach more classrooms. Efforts in Pretoria are currently engaged in building prototypes as well. Cooperation and collaboration is the proven key to progress.

The Souns programme reaches over 15000 learners annually and will continue to expand, limited only by available resources. Rotary is convinced this programme works and is grateful to know DG Murray Trust is involved. Partnerships are critically needed to expand the programme to benefit new groups of learners every year.

Visit the Souns web site:

Pretoria based project: .

A Souns Journey . . . . On Course In SA

This journey is a small portion of a Rotary global grant sponsored by RD 6900 and RD9400 which is making a dramatic difference for early literacy. As one teacher said, “The children in this program will change the future for South Africa.”

We left Johannesburg just before 10 in the morning, heading north to work with the Peace Corps on a literacy project using Souns. Today is our day to comfortably drive the 5 hours. I have done this trip before. This is the training site where we came without Souns materials once, showing teachers how to do the program with materials at hand….just paper and markers. There were 65 teachers trained, all eager and so glad to have a way to help their learners. I wonder – hope – we have some of those teachers in this training, since now we have Souns to give them.

The drive is beautiful. Expanses of brown grass spotted with low thorn-bush trees. At times it seems you can see forever, soft rolling terrain framed in the distance by a blue strip of hills – koppies. There are occasional cows seen feeding in the grass. There are other animals too…but none spotted yet.

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About halfway to our destination we approach the bank of “koppies” and the trees are more varied in color, texture, and height. The thorn bushes hug the ground between taller trees. We just passed a sign for the municipality of Molemole (sound every letter)…..I just love the African languages – they are so musical.

Arrival day brought with it an adjustment to a cold shower and a search for dinner.  On Monday morning we went to the local Wimpy for a rendezvous with those in charge of the training, sharing data on the specific training sites to be visited.

The day was as I hoped…eager teacher minds, children to work with, and all in a typical preschool setting. We worked with the classroom of 4-5 year olds. The initial impression of the room was informing…so many plastic square tables and chairs that there was no floor space left. There were no shelves and no materials except for the stack of workbooks and containers of crayons and other supplies for table work. Several charts were on the wall at adult height…something we all discussed later. The teachers and the administration were bright, passionate people wanting to create an excellent school.

We began by working with the children. The classroom had not yet been given Souns materials. The Peace Corps volunteers (PCV’s) gave lessons to the class with their Souns materials each week and  asked the teacher to use paper and marker to support the work in between their visits. I began by asking the teacher to do what she would typically do for a whole group lesson. She did the usual – holding up a paper and asking the children to identify the sound written on it. While this is not suggested Souns practice, it was quickly obvious she had been working on teaching the children letter-sound associations, and they were learning.

IMG_0124I asked to see a small group of children. We used the paper, as they were most familiar with that method. Then I used the actual Souns letters with the children in a typical small group lesson. They each had learned at least two sounds well, and several knew the first four. The teacher was very conservative introducing new letter-sound associations…..very typical of someone new to Souns. We introduced two more sounds – /p/e/. Then I kept two learners and demonstrated building a few simple words on a line. It was a good moment as the learners clearly wanted something harder than they already knew how to do. I suggested learners at this age and with comfort in approaching 10 letter-sound associations needed to build a word each day. As usual, the teacher was surprised at what they could do!

The day progressed with the children going outside and the adults rounding up to discuss good practice with Souns. I chose to use a new guide booklet to set the pace. This simple version was appreciated by everyone. There was vibrant discussion around several of the pages, which was a very good thing. I believe it was an effective way to engage the group and assimilate the steps of Souns.

The concluding “happy” was an invitation to help with the room….my Montessori heart just smiled. What fun! Everyone worked to remove, reform, and simplify the environment. When we finished there were two plastic “work” tables each with four chairs, an art table against the wall (two plastic tables on top of which was placed a door, previously stored in the adjacent bathroom) with five chairs around it. There was excellent floor space for group work or individual work mats. There was a designated construction corner, a reading corner, and a chalk board space low on the wall for children. The charts were lowered to be in reach of little hands. Progress was made, as this photo was sent to me three days later.

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Bidding our farewells and getting a last photo was another opportunity for sharing. We were on the playground in the presence of the greatest chalkboard ever…the red dirt of SA. With children playing freely, I took a little one…one of the two who helped build words and who is a future little “teacher” for the class. We sat on the ground and I drew an /o/ in the soil and gave him a rock to draw an /o/. We were joined by a circle of faces and little hands with rocks drawing “sounds” in the red soil. Many of these learners were not in the class, but were now exposed to letter-sound associations in the purest way possible – child to child. Learning can be so simple…what can we do to unburden the process of learning to read?

