Perhaps We Have It All Backwards


     A preschooler building a word by listening to the sounds in it.

This past week I was surrounded by incredible people – parents, teachers, administrators, and friends – all grappling with the huge need to better prepare preschool children for success in school. One administrator’s comment, “Our kids are well prepared for kindergarten, except they do not know their letter-sounds!” gives critical direction for the litter-strewn path to reading and writing. Our culture insists on prioritizing the 26 letter names, of which only 5 are used for reading and writing. On the other hand, all 26 letter- sound associations are directly linked to reading and writing. Why do we have it backwards?

Monsters – marketing, fear of failing our children, crippling schedules, and rigid curriculum – invade every discussion, home, and classroom. The front line of education, reading and writing, has been engulfed in a dense, blinding, consuming fog. We can’t see the hand in front of us! We can only hear the shouting voices from every direction. Which do we follow?  Which voices are serving our children?  Which are serving political or financial agendas? The child waits, holding on with complete faith as we scramble to find our footing for the next step.

Such a cacophony can “blind” us to the obvious?  Perhaps we should not be leading the child! Perhaps the child should be leading us! Children are the experts about how they learn best. Research confirms how rapidly the brain is developing between 0-5 years of age. The young child is uniquely programmed for language learning, and, if introduced incrementally, reading and writing fits comfortably and naturally along side language learning. In education design, preschool, not kindergarten, is the time for learning to read and write. That is not the case now. It seems we may have that backwards, too?

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!

Head Start Meets Rotary


A visit to San Juan for Rotary District 7000’s Foundation Seminar highlighted beautiful people doing remarkable things for children in Puerto Rico! There was a reveiw of literacy projects based on the Souns program involving Rotary Districts 7000, 6990, and 6900. This included one Matching Grant recently completed, the beginning of a second Matching Grant, and a plan for a Global Grant. Totally inspiring!

Visiting Head Start sites in the project demonstrated the power of the young preschool mind when given tools of print through engaging hands-on activities that build letter-sound knowledge. So far, the Rotary literacy project has provided Souns materials to 135 classrooms in San Juan and, through a second grant, will extend materials to ALL the Head Start classrooms in the San Juan Municipality program within the year. With site visits several times each year, we are able to see the progress, hear about the progress, and move forward with teacher training.

This August visit, just a few days into the school year, confirmed children came back to school with retention of letter-sound knowledge (and that new children were quick to pick up the information). Given the gift of a Souns writing mat, the group of learners were able to hear a word and build that word by listening to the sounds in the word. This is only possible if the child is confident with letter-sound knowledge. What a positive environment and developmentally appropriate materials can do for early literacy! Working as a team, the children built four words. The last word, feo, presented a surprise, as a new child was quietly persistent as she kept pointing to the second letter – e (eh) – when the others were pondering the sound. It was a very special moment for everyone…particularly that little girl who knew she knew!.


Through The Hearts Of Teachers

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Teaching the teacher (parent or caregiver) about Souns initially takes about two hours.   The Souns program – focusing only on letter-sound associations – is the most natural, developmentally appropriate route to reading for the young child. Teachers love this simple, logical, effective tool. After the introduction of the program, we observe the teacher teaching the children (below).

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The result, often in three to four months of learning letter-sound associations, is the building of words (below). This “writing” by listening to sounds in words lasts for several weeks or a month. Taking the puzzle of a spoken word apart, building it with symbols is fun! This understanding of the structure of words leads to a seamless step into sounding out printed phonetic words.

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Soon, the magic of decoding – sounding out words – appears spontaneously in the classroom….one little person at a time. The five-year-old in the image below is reading a sentence I wrote. She sought us out to share something she had read in the classroom. I wanted fresh material for her, so I created a short phonetic sentence, which she read with no hesitation.

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Are we making a difference in South Africa? Absolutely! Rotarian volunteers teach the teachers in the implementation of a program that is provided by a Rotary Global Grant.  In a country with 11 official languages, Souns focuses ONLY on letter-sounds, most of which are the same across all the languages. Letter-sound associations are the most direct link to writing and reading. These children will walk a better path toward success in school; they will read!

“Thank you!” to The Rotary Foundation for your support of this Global Grant 25244 literacy project initiated by the Rotary Club of Pretoria East in Rotary District 9400 and the Rotary Club of Peachtree City in Rotary District 6900.

Compelling Success In South Africa

SounsCount: Mid-year assessments for two Grade R classrooms: One where learners are taught in home-language (N=35) and one (N=42) where they are taught in second language.


The  5 year old children from these two Grade R classrooms in the township of Mamelodi* began their work with Souns in January 2013, several weeks after the beginning of their school year. These assessments were administered in late May 2013. Considering school holidays and only a portion of their year completed, the results (percents) are stunning. According to the teachers and our observation, building words and sounding out words – the application of letter-sound knowledge –  are regular activities in the classroom. When the school year ends in December, the learners will be well on their way to a successful school year in Grade 1.

While each classroom is demonstrating notable success, there is a distinct difference between the class which is teaching children in their home language (above) and the class where children are being taught English (below), a second language for the learners. It will be interesting to see the results as the children in the two classrooms continue through the Souns program.


Based on the joy we witnessed in the classrooms, these children are learning the fundamental skills of writing and reading – letter-sound associations – with fun and exploration. The teachers are engaged with the program and excited about the results. Souns® works!

This is a Rotary literacy project initiated by Rotary Districts 6900 and 9400. Thank you, Rotary Club of Pretoria East in RD9400 and Rotary Club of Peachtree City in RD6900. Children have a better path ahead because of you and the The Rotary Foundation.

*Mamelodi is a township of over a million population:

One Preschool – One School Year!

Souns® for Literacy in the GET-SET Preschool in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA

SounsGetSetletters2013This graph – in percents – represents letter-sound knowledge for learners (N=34) in the GET SET preschool classroom, comparing data collected at the beginning of the school year and at the conclusion of the school year. Consider the future step into kindergarten for these children.

 While in a separate graph, it is important to mention that the majority of the learners knew 6 digraphs, and could sound out 9 phonetic words. It is awe inspiring to see the potential awaiting classrooms when children are supported and learning is fun. The focus on letter-sound associations in exclusion of letter-name associations (until decoding begins) clearly makes a difference in building young writers and readers.The Souns program is evidence based and it works! Thank you, Rotarians, for the gift of Souns! Thank you teachers and volunteers of GET SET for ensuring that our  c h i l d r e n   w i l l   r e a d !

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!



Today ends our federal review. We came out excellent. We talk to federal about SOUNS and [they] were delighted.” A note from Head Start in San Juan about our project in Puerto Rico with 4000 children.

“Our club is giving Souns to a large center near us!”  from the President Elect of Rotary Club of Bainbridge in southwest Georgia. That is the largest center in the SWGACAC program and they have been using only two sets of Souns for 13 classrooms. Now, thanks to Rotary D6900, they will be fully supplied with Souns.

A note from South Africa:


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!