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.

The Quiet Hand Of Rotary!


At bottom left is the patient hand of Rotarian Robin Jones as he watches preschoolers build words.

Children building a word by listening to the sounds in the word is so much fun. In truth, futures are being built. Thank you to The Rotary Foundation for what this project is doing for the township children in South Africa.

A feel-good letter! Thank you, Rotary District Governor Blake!

Johannesburg / 17 Oct 2013


Thank you for your email. I am the District Governor for D6900 which is the Peachtree City Rotary Club’s district. I am currently in South Africa on business for a few days so please let me know if I can be of any assistance.

The SOUNS project is a great example of the power of collaboration between Rotary clubs and making a significant difference in the peoples’ lives and their communities.

Thank you for your Rotary leadership and congratulations to the Pretoria East and Peachtree City Rotary Clubs on the success of the SOUNS program in Zebediela, Dennilton, Soshanguve, Atteridgeville, Mamelodi South Africa.

Yours in Rotary Service,

Blake McBurney

Rotary D6900 District Governor 2013-14

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!

Sun + Paint + Water + Little Ones = Squishy


Intentionality at its best! Souns games can look like this with little people, finger paints, sunshine, and water. Soooo much fun! Warm weather is an invitation to play outside with messy things in big ways. Setting out plates of individual colors about six feet apart and turning little ones loose to do as their little hands desire with color on themselves (and sometimes a willing parent) was so delightful. We used primary and secondary colors plus white. As one would expect…sensorial wins out! Paints were squished together between the fingers and spread like butter all over their little bodies. Giggles confirmed a good day for all. Cleaning up with the hose was as much fun as the painting.

Finger painting letter sounds on little backs tickled, but each could tell you the sound they felt being written… play is the best window for learning. All so GOOD!





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:

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:


Memories – the STUFF of our stories!


khwattu13The door of the little museum shop at Khwa ttu was closed. The rippled glass pane in the antique double doors confirmed there were people inside. I turned the handle and the door opened to quiet conversations inside.

As if scripted, the lady behind the counter and I exchanged glances and time melted.…the look on her face mirrored mine. Oh, how good is that warm feeling of seeing someone you have so enjoyed in times past. Memories are real! They breathe life into those moments when we touch the past, paging through history to the sentence, the paragraph, the story.

Wrapping each other in hugs and smiles, we revisited the little class of preschoolers at Khwa ttu, of which her child was one. Four years earlier I wandered into the facility intrigued by the call of the billboard on the highway – San Cultural and Educational Center.  The story of man, specifically the bushman of South Africa, was compelling.

Khwa ttu was the beginning! A little class of children two to three years old and their hopeful moms was such a treat. The tiny facility, the little shaded play area, the magnificent view of the Atlantic, the willing minds and eager hearts imprinted my world forever. Visit after visit I came to train or teach, as they wanted. Then, the government closed the bit of heaven. Reasons are of little importance. I had lost my heart.

Nonetheless, each trip to South Africa I made my way up the long entry road to Khwa ttu in hopes of seeing the children, hearing the laughter behind the two neatly aligned stick windbreaks. I would ask for the families I had gotten to know. Fewer and fewer of them were at the center.  Finally there were none left that I knew.

But still I returned, hoping for an encounter with the past. This time the past was there to meet me, confirming that the time given in that little class had made a difference for a family and their child. The child is 7 now and loves to read. That is the gift.

Memories are powerful, especially when they meet head on with the present. They are the stuff of our stories…our lives!


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!