Rambling. . . .and Random!


At this moment, with an artichoke steaming and the bird feeders filled, comfortable in my glider….writing is what I am thinking about. I sit and feel and weigh.

I love those who frame the simple so we may see a bit deeper. That is not me! Typically, I am filled with words that come out all at once. Perhaps I wait too long or feel too much. I think both. I am also afraid of words. Using them well is important and challenging. The word, the sound of the word, the thinking space between words – all matter!

As with words, so is life. Space in life is being still and fully absorbed, but without expectation. I am watching a chipmunk siting “frozen” atop a stump. He is totally at one with nature, feeling the world so thoroughly that it could be the first or the last moment of his life…each uniquely simple and deeply lived.

It is my observation that, as a culture, we move too fast to see….we have swallowed up the space that connect experiences, the space where learning, living, and memories live.

Ah, the artichoke is ready….!



TEXAS – “Let The Sounds Tell You!”


“Let the sounds tell you!” says the teacher as the child listens to the sound of each letter to find the word hiding there. That little analytical mind is at work and at play all at the same time! Learning is happening.

What a visit I had in Longview, Texas! In each of the follow-up trainings – Longview Independent School District and Pine Tree Independent School District (including Head Start and Early Start), and several independent preschools – it was soon obvious to all that the children were ahead of what their teachers expected. Learners in classrooms were either more ready to build words or more ready to sound out words than thought. Surprisingly, this was true of even those quiet learners who we suspect are not progressing as well.

The teachers in these preschool classrooms have done excellent work helping their learners know letter sounds. The next step was right there, waiting within the child. How fortunate these children are to have such a supportive community of educators wrapped around them.

Our mid-year visit was perfectly timed. Now the teachers will finish the year giving their children the greatest opportunity to flourish in this work, to know “I can!”  What a step up for success in writing and reading when they enter elementary school. We were delighted to have a kindergarten teacher sit in on the training and share her enthusiasm for what she saw unfolding for these children. She is excited to get some of these children in her classroom next year. We can’t wait to follow the story.

I acknowledge this amazing community for taking such a united stand for literacy. I also want to thank Claudette Jones for her relentless determination in supporting these teachers and the young people of her community in this effort to build readers. Souns is a great idea, but it takes willing and dedicated people to make a great idea turn into reality. The following comment from a teacher of three-year-olds makes it all so worthwhile:

Since implementing Souns in our classroom, my children have not only grown in their knowledge of letter sounds, but their self-esteem has sky rocketed! When they see the Souns their eager faces light up with anticipation.

I was surprised at how organic the whole process was and how naturally the children began to visually recognize and physically represent the Souns. After introducing a new sound, I can just sit back and watch them teach themselves and each other. It has been nothing short of remarkable!


South African projects advance literacy and basic education

Service in Action

By Mary Jo Jean-Francois, Area of Focus Manager for Basic Education & Literacy

There is absolutely nothing that makes my job better than visiting Rotarian projects and seeing the faces of children light up because of one simple thing: they are learning. Who am I and what incredible job do I have, you ask?

My name is Mary Jo Jean-Francois and I am the Area of Focus Manager for Basic Education & Literacy here at Rotary. A relatively new team, we are very excited to work with Rotarians throughout the world. In November, I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa and evaluate two global grant projects from the Future Vision Pilot and report back to the Future Vision Committee on these initiatives. Both projects focused on early childhood education with strong teacher training components. Although the long-term results of these projects are still to be understood, the quality…

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Does Souns Build A Reader?

With this joy at 3, third grade reading expectations are not likely to be an issue. Play, fun, incidental learning is the best path to writing and reading.

How do you get to this point at 3? Letter-sound associations wrapped in fun and hands on activities! We see this explosion into early reading for typically developing children if letter sounds are learned incidentally, early, and through exploration and play.


Paisley’s Souns


Panama 018

A Souns Mom Shares! 

“She loves her Souns!  We are doing some extended travel [and mail is an issue].  It would have been a lot easier to just order the whole set to begin with, but we had never seen them in person or known anybody to use them, so we didn’t know if we would even like them or use them.She’s learning so quickly.  I had no idea kids could learn this stuff so early!  Sometimes we talk about Souns as we are reading stories (/m/ /o/ /m/, or /p/ /e/ /t/, especially) and she just soaks it all up.