FullSizeRender copy 3Training on Tuesday, March 10, was the same but different. We drove down a long gravel road to a village that was a classic in my experience in SA rural villages: tiny round or rectangular brick and clay (sometimes metal) structures with thatched or metal roofs. Little yards fenced with curved limbs from trees pinioned to the ground and each other to define the resident space. Mango trees and other greenery dress seemingly swept dirt yards. Earth red, green, sand, and dried thatch color the expanse of little homes…each framed by the dark, dancing, sticks with shadows from the sun that doubled their curls and twists.

We arrived at the little preschool and were greeted by the teachers and principal. The two PCV’s introduced us all and showed us around the facility. It was a lovely environment. The classroom was textbook perfect: organized, spacious, children’s personal artwork everywhere, as well as words in Tsonga (w lower case letters) on the wall where little hands could touch.

We adults sat together and trained, role playing teacher and learner, covering the highlights and critical points of Souns. Then it was time for children. We gave five of the little ones, probably three years old, a lesson using paper and marker to show them the first four sounds…/o/m/s/t/. We explained that if the teachers demonstrated the Souns program by teaching the first four letter-sound associations this way, we will give them a Souns set from Rotary after that month. That has been a worthwhile arrangement thus far. Giving a Souns set to a classroom and having it misused or placed on a storage shelf is not a good investment of time or funds. I foresee the leadership in this preschool as committed guardians of the program. (Now to drive back to Pretoria)

Wednesday, day three! This day was a treat of another kind: working with an umbrella organization – PEN – overseeing hundreds of preschool/crèche teachers in Pretoria. They speak English and teach in English, which is easier (for training) than a mixed group with several languages. We introduced Souns to thirty teachers…a few were familiar, but most were new to the program. As there were no Souns sets designated for these teachers yet, I demonstrated how to proceed with the program with paper and markers first. They wanted a way to start immediately…so now they can. The presentation was lively, with good questions, responses, and laughter. I can’t’ wait to revisit this group.

Thursday, day four!  We are in Mamelodi visiting two primary schools: one school with four Grade R classrooms and two Grade 1 classrooms using Souns and another school where we focused on four Grade R classrooms. The first school was newer to the program. We visited the two established Souns classrooms and then had a most productive meeting with the two new teachers. These two new teachers were trained initially by colleagues and have done really good work with Souns. Typical of new-to-Souns teachers, the learners were being guided at a slower rate. They had reached about six sounds introduced. We asked for four learners from each of their classrooms and demonstrated how to move forward with more certainty. With two of the more confident learners, I demonstrated building words. The teachers were pleased to see several learners ready for this next stage.

The second school is now in its third year with Souns in Grade R and the experience for me was confirming. I met with two teachers at a time in a private space where we could speak comfortably and uninterrupted. I remember the same faces three years prior obligingly taking on a new program to use on top of others that were not working. Today, the faces spoke a different story. They were leaning forward, eye to eye, sharing their practice (even supporting its value with Souns language), proud of where their learners were so early in the year with their letter-sound knowledge. This was a deeply pleasing arrival point for this work. These teachers were becoming Souns practitioners. Success with the learners built their confidence in their own practice which would grow the legs of sustainability for Souns. I attribute much of the day’s story to good leadership in the schools…teachers need support and these two schools have extraordinary administrative support for their teachers.

At the close of our conversation, I asked each of the teachers if their learners were building words yet. Each exclaimed, “No!” …commenting in their individual ways that they did not think their learners were ready. I suggested that at their age and with 10 sounds known, they likely were. I asked for two learners from each class. The teachers were stunned that the learners moved so quickly to building words. I am glad we visited early in their academic year, a good time to help them know more about the need to keep up with the child. The child will generally move faster than the teacher realizes. They will continue building words – just one or two words each day – and will, no doubt, have some children sounding out words in a few months if not sooner. There are many children in the room ahead of where the teacher thought they were…a very common picture, unfortunately.

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Friday, day five! This is the last day of the first week of training, we are visiting two more primary schools in Mamelodi. In the first there were five grade Grade R classrooms. Two of the teachers were new to Souns, but had been guided by the three who were trained in previous years. We visited each classroom, discussing how their children ended last year and how the new class was doing this year. School years in SA begin mid-January and conclude early December. This visit was toward the end of the of the first term. The learners have had 8 weeks of school to get where they are now…!!! It is an impressive effort by the teachers and the learners. One Grade R teacher said, “The learners for Grade R at the end of 2014 were so clever and I was so excited because during the parent ceremony they already knew how to read Grade 1 books.”

