‘P-H-A-R-A-O-H’ – what is special about this word? Well, for 13-year-old Hlulani Baloyi, it’s the word she spelt to win the Mzansi Spelling Bee competition, which was held in November last year in Thohoyandou, Limpopo.
“They told me to spell the last word, ‘pharaoh’, and I got it right and they said: ‘Hlulani Baloyi won the spelling bee,’”she says with a smile.
This grade 7 learner attends Magangeni Primary School, a no-fee school in Malamulele in rural Limpopo. Magangeni is the oldest school in the community. It has 1 365 learners and 34 teachers, including the principal and the school management team, with an average class size of 80 learners. The school does not have a library.
The school participated in the Mzansi Spelling Bee for the first time last year. Hlulani’s prize money was R10 000 and an all expenses paid trip to the Africa Spelling Bee in Mombasa, Kenya, in November.
Mzansi Spelling Bee is one of the founders of the Africa Spelling Bee, with 19 member countries across the continent.
A love for words
Hlulani’s love for words and reading made it possible for her to win the competition. “I love words that’s why I love spelling,” she says, as she elaborates how spelling develops her vocabulary, “What I love about spelling is that you develop new words. And those words sometimes help you … (as) you come across them in the exam.”
Ntsako Mkhabela, the managing director of Mzansi Spelling Bee, says the motivation for the competition is to create a social literacy activity that can encourage literacy and provide a stage for learners to showcase their abilities and talents.
The competition was launched in Soweto in 2012. “It soon became clear that reading and spelling was the biggest challenge our students faced … [which] results in learners dropping out from school,” Mkhabela says, adding: “I think our biggest challenge is that we do not recognise the fact that a failing education system fails children and the youth in very fundamental ways in their lives.”
At home, in the company of her parents, Tinyiko and Lazarous Baloyi, Hlulani shares her experience of the competition with laughter, saying: “I wanted to cry but the tears weren’t coming out. I could not believe it that I won especially when they asked me [to spell] the word ‘choreography’. So, I knew the word because I watch musical movies, so I got it right.”
It is not only words that interest her – she also loves playing netball, among other sports, at school. “I would like to be a professional netball player,” she says.
Sitting next to his daughter, Lazaruos says Hlulani is the “jewel of the local community”. She regards her dad as a friend and mentor. “We are not afraid to express our feelings to each other,” she says.
Her dad’s influence can be seen in her favourite books, which include Nelson Mandela’s Long walk to Freedom. She learnt about Mandela and South Africa’s apartheid history from her father, who is a ward councillor.
At the school, New Frame spoke to two of the three teachers involved in preparing learners for the spelling bee.
The principal’s office is adorned with educational and sports trophies, and framed certificates hanging on the walls, ranging from awards for outstanding performances in choral music, to language and literacy.
Misiyiwa Hlongwane, who has been teaching at the school for 10 years, teaches in grades 5, 6 and 7, says that Hlulani is an avid reader and a hard-working student. “She’s the golden girl,” says Hlongwane.
Precilla Bekwa, who teaches grades 4 and 7 speaks about the importance of learning to spell correctly. “The beginning of reading is not just reading, it’s knowing the alphabet, knowing the sounds and knowing how to spell the phonics – that is very important. If a child knows how to sound a word [and] how to spell a word, they will be able to read the word,’’ she says.
Every Friday after school, the three teachers with 85 learners from grades 4 to 7 met inside the grade 2B classroom to prepare for the competition.
The classroom has very little literacy materials stuck on the walls. During practice, Hlongwane, 52, explains that they would start with writing the alphabet on the board. They then move to more complex exercises such as “reading, stories, dictionary usage and discussions. In that discussion, we are also developing children’s communication skills”, says Bekwa, who has been at the school for just more than a year.
The Friday practice sessions had a ripple effect, as others like Hlulani initiated games like “patty cake” while spelling words during break times at school. “I knew that if we stood and spelt the words, they would think that it’s boring, so I decided that we should make a game and spell while playing it. Then more learners joined,” comments Hlulani.
One shortfall of the Mzansi Spelling Bee was that participants had to pay a registration fee. This became exclusionary as some learners could not afford the fee. “They charge R50 for registration, then R60 for a book, and R120 for a T-shirt. So, it was too much for them,” says Hlongwane.
Pumza Ndamase, the national training coordinator for the Nal’ibali Trust, which funds the Nal’ibali national reading-for-enjoyment campaign, says the spelling bee in itself can motivate children to read, because to recognise words you need to have seen it before through exposure to books, songs and games.
According to Ndamase, children need opportunities to read. She says: “The important thing is to build a culture of reading through using the spelling bee, but also the other elements of literacy … that is where our focus as Nal’ibali is.”
She adds that Nal’ibali believes children learn better in a language they understand, and that the “issue of learning in [their] mother tongue is not prioritised …”
Back at the school, Bekwa says the school had its own spelling bee contest among 85 learners, of which 65 competed at the national level, with Hlulani emerging as the overall winner.