Coding to Encoding to Decoding


Are we there yet?

We recently returned from a visit to three Head Start programs in Puerto Rico. This message is in response to what we saw: Teachers are doing a great job with Souns. The missing piece is an understanding that children are ready to build words before you think they are. We asked teachers if they had begun building words, and the answer was “No, not yet!”

In each classroom, with the “No, not yet!” response, we asked for two or three children who knew through the /u/ sound. In each case the children who were selected eagerly listened to the sounds in simple, phonetic words, and built the words. The teachers were so excited, as were the children.

The picture above is one of those moments. Look at the joy on the children’s faces as they apply what they know about letter-sound associations to real words….building the words from sounds only (remember, no spelling)! For us, for the teachers, and for the children, it was a beautiful experience. Such activities are particularly inspiring for the children observing, those not yet to the /u/, as they see their efforts have a purpose.

Certainly it is important not to set a child up for failure, so I appreciate being slower than faster for this second stage in Souns – building words. However, there is a way to be relatively sure the child is ready to listen to sounds in phonetic words and build each word – one sound at a time.

When you reach /u/ in the sequence of Souns letters, it is the time to move forward into building words for children three to four years of age. Go slowly – no more than two to three words at any setting – and have fun. Look at the delight as the children around the table in the photo discover who has the missing sound in “peso.”

When you reach /u/ in the sequence of Souns letters, it is time to build words.

Rotarians at Work in Puerto Rico

A Great Trip! RD6900 Visits Early Literacy Project in Puerto Rico with RD7000


Rotarians from the Rotary Club of Peachtree City and the Rotary Club of Henry County visited Rotary District 7000 in Puerto Rico, the site of a Global Grant for teaching basic literacy skills to preschoolers attending local Head Start programs. This project is an extension of a relationship between RD6900 and RD7000 that began in November of 2011 and has involved two Matching Grants and two Global Grants. Recipients have been in both Puerto Rico and Georgia, altogether reaching over 10,000 children.

Our visiting group of nine from RD6900 spent four days with Rotarians from clubs throughout Puerto Rico – RC Rio Piedras (Host Club), RC San Juan, RC Junco, RC Manatee, RC Mayaguez, RC Ciudad Del Turabo – attending Rotary Club meetings and visiting Head Start sites where the SOUNS program is being implemented with materials provided by the GG. The grant was a result of the efforts and financial support of Rotarians in both districts, lead by RC Peachtree City and RC Henry County in RD6900, and RC Rio Piedras in RD7000.

Rotarians going to work (in a school bus)! Pictured are President Russ Heil, PP Ed Outlaw, and Amy Matusek of RC Peachtree City, PP Laura Crumbley and husband David, PP George Siggins and wife Mary Jane of RC Henry County, and Antonio Santos of RC Rio Piedras. Taking the pictures: Peachtree City Rotarian Brenda Erickson and husband Norman Hough.


prrusspedro15During the trip we also attended several English and Spanish-speaking Rotary Club meetings, providing us the opportunity to exchange club banners and interact with many Rotarians. The Rotarians of District 7000 and their District Governor, Jesus A. Vivas, could not have given us a more welcoming and enthusiastic reception.

Pictured are RC Rio Piedras President Pedro Watlington and RC Peachtree City President Russ Heil. Exchanging banners and conversation was a constant for the trip. Engaging eight Rotary clubs across two Rotary districts makes for a jovial time!

We visited nine classrooms in the three Head Start programs – San Juan, Caguas, and Mayaguez – talking with administrators, teachers, sponsoring Rotarians, and children. We were very impressed with the facilities, other teaching materials, and the professionalism of the staff. Imagine where these preschool children will be as emergent readers entering kindergarten when they are five years of age. The children in the image are building “peso” and have discovered who has the /o/…. playing to learn to read. Go teachers!


Below are Laura Crumbly, George Siggins, David Crumbly, Mary Jane Siggins, Brenda Erickson, Ed Outlaw, and Amy Matusek.


To sum up the trip, it was a great experience for the nine Rotarians and spouses from District 6900. It gave us a chance to see with our own eyes how the grant was successfully benefitting young children from difficult circumstances and to meet Rotarians from another country who have a real desire to build a better tomorrow for their children. Beyond that, our team got to know and enjoy each other while engaging in the hands-on work of Rotary!






Rotary / Head Start In Puerto Rico

Giggles, smiles, engaged hands and minds of children were common denominators in our review of the Souns program in Head Start classrooms in San Juan Puerto Rico. The children in San Juan are making dramatic steps toward literacy with the Souns materials provided by Rotary Districts 7000, 6990, and The Rotary Foundation. This review celebrates comments such as these:

“I have 19 years of classroom experience, and I have never seen a program like this….it really works.”  

