Recently, I had the chance to sit down and speak with Laura and Heather, the creators of Sounder and Friends™, an educational show airing on PBS (and streaming on You Tube) that focuses on developing phonemic awareness in young children. They also have a free phonemic awareness app coming out! Today, listen in as I talk to the creators and hear about how they came up with the show, their hopes moving forward, and learn more about the app being released December 7th!
Tell me a little bit about your careers in education and how you came to know each other.
Heather: Laura and I met on my very first day as a certified teacher!
Laura: I had been teaching for over 25 years in the primary grades. The year that Heather was hired, our school was over-crowded, so she and I were assigned to team teach with another teacher in the same kindergarten classroom. Three teachers and almost 90 students throughout the day. You can imagine what that was like!
Heather: [Laughs] It was busy, for sure!
Laura: At that time, I was completing my M.Ed., with a focus on phonics as a method of teaching reading. The prevailing belief in our school district was that some students couldn’t learn through phonics, so they had to be taught to memorize words. But that belief didn’t align with the reading research. I kept coming across studies related to phonemic awareness and its importance to developing readers. So, Heather and I decided to see what would happen if we taught our students phonemic awareness skills.
Heather: And we were amazed at the results when we did!
Laura: After I completed my Master’s degree, I worked in a public school district as a special education teacher and a reading interventionist. Heather went on to earn her Master’s degree and Doctorate, and she became certified in dyslexia intervention.
Heather: For several years, I ran a private practice as a reading interventionist. Once I completed the bulk of my graduate work, I accepted a full-time faculty position in a College of Education. I’ve taught in a teacher preparation program at the university level for over a decade. In addition, in my current role as President of Unleashed Innovation, I work as a consultant to help schools and districts learn about, and transition to, instructional methods that are consistent with what we know about the science of reading.
Where did the idea of Sounder and Friends™ come from?
Heather: Once Laura and I began implementing a phonemically-driven literacy program in our kindergarten classroom, we saw noticeable differences in our students’ reading, writing, and spelling skills. The literacy development of all our students appeared to be greatly accelerated. Even students who would typically be classified as “at risk” were making good progress. Instead of trying to memorize words, they were developing the phonemic awareness skills that they needed to access phonics as an effective strategy for reading and spelling. As we now know from the research, that’s an essential step toward reading fluency. But best of all, our students were excited and motivated by their own success as readers and spellers. It was very exciting to witness!
Laura: We were so excited about our students’ success that we wanted to share this information with the world! We published our first book in 1999 – an early literacy program that included game-based phonemic awareness training activities – and we developed seminars for teachers. We started by offering professional development sessions to educators in our own district, and within a few years, we were traveling across North America to conduct trainings and speak at national and international conferences.
Heather: The information that we shared was always well-received and we LOVED working with teachers! But over time, we noticed that we weren’t seeing any corresponding shifts in instructional practices, even in our own district. We came to realize that while many individual teachers were motivated to make changes to their instructional practices, they didn’t have the support structures in place to sustain those changes. It was incredibly frustrating!
Laura: We had a lot of conversations about this problem, and it occurred to us that perhaps the best way to solve it was to reach out directly to children and their parents.
Heather: One day, Laura and I were supervising out on the playground during recess and I blurted out, “We need to get direct access into children’s homes! We need to create a TV show!”
Laura: My first response was to laugh – a lot! But the more that we thought about it, the more we came to believe that it would be a powerful way to teach children, and the adults in their lives, about phonemic awareness and its importance to literacy development.
What is your hope for the show?
Heather: From an academic perspective, we have three main goals for Sounder & Friends™. First, we want to directly teach children important phonemic awareness skills in a fun and playful way, through viewership of our episodes, and interaction with our games and activities.
Laura: We’ve also made it our mission to provide the adults in children’s lives with information and resources. The term, “phonemic awareness,” and the science behind it can seem a bit intimidating, even to teachers, but the games and activities are simple and lots of fun!
Heather: Finally, we hope to influence the national conversation about early literacy so that the importance of phonemic awareness is recognized as being on par with learning letter names and sounds. Every parent and grandparent I know understands the importance of teaching children their ABC’s, but very few – unless they are teachers – have even heard about phonemic awareness. If we can encourage children to begin playing with sounds in preschool and kindergarten, then by the time reading instruction begins in earnest, that instruction can be productive, right from the start!
Laura: That’s our motto: Teaching reading right, right from the start!
Heather: We also have a social/emotional goal for Sounder & Friends™. As mothers and teachers, we believe that ALL children deserve to be loved, accepted, and valued. In creating the “Soundiverse,” we were deliberate about bringing to life diverse, relatable characters who model kindness, empathy, and acceptance. Even our impulsive little Sound Snatcher who always seems to be causing problems is liked, respected, and included by the other friends. It was very important to us that our characters were worthy of the affection and admiration of the children who, we hope, will fall in love with them.
Tell me about the new App!
Laura: We’re so glad that you asked! The Sounder & Friends™ App is both educational AND entertaining for young children. It introduces children to phonemic awareness skills in a fun and playful way. Children practice basic and advanced phonemic awareness skills as they join the characters in solving puzzles and earning prizes. Since the app is success-based, children at different stages of development can benefit in different ways!
Heather: It will be available free for download on Android and Apple phones and tablets beginning on Tuesday, December 7th! Because of our commitment to educational equity, we decided to gift this initial version of the App to the community so that ALL children could have access to it.
What is next for Sounder & Friends™?
Laura: We have a lot of projects in the works including more episodes, an interactive storybook, and instructional materials. We encourage anyone who is interested in more information to follow us on YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram!
If you were to share one piece of advice for parents of young children, what would it be?
Heather: When parents think of early literacy, they tend to think of teaching children the ABC’s. That’s important, but what most parents don’t realize is that phonemic awareness skills are an even better predictor of children’s success in learning to read. Our advice is to spend some time playing phonemic awareness games with your child. The games are quick, fun, and surprisingly easy. You don’t need any materials and they can be played anywhere – in the car, at the grocery store, or just sitting around the kitchen table. Even a few minutes a day can have a positive effect!
Laura: And keep watching Sounder & Friends™!
Have you ever met someone and just knew, right from the start, that they were your kind of people? The ones that you instantly form a connection with and know that you are walking on the same path? That’s how I felt that day I first Zoomed with Heather and Laura. I knew that their love for children and their passion for early literacy matched mine. I can’t wait for you to discover all they have to offer. Make sure you check out the links below!
Discover Sounder & Friends™