In S.Africa a 3-year-old reader stands out amid literacy 'crisis'

South Africa Three-year-old Lethukuthula Bhengu is already a TikTok star with nearly one million followers.  By EMMANUEL CROSET AFP
MAY 19, 2023 LISTEN
Three-year-old Lethukuthula Bhengu is already a TikTok star with nearly one million followers. By EMMANUEL CROSET (AFP)

At three years old, a South African toddler reads better than 80 percent of the country's schoolchildren who are more than three times her age.

Lethukuthula Bhengu, whose reading skills have already made her a TikTok star with nearly a million followers, was this year named the youngest African "kidfluencer" at an annual award held by US children's TV channel Nickelodeon.

"My favourite book is 'Tippie Likes to Romp'," the toddler told AFP, holding up a purple book with a dancing elephant on the cover.

Moments earlier she had pulled the tiny volume from a small bookcase after crawling excitedly across a colourful alphabet play mat in her family's small flat in a Johannesburg suburb.

"My mommy taught me to read," Bhengu said before rushing through the pages, reading them out loud.

Her skills are an exception in a country where eight out of ten fourth graders -- schoolchildren aged nine or 10 -- struggle to understand what they read, according to a study published this week.

Bhengu's parents started teaching her how to read after she turned two, seeing that she could memorise and associate words and objects, especially when they went grocery shopping.

"It's up to parents to make sure that our kids have a great future," said Bhengu's father, Phakiso Masooa, 27, commenting on South Africa's poor showing in the research released by the US-based Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

The country ranked last out of 57 nations polled. "We've got a serious crisis," said Brahm Fleisch, an education policy professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

"It's a problem of teachers' pedagogy, it's a problem of curriculum," he said.

Libraries and toilets

Public schools are poorly resourced, particularly in rural areas, where some don't even have proper toilets let alone good reading material.

The stark difference between public institutions and private schools highlights the "huge inequality" that persists in the country, said Jessica Ronaasen, a childhood learning expert.

Some well-heeled private schools feature concert halls, swimming pools and art studios alongside large libraries stuffed with all sorts of books.

South Africa's educational problems are also rooted in the apartheid regime, under which most black children were taught very little in segregated schools.

As a result, many of today's parents received a poor education and are unable to help their children with their learning, said Ronaasen, who works for the Do More Foundation charity.

Education Minister Angie Motshekga partly blamed the Covid-19 pandemic -- which forced schools to close for about a year -- for the "disappointingly low scores" shown by the PIRLS study.

But problems were already there before the virus, said Shenilla Mohamed, director of Amnesty International South Africa.

Meanwhile Bhengu's online fame has resulted in her parents receiving a deluge of enquiries from other parents keen to improve their children's reading skills.

Her father has since founded a company called "Mini Brainiacs" which sells "hands-on learning materials for kids".

"We incorporate learning in everything we do so that learning can be fun," he said.

"We're not trying to show Lethu as the only child that can do this".