“Three of my students were able to read last year because of Souns. In my 13 years of teaching preschool, that has never happened before.” 

Beautifully, the conclusion of one grant can build to the beginning of another. With 4000 children in this pilot project in San Juan, it is the wish of Rotary District 7000, this time in collaboration with Rotary District 6900, to expand the program to as many Head Start classrooms in other regions of Puerto Rico as funding will allow. A Global Grant proposal is the next step. One classroom at a time is the road to change for these children. Rotarians from both districts join hands on the ground in Puerto Rico to make this happen. Head Start and Rotary are promising partners for literacy.

Rotary Clubs of Peachtree City (RD6900) and Rio Piedras (RD7000) are leading this effort to build support for a project that will reach from 150 to 300 more classrooms in strategic Head Start programs in Puerto Rico. If you are interested in joining this project, comment with contact information to this blog .

Thank you Rotary Clubs of Smyrna (RD6900) and Fort Lauderdale (RD6990) for initiating the pilot project in the San Juan Municipality. These four-year olds are reaping the harvest as they build words by listening to the sounds in them. They have learned letter-sound associations through Souns.

The Story Before “I wrote Sukey!”


“I wrote Sukey!” The proud exclamation of a little one knowing, “I can do it!”  She is three and she is empowered with basic letter-sound associations, able to express her thoughts – one word or three –  from her mind to the world. Sooner than one might think, it will be words from another mind to her mind, as she discovers turning chains of sounds into words.




Before she wrote with her hand, she built words with Souns letters, stretching each word into its pieces like taking apart a puzzle, analyzing to hear the sounds she recognized (and teaching her baby doll how to “write”). “Look what I did!” is the sound of confidence.





When she began Souns she was one. Between one and three there was only play, sometimes intentional and sometimes not. Learning letter sounds has been natural, just like learning about water and sand and the wind. The skin, the ears, the eyes, the mouth, and the nose are all teachers. Four of those five senses are engaged through Souns – inviting exploration and learning. I find myself saying repeatedly, “Can it be this simple?” What if it is?





“This is your /o/!” … and another journey begins! Playing to learn!

And We Clapped!

sukeyclap10-13 copy

A fuzzy image often goes hand in hand with a dancing heart!

“I wanted to write clap,” she said with a big smile! My daughter was so excited to share with her dad that she wrote “clap” with her baby….”and we clapped!” she exclaimed, as she clapped the baby doll’s hands.

Intentional play! Have fun learning letter sounds first. Then, with Souns, building words phonetically – by listening to sounds spoken and finding the letters that represents the sounds –  comes much before sounding  words out phonetically. The steps for Souns are at Play to learn!

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

More To Souns Than Letters

A delightful email from a new Souns champion reflecting on, “be lovingly too busy!”
As we are getting to know each other, I should warn you I am not only random but also slightly (!!!) obsessive and controlling.  You have been warned.  🙂  My parents were VERY strict and I am trying to be a different kind of parent and adult than I was programmed to be.  I turned 40 this year and decided it’s time to be myself.  Not a moment too soon.  For example, it took me years to not “re-decorate” the Christmas tree after the kids would decorate it and go to bed so it would be symmetrical.  So I could enjoy it.  I very slowly realized that was NOT a good thing for my kids self-esteem.  So you and I are meeting while I am in the middle of evolving into who I want to be, not who I feel I should be.
I am reading the Souns book, and thinking to myself, “I hope Brenda will be patient with me.” I can’t remember a time when my children have been doing anything where I haven’t helped or corrected or guided them.  I am going to be reminded to not “help” or correct.  It is so ingrained in me that I don’t even realize I am doing it until it comes out of my mouth. I was reading page 48 and it says to be “lovingly too busy” to spell a word so they do it themselves, and I nearly had a panic attack in my head.  I hope I’m not a lost cause!  This is a completely different way of thinking for me, to let them struggle through something.  I completely see the value in this way of thinking, I’m just hoping you will be patient as I will probably need to be reminded…
And I continue reading…. 🙂

SounsAfrica – Hands-on Makes a Difference



Thank you, Rotary Districts 6900 and  9400, and The Rotary Foundation! Another confirming detail from recipients of your gift of literacy through the Souns program. The following communication says this project is making a difference!

Working with remedial students using the Souns program:

The students got through the program already today after starting about January 15th, probably because they are older, but they did not know all the letter sounds before now. They just loved manipulating the Souns and making words. I think they could have played with them for weeks. I will probably let them work with the Souns letters off and on all year. I just love the picture with the kid who figured out how to write “scool.” 


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… prepare leaders and readers for the future of the world.”


(Watch for the final report in November.)