The second school visited this day had three Grade R classes with teachers who were experienced with Souns. We visited to ask about progress last year and with the new classrooms of learners this year. As usual, we asked if the children had begun building words. Again, the answer was an immediate “Not yet!” As before, I demonstrated with two of each of their classrooms that they were, indeed, ready to build words by listening to the sounds.

The final training at the last school this week was with Grade 1 teachers. There were five, three of whom have had experience with Souns. The practice in a Grade 1 classroom is not ideal as the numbers are quite different: there are 50-60 learners in each class with one teacher. The pressure on everyone is tremendous. Small groups are not possible, so our approach is for whole class activities that engage the child in listening to and discerning sounds in words. With such discrimination, they will develop attack skills that will serve them well in writing and reading as the year progresses. We went to one classroom and demonstrated some activities to build these skills. One teacher added that she has found the material to be important for challenged learners, “Letters that they can hold in their hand and move around is making a big difference.”

In conclusion, this first week of training confirmed the value of this effort to build fundamental literacy skills for young learners in South Africa. We introduced Souns to new classrooms, new teachers, reviewed experienced Souns practitioners, monitored progress, and demonstrated to all Grade R teachers that their effort to date was farther ahead than they thought. Teachers need to learn to trust their children to be able….surprisingly able…to move well ahead of expectations.

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When we return in several months, we expect to see learners in each classroom to be engaged in all the stages of Souns, depending on their inherent ability. All will continue to work on letter-sound associations, most will be building words, and many will be sounding out words or reading.

We have one more week of training in other primary schools and preschools in Pretoria. As always, it will be important to glean our own lessons out of these two weeks for future training.

Poster Child for Literacy

The US Peace Corps volunteers in South Africa are a determined lot of people. I am blessed to be able to work along side them for even a brief time as I train for the Souns program. A Global Grant originating in Rotary Clubs, then supported by Rotary Districts, and in turn by The Rotary Foundation provides Souns literacy materials to Peace Corps volunteers who see the program as a benefit to their communities in South Africa. What an impact one Peace Corps volunteer can have. This beautiful, determined smile is going to open doors to reading and writing for children. When a child can read, he or she can have hope. When there is hope, we are a little closer to peace. The volunteers will teach the teachers who teach the children. When they leave their site, they will leave a legacy. These Peace Corps volunteers bring treasure chests of hopes and possibilites to their communities, and they retun home with at least as much as they leave behind.

Thank you, PCV’s! You are the best!

Thank you Rotary Club of Peachtree City in District 6900 (USA), Rotary Club of Pretoria East in District 9400 (RSA), and The Rotary Foundation for all that is being done with this project. The Global Grant provides materials only. All training is provided by Rotarian volunteers. 

Building Words With Soun(d)s

A Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa shares her work with the Souns program funded by The Rotary Foundation. What an amazing collaboration between two globally sensitive, benevolent-minded organizations. Thank you Rotary Districts 6900 and 9400!
I had such a great day with the children today that I thought I should share.  I made some “picture cards” earlier this week to help teach new English vocabulary to the children through pictures. 
I showed them the pictures, gave them the meanings in Xitsonga and English, and we started to figure out how to build them.  At first the children had no clue what I wanted when I asked “What sound does ‘pot’ start with?”  But after getting a translation, a little boy  whispered “pih pih pih”.  We soon had pot built, and the children took turns saying “pih ah tih” several times.  A few even started saying “pot”.  It was amazing to see the kids take their first step in writing and reading.  I could see the educators who were watching finally get what I was trying to do with the programme, and they began to get excited and more involved with the groups.  They were seeing 3-4 year old children figure out how to write words and read.  
I look forward to teaching them a few new words and sounds each day.  

Second day: We work together to sound out the word, and the children are eager to grab the Souns and build the word.  Today we focused on “hat”, “mop” and “pot”.  Right now, the kids are still struggling to separate the individual sounds in the words, but little by little they are getting there.

Some of them are even starting to read the words we build.

From The Field In South Africa


An email from a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa. These humanitarian minded people are leading us into tomorrow. I am so honored to be working with them in this Rotary /Peace Corps collaborative literacy project.

