An official website of the United States government

Closing the Learning Gap in South Africa with a Spelling Bee
June 26, 2019

Loatile and students at a book drive in July 2018
Loatile and students at a book drive in July 2018

As an English tutor in Johannesburg, South Africa, Loatile Sekoele noticed years ago that her students were falling behind.

“I met a girl in fourth grade who came to me crying because she couldn’t spell,” says Loatile. “It was heartbreaking to see how her confidence plummeted around her peers.”

Loatile began shortly thereafter volunteering with the Atlegang Bana Foundation, an organization committed to helping children in South Africa develop a love of learning.

“Being able to read and write, especially in English, is a real advantage,” says Loatile. “In the workplace, speaking in a native language doesn’t help you.”

As a foundation volunteer, Loatile is working to help students in South Africa improve their English. Loatile begins her work by sending parents a list of sample words of increasing difficulty each week; she then meets with her students on Saturdays to ensure that they are making progress, all in preparation for an annual spelling bee.

Loatile with parents and students in Florida Park, South Africa
Loatile with parents and students in Florida Park, South Africa

“Students don’t have a platform to show what they are capable of,” says Loatile. “We want to give them an opportunity to say ‘I can do this’ and ‘I can do it on my own.’”

Central to Loatile’s success in running the organization’s spelling bees is being willing to ask for help when she needs it.

“You think you can do it on your own, but, after volunteering, you learn quickly that you need sponsors, you need advertisers, you need others to help you along the way,” says Loatile.

Building those relationships has also been important for Loatile in extending her work across the country.

“When we first started our spelling bees, we met in a local home,” Loatile says. “Now the principal at a primary school in Johannesburg offered us a space for free. That’s a gift we wouldn’t have received if we had closed ourselves off and not asked for help.”

For Loatile, what makes her work worthwhile is seeing students overjoyed at the end of a workshop or spelling bee.

“We tell our students it’s not about winning, it’s about getting up on that stage and trying your best,” Loatile says. “It’s about taking risks.”

“At the end of a spelling bee, seeing kids delighted that they ‘spelled that difficult word,’” Loatile says, “that brings me a new kind of joy.”

Sometimes students give Loatile a big hug at the end of competition, a gesture Loatile describes as “amazing.”

Interested in Loatile’s work? Learn how you can volunteer to serve Africa on our #YALIServes page.