That reminds me of one other thing–when I introduced /p/ and /e/, it was as if Paisley already knew them, and was glad to finally know what they were.  She was delighted!  (Especially with her /p/.)  I’ve been thinking about it, and I think Souns are especially good for her because she talks so much, and since she is still little, when she verbalizes different words her speech is obviously not as clear as an adult’s.  She sometimes thinks it is funny that words in English sound alike.  For example, she is always asking me what things are, and one thing she asked about recently was the sheet on her bed.  So I told her, “Sheet.  That’s called a sheet.”  She was really surprised and amused by that.  “BAAA!”–she grinned–“Sheep!”  OH!  Yes, those words sound very similar, don’t they.  I explained it to her and sounded the words out clearly and slowly…but that is fairly typical.  Souns make it easier for me to help her differentiate between very similar words because they give us a shared frame of reference and they help separate sounds that are related to one another but different.  I think that will continue to be the case when we are able introduce more.

She loves “reading” (just flipping through pages of her books, mostly silently), and being read to, and this past week I offered her a pen and paper and she finally loves to scribble…so it will be very interesting to see how Souns continue to shape her learning.  We’re having a lot of fun with this!”

Interim Souns Report From Knysna, SA

5 year olds building the word isele (frog) by listening to sounds.

In 2010 the first SOUNS kits (2 alphabets of lower case letters and training booklet written in English) were piloted at selected preschools affiliated to the Knysna Education Trust, supported by a matching grant from Rotary Districts 9350 (SA) and 6900 (USA).

In 2011 all 22 of the KET preschools received a SOUNS kit to share among its classes.  At this stage material in the local languages was prepared so that the teachers understood the methodology of the programme correctly, and a local DVD was produced to be used in the training. It was soon realised that there was a need for a Xhosa-speaking person in the field to make sure that the teachers were following the instructions and monitoring their learners’ progress correctly.  A person was appointed by KET to work in the field on all aspects of preschool education, which also included SOUNS. Towards the end of 2011, a generous grant was accessed from the DG Murray Trust, which enabled every teacher at the KET preschools to receive her own SOUNS kit for her own class.  The kits were made up with everything required to present SOUNS successfully, including a polar fleece mat for 8 children to sit around on the floor, and a file containing information about SOUNS in Xhosa and Afrikaans.

In 2012, the kits were distributed to every preschool teacher in KET preschools, and they were trained in the methodology of the programme.

At the same time, volunteers were brought in to monitor progress of learners in every class.  21 volunteers offered their services and one volunteer agreed to monitor 2 preschools that bordered each other.   17 of the original volunteers are still busy with the SOUNS programme (3 have accepted permanent employment, and 1 has gone to England for several months).  The volunteers monitor the progress of the learners (the teachers do the teaching), and guide and support the teachers in the field.  Every teacher reports that she enjoys the regular visits of the volunteer concerned, and the volunteers report that they feel welcome in the preschools. The teachers are proud to show off their learners’ progress to the volunteers when they come.


A list of learners was compiled to try to track learners who had had SOUNS in 2010 and 2011 in KET preschools and Grade R classes, now in Grade 1, in 5 local township primary schools.  172 learners were identified during June 2012 and the following information was supplied by Grade 1 teachers with regard to their performance in literacy after 6 months in primary school:

91 (53%) good – excellent       52 (30%) average – satisfactory      29 (17%) weak                                     


21 of the 22 KET preschools and 17 volunteers replied, in varying amounts of detail. One preschool is being rebuilt, and the teacher did not get her information to me because she was busy moving her preschool into temporary accommodation.  Information from both volunteers and teachers has usually been consistent.


3.1            Some classes consist of mixed ages and languages.  It is recommended that children learn SOUNS in their mother-tongue, in a group who speak the same language. However, there are foreigners from other parts of Africa in some of the classes.  One Child Welfare preschool has an Afrikaans-speaking teacher with Xhosa learners, and she is trying to teach them SOUNS in English!  None of them will go to an English primary school.  We have Xhosa learners in Sedgefield, with a Xhosa teacher, but the primary school there is only Afrikaans-medium at the moment. These are practical problems, and they will interfere with the children’s future educational development.

3.2            Most teachers report that absenteeism among their learners is a challenge.

3.3            Learners in township preschools come and go, joining and leaving classes throughout the year.

3.4            Individual teachers have had personal traumatic experiences, and this causes ups and downs in teaching. It is expected that the same has happened to some of the learners.

