She caught the world’s attention when a video of her showing off her reading skills went viral and now three year-old Lethukuthula “Lethu” Bhengu has been recognised as the youngest African kidfluencer (kid influencer).
The smart toddler from Soweto, Johannesburg, emerged as the fan favourite at the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards 2023 recently, beating the likes of Anele Mdoda’s son, Alakhe; stylist Tshepi Vundla’s son, Siba Bogopa; and young DJ Arch Jnr to the prize.
Lethu’s dad, Phakiso Masooa (27), says his daughter was beyond excited, especially when she got to pose with the mock-up blimp trophy at the awards watch party at Rosebank Mall, where the main event was streamed from the US.
“Her mother, Ntombikayise Bhengu, and I are also extremely happy about her winning the award,” Phakiso tells us.
“We campaigned very hard for this and now she's the youngest to ever win this award. Nickelodeon contacted us late last year via Instagram and requested an email address to send the notice that she’d been nominated and we had to keep the news a secret until voting lines were open in January,” he adds.
He says the real award with Lethu’s name on it will arrive from the US in a few months’ time.
YOU was amazed when we met Lethu at her home last year.
Reading cards and books were strewn all around her as she sat on a mat in the centre of the living room.
The little girl picked up a reading card and carefully sounded out each letter.
One sound at a time per letter! Thank you so so much to everyone who voted for Lethu! We appreciate you guys so much!!!? Tobetsa - Myztro & Shaunmusiq & Ftears
“My cap has gum on it,” she reads.
“Well done, Lethu!” her mom says.
It would be impressive enough if she were in Grade 1 but the toddler was just two years old, an age when many kids are just learning how to speak in full sentences.
Yet little Lethu was able to sound out simple words, count to 20 and name most shapes.
The tot became an internet sensation after a TikTok video of her reading went viral in April, notching up 3 million likes.
Mom Ntombikayise started an Instagram account for her daughter when she was three months old and joined TikTok in December last year, sharing Lethu’s exceptional ability with the world.
Part 1 reading the book. Part 2 Lethu will be answering questions about what she read. Posting Part 2 immediately after this.? original sound - Lethukuthula
“I started teaching her letter sounds around January. In February I taught her words and then in April she read her first book,” Ntombikayise says.
Ntombikayise (30) and Phakiso work together to create content for Lethu on Instagram and TikTok and have racked up 924 000 followers under the username @lethu_nanas.
They’re passionate about early childhood education – so much so they founded Mini Brainiacs, a company that sells educational material such as reading cards, counting cards, books and puzzles.
And their adorable daughter is their company’s biggest drawcard.
Although they knew their child was smart, the couple didn’t imagine she’d take off on social media.
“Our niche on social media has always been toddler education,” Ntombikayise says.
“But our account grew when followers saw her reading a sentence, so more people got to know about her this year.”
Ntombikayise says she thinks the reason Lethu has been receiving this much attention is because learning how to read is tough, even for older kids, and it was a shock that a two-year-old could do it so easily.
“I think people undermine kids – they’re very smart.”
“If they’re able to dance when they see their dads dance or say certain words when they hear their parents say them, then they can do other stuff meant for older kids.”
Lethu was just 16 months old when her parents started teaching her about the world around her.
They started with the human body, asking her to point to whichever part they called out.
From there, Lethu started learning to identify and draw different shapes and was then taught how to recognise colours and hold a pen.
“We always taught her things and we bought her educational toys and material,” Ntombikayise says.
She took things up a notch when she saw Lethu playing a game on her cousin’s phone that required her to match a word to a corresponding picture.
“After she’d played that game a few times, I took those words, wrote them on paper and taught her how to read them. She was able to recognise them, even when she saw them in a book,” she says.
“Then I did research on how to teach kids how to read. At first, I wrote down three-letter words and she was able to memorise them within 10 minutes. But then I realised that method wasn’t effective because there are so many words in the English dictionary.”
Lethu was remembering the way the words looked instead of actually reading them, so her mom started teaching her phonetics, or the sound of letters.
Lethu already knew the alphabet so she took to sounding out the letters quickly.
Ntombikayise started her off with three-letter words like cat, then moved to four-letter words and then sentences and she’s now an avid reader.
Ntombikayise always encourages her daughter to sound out the letters of the words first before reading out the entire word.
At that time, Lethu had read about four or five books but her mom says it was challenging to find books for kids who are just learning to read.
“Some books have the word ‘search’, for example, which is too advanced for the two-year-old,” she says.
“I make sure I don’t ask her to read words where one letter has a different sound to what she is used to. For example, the letter e has the ‘eh’ sound but it can also sound like ‘ee’ in words like ‘she’.”
@lethu_nanas Thank you so much guys! You did this! FAV African Kidfluencer! #KCAAFRICA23 ? original sound - Lethukuthula
When she isn’t reading her favourite book, Letterland, Lethu is just a regular kid who loves making people laugh; painting; and watching her favourite cartoons, Masha and the Bear and Cocomelon.
Her parents are devoted to giving her a good education.
Lethu doesn’t attend crèche, but her parents believe they’ve paved the way with a good foundation for when she starts school.
Ntombikayise is passionate about offering her daughter the best education possible.
“I went to a public school with poor teacher attendance and poor-quality education,” she says.
“The classroom windows were broken and there were always protests. I want Lethu to get a quality education – not because of my pockets but because of the effort I can put in her education.”
Lethu comes from smart stock. Her mom has a BSc degree in chemistry, an honours degree in material sciences and a master’s degree in chemical engineering.
She's also recently authored a kids' reading book titled Pam and the Cat
Her dad is a web designer, the CEO of Mini Brainiacs and he’s studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree at Wits University.
“The schools Phakiso and I went to deprived us of so many things,” Ntombikayise says.
“So many people grow up thinking they aren’t smart, but it might just be their surroundings and their circumstances.
“That’s why our message to parents is they must create a sound environment for their little ones and make sure they grow up well. You don’t have to have money for that.”
Despite Lethu’s obvious intelligence, her parents aren’t pressuring her into anything.
All they want is for her to be the best she can be and give her the tools to get there.
“We want her to know what she wants and freely choose it,” Ntombikayise says.
“We want her to make informed choices, to be confident and able to walk into a room and not be scared or feel belittled.
“Most of all, we want her to know she’s loved.”