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A Spelling Bee in My Bonnet

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The 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee is a Super Bowl of American academia, a place where 12-year-olds who can spell ophthalmoplegia are TV stars and spelling judges are hounded for autographs. -- The Washington Post

Two hundred and eighty-eight spellers came together to compete in a high stakes, high profile battle of etymology and Sameer Mishra, 13, emerged as the new champion. He was up against some formidable opponents, many of whom are repeat participants, but he had an inside track since his sister had been a three-time contestant and his coach.

The Bee made front page headlines. The final round was covered live by ESPN (they love statistics). ESPN's pre-Bee events included interviews with spellers and reviews of former final elimination words. What is it about a spelling bee that captures our imaginations? Is it the ecstasy of victory and the agony of defeat? Is it that we like to see a different kind of kid be a winner? Is it that we all remember standing in a line in sixth grade anticipating our turn?

Every performance of the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee gives four audience members a chance to relive that sensation, bringing them into the cast -- a group of stereotypical competitive spellers. They are “different,” but they explain to us that they really aren’t different all in the same way. They "love spelling” because being good spellers gives them a sense of pride, identity and order during the angst of early adolescence.

As an educator, I guess the critical question is, “To what purpose?” Are these young people investing time and energy into competing at this level because they are building vocabulary skills? Do these students take on spelling because they enjoy the competition and they are good at it? Is memorization of proper spelling the intellectual calisthenics that expands their working memory and ability to recall information? Do they hope to take home scholarship money for future education? Or do they just want to hang out with like-minded kids?

Are spelling bees academic or archaic? Do they demonstrate thinking skills or memorization skills? Does the acquired learning achievement justify the require learning investment? Does a bee develop self confidence or create unnecessary stress? Is competitive spelling an intellectual pursuit or a sport?

Why not see if you have what it takes to spell competitively. Scripps Howard encourages you to test your spelling skill with the qualifying round of words. Go ahead and try.

I did okay, but I’m not going to tell you how many I got right. I will share this: I just used spell check to correct six words out of the approximately 500 words in this piece (spell check was one of the words that I misspelled). So is this whole piece loquacious (from Latin meaning wordy; garrulous) or perhaps galimatias (from the Greek meaning nonsense; gibberish)?

Well, I did just learn a new word. It may never became a ubiquitous part of my everyday speech, but sometimes it’s just fun to know things. Don’t you think?

4 Comments

I wonder if we lose our spelling edge as we get older? I find myself looking up words that I used to be certain about. Dang, I was pretty sure I had harrassment right. Oh well...missed the quarter finals again.

Unfortunately, our word processors do not always catch errors, as in: "It may never became (become) a ubiquitous part of my everyday speech...." This is one of the problems I find, as a college professor, when students (or any of us, for that matter) rely so much upon spell and grammar check. It seems nothing can substitute for learning the nuts and bolts of spelling and grammar.

I was just arguing this point with a "wordsmith" the other day! I am appalled at how we have moved away from teaching the basics - including the concept of memorization - and are trying to take students to a higher level of thinking before they are developmentally ready. Doesn't anyone see the irony in how much less educated students are now, with "whole" math and English, than they were 25 or 50 years ago when memorization, spelling bees, and multiplication tables were commonplace? I just don't see how so many are overlooking such a fundamental concept. If we, as educators, are so blind, how can we possibly wonder why so many students are failing?

In this technological age, most students(myself included) rely far too much on computers. They are useful tools, but I find that there are many more mistakes on a typd paper than there are on a handwritten one simply because I don't take the time to proofread what has been typed as much as I on something that I wrote on lined paper.

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