3.5            Some preschool facilities are extremely overcrowded.


4.1            By August 2012 many of the older learners (Grade R) knew all the SOUNS of the alphabet, and could decode and encode many 4, 5 and 6-letter phonetic words.  The teachers have found “phonetic” a challenge, as the words they give their learners to build and decipher must be able to be sounded out with the individual sounds that the children have learnt, (e.g. ses, and sestig are phonetic, but not sestien).  Suitable word lists in Xhosa, Afrikaans and English have been compiled, and teachers still need guidance in selecting phonetic words for the learners to work with.

4.2            Teachers in the preschools have become more confident and capable as they have become more familiar with the programme, and the learners have more scope for experimentation.  Teachers have reported that they enjoy teaching SOUNS, the children look forward to it (“It is like play when we do SOUNS!”), and they are all proud of their progress.  Most parents are impressed, as are the volunteers, who speak highly of the programme (“This is a wonderful system, and I was amazed at the progress we saw.”)   In my own visits I have been impressed with the teachers’ attitudes, they have been patient, kind, calm and positive towards their learners, and have handled them all in a most loving way.

4.3            The languages that are used in KET preschools are mostly Afrikaans and Xhosa.  In Afrikaans, one can start with 2 and 3-letter words, e.g. om, and os, but the shortest Xhosa words are usually 4-letters, so the learners have to listen more attentively when forming their first words. In Xhosa there are also repetitive syllables, like mama, tata, sisi, which enable the learners to experience patterns in words.


5. GRADE R :

8 Xhosa classes, 9 Afrikaans classes, 3 Mixed Classes, 1 Has changed from Xhosa to English, 1 did not reply.

Time on SOUNS Letter Knowledge Building Words Reading Words
18 and 23 months      All 26                  5-6 letters 5-6 letters
16 months     All 26                                           5 letters, names  
13 months 13  4 letters   3 letters
13 months                 12  3-4 letters  
12 months                  All 26                                           4-6 letters  
11 months                  All 26                                          3 letters  
11 months                                                       15-all 26 3 letters  
9 months                     14 3 letters  
9 months                    10 3-4 letters  
8 months All 26                                           3 letters, names  
7 months                    24-all 26                                     4 letters, names  
7 months 20 3-4 letters  
7 months                    15   3-4 letters, names  
7 months                    13 6 letters, names  
7 months                    13 5 letters, names  
6 months 12-all 26  
5 months 12  

Some teachers have reported that their Grade R learners are also enjoying writing words (on paper, board, sand etc.) at this stage.

6.  4 and 5 Year old Classes :  5 Xhosa Classes, 8 Afrikaans classes , 1 did not reply.

Time on SOUNS Letter Knowledge Building Words Reading Words
14 Months 13 – 26 4 Letters
7 Months 26 4-5 Letters
7 Months 18 3 letters
7 Months 15
7 Months 10 3 letters
7 Months 10
7 Months 9 – 13 3 Letters
7 Months 4-13
7 Months 9 3 Letters
 Months 9 3 letters
7 Months 6
7 Months 7
5 Months 9

A teacher in this age range has reported that her learners recognise the word STOP. Another teacher sings a SOUNS song to her class.

7.  3-4 Year Old classes : 3 Xhosa Classes, 4 Afrikaans Classes, 1 mixed class.

Time on SOUNS Letter Knowledge Building Words Reading Words
7 Months 14 6 letters
7 Months 13
7 Months 12 – 26 3 letters
7 Months 10
7 Months 8 – 26 3 letters
7 Months 6
7 Months 6
7 Months 4-10

One teacher reports that her learners have started identifying letters that they have learnt at the beginnings of their names and other words.

8. Under 3’s : 6 Xhosa Classes, 4 Afrikaans Classes.

Time on SOUNS Letter Knowledge Building Words Reading Words
7 Months 13 – 26  
7 Months 12    
7 Months 10    
7 Months 7-14    
7 Months 6    
7 Months 4    
7 Months 4  
7 Months 4    
7 Months 3-11    
7 Months Babies Crawl around and handle them    

As was reported in June 2012, there is clearly a wide range of performance in all age groups.  This will depend on time spent on the programme, as well as many other factors within each preschool, teacher and child.  All ages have shown progress, and more teachers have reported starting word-building in the past 2 months.

CLOSING COMMENTS:  The closing comments from both volunteers and teachers who are participating in the programme speak for themselves.  The vast majority are VERY enthusiastic!

VOLUNTEERS: “This is a great system, and I am so impressed that children as young as 3 years are able to identify sounds confidently.  The teachers have impressed me.”

