Lethukuthula Bhengu, a three-year-old South African toddler reads better than 80 per cent of schoolchildren more than three times her age.
Bhengu reading skills have already made her a TikTok star with nearly a million followers. Earlier this year, Bengu was crowned the youngest African “kidfluencer” at the 36th Annual Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards ceremony held on March 4, 2023, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, California, United States.
During her interview with AFP, Bengu said “My favourite book is Tippie Likes to Romp,” while holding up a purple book with a dancing elephant on the cover.
“My mommy taught me to read,” Bhengu said before rushing through the pages, reading them out loud.
The toddler’s skills are an exception in a country where eight out of 10 schoolchildren between ages nine and 10 struggle to understand what they read, according to a study published recently by US-based Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).
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 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.
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.
Though the Education Minister, Angie Motshekga partly blamed the Covid-19 pandemic for the “disappointingly low scores” shown by the PIRLS study, Director of Amnesty International South Africa, Shenilla Mohamed, said the problems were already there before the virus.
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.
Additional Report: AFP