Hello Brenda,

I have started the Souns programme with our village children.  Right now I’m focusing on the three-four year old classroom, and about 40 children have started the programme.  They are brilliant children!  I expected it to take a few sessions for them to really understand what I was doing, and to start relating sounds to the letters, but within the first 15 minute session, the children were starting to associate “ah” with the o’s and “mm” with the m’s.  It’s really encouraging, and the staff members are excited about the programme.  Considering the language barrier (the children can greet in English, but that’s it), I’m amazed at how easily the children are adapting to Souns.  I speak entirely in English, and hardly anything has been translated into Xitsonga after the first lesson or two.
Hope all is well with you!

The Power of “Working Alongside!”


I am in a van on the road to Peace Corps Inservice Training (IST) in South Africa. Such beautiful hearts and minds sit with me. Grace, courtesy, warmth, and enthusiasm are constantly present in this organization’s efforts to better the world. I have been on this same trip to different sites on several occasions to train volunteers to implement our Souns for literacy program. I find it an equally positive experience each time.

PCV’s (Peace Corps Volunteers) have an energy and a flexibility that are bound to make a difference for their communities as their terms progress. One volunteer on this trip is doing what so many do, extending their term an additional year. PCV’s are making a difference and they feel it and often do not want to end the experience. The other side of the story, of course, is that the volunteers are learning more about themselves than can be measured on a calendar. The lessons will affect them for a lifetime. I think of it as tracking their future. Each of us has a gift already in place, but it is only discovered and confirmed through experience.

In the words of one PCV:

“Working alongside people who struggle to put food on the table, yet who have welcomed me into their lives and hearts has allowed me to see the great potential in the rural areas, and has motivated me to extend my service beyond the usual two years.  As I work to teach new skills, I am learning what it means to be part of a global community that transcends culture, ideologies, and language.”

Tomorrow I will be “tracking” my future, doing what I love most (next to doing a walk-about in my mind along a warm beach somewhere) – I will be introducing PCV’s to the Souns program. Those who find it compelling will be trained and will receive sets of Souns provided by The Rotary Foundation through a Global Grant project sponsored by RD9400 and RD6900. PCV’s are reaching thousands of children, making a difference one child, one village at a time. What a pleasure it is to be wrapped around with such purpose.

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 And it was so much fun!

Happiness Looks Like This


What happens to the heart when it is too filled with joy to fit in its body? It spreads like the sun all over the face. We have had over a week encountering such smiles. They arrive at the training sessions on foot and/or via crowded taxi vans – teachers and caregivers eager to learn new tools to help their children on the journey to reading.

The Rotary Global Grant 25244 was to impact 4000 children. The project is in its third year and because of community action – including the University of Pretoria and the US Peace Corps – the number of children being reached has doubled.

Rotarians from the international club typically join Rotarians from the host club at least twice each year to train new teachers or follow-up on previously trained teachers in the project. Often visits focus on classrooms. This visit focused on teacher experience with Souns. What has been happening? How is the program working? What are the difficulties? What are the great moments? Teachers are the greatest champions for their children.  I love to listen…it is magic!  For example:

One teacher shared that she greets each child as he or she arrives at school with a Souns symbol. The learner keeps the symbol until all the children have arrived. The teacher then collects the symbols by asking for /s/ or /m/ or /p/. This takes so little time and is a daily review of the letter-sound associations being learned in the classroom at that time. That activity excited many, who want to implement it in their classrooms. There were SO many wonderful ideas shared, each relished like a gift.

There were discussions about how to meld the Souns program with the CAPS curriculum for language/literacy in South Africa. Some excellent ideas were shared and demonstrated.

Getting teachers together on a regular basis to share their questions and successes builds a repertoire of good practice with Souns. It is quite beneficial for everyone….and it is FUN!

Look at the smiles!


Alongside Their Children

hartenbostownship4-2011A Peace Corps volunteer sent this report from one of the most challenged provinces in South Africa. She was instrumental in this literacy initiative during her assignment and is currently proposing a plan to sustain the work after she completes her stay. PCV’s are life changing forces in their communities. I am in awe of their passion for service and commitment to humanity.

A family outreach program began in our informal settlement. Tribal leaders nominated residents to serve as “Community Development Coaches.” These Coaches were trained on key topics in early childhood development, play, nutrition, and gardening. Each Coach works with ten families for two years at a time, conducting weekly home visits and teaching both parents and children together. The program targets children ages 1-5 years whose caregivers do not have a source of income (excepting social grants). In 2011, toys and books were donated to each of the families in the program. The arrival of the books prompted the Coaches to request training in literacy. In November 2012, nine Coaches were trained on the SOUNS method and began to implement SOUNS with 110 children in the program.