“The children and teachers enjoy ‘outside’ person taking an interest in their (pre)school. Consequently the visits have been most rewarding as one feels appreciated and the teachers don’t regard you as a threat.”

“The teachers are well organised and display a genuine care for their work and want the children to succeed with their project”.

“The teacher is very patient and encourages her children….She is structured and systematic with the children who are very small, and the children want to please her.”

“Holidays make a big gap in the learning. The teacher is enthusiastic and the children respond well.  This group has really improved this term.”

“The teacher applies the programme effectively and incorporates it in her daily teaching….She has wonderful results and I was amazed at the progress I saw every time I went back.  This programme is fantastic and it works!”

“The teacher works at the level of the children.  She is patient and prompts them when they hesitate.  She had a chart and asked them to place the SOUNS on the letters which were arranged in an alphabet….She makes everyone clap when they get something correct and prompts those who falter.  Very gentle but assertive.”

“Most of the group are quick, confident and ready to move on.  Their enjoyment is evident – they are a great credit to the teacher”.


Most of them say they enjoy teaching SOUNS.  The children “love” learning SOUNS and are “excited” about the programme. “They are curious about SOUNS”. “That is the pleasure, even to feel the SOUNS” “Kinders kan nie wag wanneer ons met die SOUNS begin nie”.

“They are very glad when they see the SOUNS, they say we are now ready to do our work”.

“The SOUNS are very important, especially for Grade R because SOUNS help them develop their thinking and language skills.”

“My children can read and write.  Their progress is good and has a big effect on children’s lives.”

“Four of my children have a hearing problem…” (Discovered through working with SOUNS).

“Parents appreciate the progress because their children can learn a few words.  They answer if you ask…” “They speak more clearly”. “Parents hear (listen?) when children talk or tell a story”.

One of the preschool teachers who also has an aftercare facility for older children, reports that those children’s spelling has improved as a result of them using SOUNS at her preschool.

“The programme makes things easy to manage…and developing children’s skills, knowing names, counting and numbers”.

“Children remember easily”. They “learn well and listen.”

“Children call out SOUNS at home”.

“Parents are proud.”  “SOUNS make children brilliant, not even at preschool, but at primary school also”.

When I teach them, they are free and listening”.  The little ones are “just playing with them and eat them.”

“The children go to the alphabet chart and say the SOUNS that they know. They will be the best generation.”

“Children ask for books and paper at home.”  “They respond to alphabets, and words on TV and magazines”.  “Children point to letters in shops and street names”.

SOUNS is a “fun way to learn”.  The children play on their own with SOUNS and become “clever”   each day.

A 3-year-old shows her Mom the S of Siyafunda on the way to preschool every day.

“Ouers is beindruk met SOUNS want dit gee ‘n hupstoot met die alfabet.”

“Die program help my baie met kinders wat skaam is.  Dit gee my ‘n kans om ‘n sterker band to bou en terselfde tyd leerders se developmental stage vas te stel.”

Two teachers do not know what their parents think – they have had no contact on this level.

Some teachers would like more training, and this need will be addressed soon.

One of our preschool principals has this to say: “Your motivation and inspiration are helping us here…..to prepare leaders and readers for the future of the world.”


(Watch for the final report in November.)

Where Is The Dirt?

What is a kid without mud pies?  What if there was no dirt for digging holes, building ramps for little bridges, making designs, or planting a seed. It is so sad to visit preschool sites and train for Souns, suggesting the teacher write letters in the dirt on the playground, only to receive that vacant look that says, “There is no dirt on the playground.” Not even a spot of dirt.

A child’s construction! Tomorrow’s yurt builder or city planner.

Literacy began on a cave wall and progressed with playing in and with the dirt. We may live in different times and wear different clothes, but children are quite the same. They need to use their hands to move and shape and create worlds from their imaginations. Dirt is the natural medium. Creativity is, indeed, being stripped of its roots.

Our lives are so busy and our children are captive in our harried schedules, spending their days on playgrounds that are plastic coated, shrink wrapped, and stamped “sterile.”

Children need a spot of dirt to dig and play and build their world!

Building Literacy / Touching Families

There are compelling changes taking place in the world. We are learning about children. What we saw as a little human waiting to grow big is really a voracious, rapidly developing brain inside a slowly, but more visibly developing body. The young brain grows at an unparalleled rate, but we can’t  s e e  it like we can see the body grow. The body explores the world to feed the developing brain, as, interestingly,  the brain must progress ahead of the body in order to safeguard the survival of the child. There is such beautiful logic, so much of which we don’t see by casual observation. Look intentionally, and you will!

Understanding the learning potential of young children can change the world in dramatic ways. It can ensure peace or exacerbate war. That little brain is going to adapt whether it means pulling a trigger or planting a seed. Peace Corps and Rotary International are powerful organizations dedicated to a peaceful world. One of the avenues to that end is literacy. If children are able to read, they will be more informed and can make decisions for themselves. People who can read are more able to take charge of their lives and are less likely to be victimized.

“I will help you learn to read!” Beyond health and love, there is NO greater gift for a child or the world then literacy. Collaborations between organizations such as Rotary International and the Peace Corps in South Africa are reaching thousands of children in rural communities. Urban populations in South Africa and in Puerto Rico are involved in literacy projects funded by The Rotary Foundation. The world may turn a little more smoothly for these children thanks to such globally minded literacy efforts.

On a smaller – but no less important –  scale are individuals who are equally driven to help children. SenseAble Learning’s Della Palacios in Florida, USA, and Nikolai Pizarro in Puerto Rico with her publication Ring the Alarm are examples of the many hands reaching out to children. Della and Nikolai know the power of the young, developing mind. They know our tomorrows are defined by the experiences offered a child today.

Another hand reaching out and a thread that runs through each of the efforts mentioned above  – Souns for literacy – is designed in response to the way children learn best. Souns breathes life into the tools of print, w h a t e v e r   t h e   l a n g u a g e. In the hands of children, Souns leads naturally and incrementally to letter-sound knowledge which leads incidentally to reading. Reading leads to success in school; and success in school leads to a more independent life. The result of an independent life is the ability to see beyond oneself, a necessity if we are to ensure peace. Many hands or the hands of one can make a difference – Every child wants to read.

Unfortunately, even with Rotary, Peace Corps, committed individuals, and so much information about how children learn, building readers remains a global challenge. We construct schools, hire fabulous teachers, stock libraries, give books; but, in the end, the parent who is with the child during the most formative years holds the key to reading. We must empower parents from the ground up if we are to impact literacy in a global way. All efforts, large or small, must touch the family, acknowledging parents as the real unit of change!

“Souns like…..” A Peace Corps Reflection

SOUNS Like… “Sesi Nyeleti! Sesi Nyeleti!” All of the Grade R learners shout my name, and jump up and down in unison as I walk from the staff room across the school yard to the Grade R classroom. They are all very excited, because they know that when I come to Grade R it is time for SOUNS. As we walk (or they sprint) over to the spot where we practice our SOUNS, they animatedly yell the most recent sound we have mastered. SOUNS, a literacy program that was introduced during my PST, has become a major part of my day at both primary schools where I teach. On my days at both primary schools, in between my other classes and helping the teachers at the school, I wedge in time to take three groups of about eight Grade R learners per group to work with them on SOUNS.

I had trouble implementing the program. I wanted to make it fun for the kids I was working with, but at the same time effective and educational. After all, learning is the major goal. Literacy is what this program is after. I found myself a tad frustrated, using the same activities day after day and making it far too tedious for the learners. Luckily, at a meeting with my fellow PCVs we had the chance to swap stories and ideas on how to better implement the program. Since returning to site after the meeting, SOUNS has been going wonderfully. Activities like drawing the letter (woops, sound!) on the learners’ hands, having the learners run to the sound, and having the learners sing in unison what sound you have just pulled out of the blue SOUNS bag all make this program very enjoyable for the kids.

What’s more is that they are actually learning. They are connecting the shape/visual of the letter to its sound. A few weeks back, as I was walking with one of the women I am friends with in my village and her son (Grade R), my friend asked her son what he was learning in school. Her son stopped right there, leaned down, and drew the shape of the sound “t” in the ground, voicing the “t” sound. I felt successful, even if it meant I had only reached one learner.

Since starting SOUNS, more PCVs have jumped on the SOUNS bandwagon. From hearing the positive effects it has had on the learners we work with, other PCVs hope to obtain a SOUNS set for their school. In the future and in an effort to make this a sustainable resource, I plan to work with the Foundation Phase Educators on how to implement this program into everyday teaching or as a remediation tool. For now, however, I am quite content as the learners skip back to class after our SOUNS session, happily chanting “mmmmm” and “ssssss.”