            Most of the children were immediately delighted with the SOUNS symbols. They readily mimicked the Coaches and eagerly handled the O-M-S-T as each sound was presented. Even the children’s caregivers were excited to participate. Many of these caregivers are illiterate, and SOUNS provides an opportunity for them to learn basic literacy skills alongside their children. At one home visit, the grandmother in charge of four young girls sat to the side, pronouncing each sound carefully and showing her granddaughters how to feel the symbol. X (pronounced “sh” in Tsonga) is already a favorite among the children who giggle every time they shush their Coach. By using the SOUNS method, the Coaches expect to prepare these children to enter Grade R on par with their peers who have attended crèche. 

Rotary Appeal: Children are Waiting!

It began here! Now, progress compels an appeal to the corporate world in South Africa!  

Implementing Sounsbw

The SOUNS programme focuses on pre-school literacy readiness which is the foundation of subsequent academic success. The SOUNS programme was originally introduced in RSA in the Knysna area, but a parallel project started in the Gauteng province in February 2011. This programme has to date reached over 8500 children in 97 crèche and school locations. The success of the programme is illustrated by the speed with which pupils gain letter-sound knowledge, build words, and subsequently, read words. It is also illustrated by the enthusiasm with which teachers and children embrace the programme. This enthusiasm has allowed the RCPE to combine with many partners in expanding the programme. Organisations involved already include The South African Congress for Early Childhood Development, The Khanimamba Training and Resource Centre, many regional crèche forums, The University of Pretoria student outreach programme and the UP Business Unit, The American Peace Corps through their volunteers, and finally, several primary schools with the support of the Gauteng Educational Department. The programme has reached pupils mainly in the Mamelodi area, but many satellite centres in the Limpopo and Kwa- Zulu Natal provinces are springing up.

The original project planned to place sets in150 classroom locations. This project is now reaching conclusion with to date 178 sets in the field. The RCPE is seeking further funds from Rotary International to initiate a phase 2 project that will fund a further 250 sets and reach potentially a cohort of 10 000 pupils per annum.

SOUNS has the potential to make a significant contribution to advance the literacy skills of future South African children country wide. By targeting pre-school children, the skills will then impact throughout the child’s life, cascading on many aspects of learning. Many systems are in place for this to happen.

• The SOUNS programme has repeatedly proved that it is effective. • The communities already exposed to the programme realise its effectiveness and are keen to embrace the programme.

• Pilot programmes have allowed an effective operating procedure to be developed.

• Contacts have been made that will allow a rapid expansion of the programme.

• Support structures to allow this rapid expansion exist but will need to be refined to allow a significant up-scaling of the programme.

Such a programme will have to limit its scope by selecting an area to concentrate its efforts. The benefits that will accrue from such a policy are that educational departments can be introduced to the programme and the early development of literacy skills. It might sound idealistic, but the future was never changed without a vision. The vision here is to give universal opportunity to South African pre-school children to SOUNS so that the future generations of South African children can become literate and enter the formal educational structures equipped to capitalise on the learning experiences that they deserve. The Rotary family seeks a partner in that vision.


To see the entire appeal…please open this pdf file.

CSI appeal jan 12 version-1

Alongside Their Children

Below is a Peace Corps volunteer’s from-the-field  report about a literacy effort she initiated.  PCV’s are such a force for good in humanity. They serve in ways that change lives in lasting ways in their assigned communities. What awesome work they do! This PCV is currently structuring a plan to sustain this literacy program past her term of service.

Her words:

           A Family Outreach Program began in three informal settlements. Tribal leaders nominated residents to serve as “Community Development Coaches.” These Coaches were trained in early childhood development, play, nutrition, and gardening. Each Coach works with ten families for two years at a time, conducting weekly home visits and teaching both parents and children together. The program targets children ages 1-5 years whose caregivers do not have a source of income (excepting social grants). In 2011, toys and books were donated to each of the families in the program. The arrival of the books prompted the Coaches to request training in literacy. In November 2012, nine Coaches were trained on the SOUNS method and began to implement SOUNS with 110 children in the program.

            Most of the children were immediately delighted with the SOUNS symbols. They readily mimicked the Coaches and eagerly handled the O-M-S-T as each sound was presented. Even the children’s caregivers were excited to participate. Many of these caregivers are illiterate, and SOUNS provides an opportunity for them to learn basic literacy skills alongside their children. At one home visit, the grandmother in charge of four young girls sat to the side, pronouncing each sound carefully and showing her granddaughters how to feel the symbol. X (pronounced “sh” in Tsonga) is already a favorite among the children who giggle every time they shush their Coach. By using the SOUNS method, the Coaches expect to prepare these children to enter Grade R on par with their peers who have attended crèche.