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The Buzz on Spelling


Spelling bees are gaining renewed popularity, but teachers and researchers warn that they don’t necessarily help address a growing problem of poor spelling among young people. “[Spelling bees] honor the children who already know how to spell, but they do little to support those who need explicit instruction,” says first-grade teacher Sue Ann Gleason. Academic researchers blame the usual suspects for students’ lack of spelling knowledge—standardized tests for taking time away from non-core subjects and computer programs for automatically correcting misspellings. But they also say that teachers often simply don’t know how to teach spelling, substituting spelling bees and word lists for lesson plans. “Most teachers—unfortunately—think of spelling as a rote visual memory skill, and it’s much richer than that,” says University of Virginia education professor Marcia Invernizzi. First-grade teacher Gleason, for example, uses an integrated approach that dissects word phonics, patterns, and meaning. The goal is to help her students “construct knowledge,” she says.


These seems like a no brainer. After all, don't track meets honor the good runners? I have never seen any connection at all between spelling bees and the teaching of spelling ...

My 5th grade teacher, 50 years ago, ended each week with a spelldown. Jeanne, the smartest kid in the class, and who sat in the first desk in the first row, always won. My heart ached for two brothers, Willard and Gaylord, who sat in the last two desks in the last row and who always were the first to have to sit down. They would put their heads down on their desks. I was so heartsick for them that I would deliberately get my word wrong and sit down too. That's what I remember of our class spelling bees.

If Sue Ann Gleason reads this I'd really like to tell her about a totally fun way for young kids to learn spelling. She can contact me through www.alphabetfitness.org

I am constantly amazed by the everyday misspellings which permeate our culture today, even in TV graphics and newspapers (my daughter and I read with our highlighters in hand). The most common mistake is to use an apostrophe before the "s" in plurals.

If you want to know about how to develop a spelling program that's built aorund what Lisa says read Mary Jo Fresch and Aileen Wheaton's book, Teaching and Assessing Spelling. It changed my approach and is great. They also have grade level specific materials called Spelling For Writers available through Great Source Education Group.

Spelling is important or at least the ability to pick the correct word from a list of words provide by Mr. Bill Gates and others. From my view point, a large vocabulary will be more important than spelling in our future. The National Vocabulary Contest may stimulate more interest in building and using a more extensive vocabulary.

I could be a bit bias, I was always the first eliminated from class spelling bees.


My son is a terrible speller. His elementary school used a program called "Johnny can Spell". It used special markings for certain sounds. The kids were supposed to associate a marking with a sound for each letter or combination of letters. It was horrible--at least for my son. He could spell most of the words after hours of practice but his teachers would take points off for not putting the markings (even if he spelled the word correctly). It made spelling the worst experience he had in elementary school. He had to write the words 10-20 times each day Monday through Thursday in order to simply pass the spelling tests given on Fridays. My son spent far more time preparing for spelling tests than doing math, science, social studies, and reading combined.

My son can recognize when a word is not spelled correctly... he just cannot write it down properly. When his teachers gave multiple-choice spelling tests he would ace them because he could easily tell which of the choices was the correct spelling. Some kids with ADHD (like mine) and dyslexia have problems with written expression including spelling. Teachers should be aware of how difficult it is for some students to learn the spelling of 20 words each week.

Spelling Bees are definitely great competitions for the naturally good spellers and the students who enjoy spelling and want to study for them. I'm glad Spelling Bees exist but I hope teachers don't make them mandatory for all students.

The article cites "the growing problem of poor spelling among young people." Do we have any evidence that there is a growing problem or is this just a false perception like "American schools are in crisis?"

How about differentiating instruction in order to meet the needs of all learners? In our inclusive classroom students feel comfortable in their learning because it is directly suited to their needs. Some students require direct, phonics based instruction delivered in a mult sensory style while others are ready for more indepth word study activities. The traditional Spelling Bee discriminates against all but the best spellers. Our common goal should be to have students who are able to transfer what they've learned about spelling to their everyday class work and lives - it shouldn't be the ablility to ace a weekly spelling test or bee.

We have sports championships, dance competitions, science olympiad awards, why not spelling bees? I agree that not everyone can ace these bees, but not everyone can win the state football championship either. Academically talented kids need the opportunity to shine, just as much as kids with talents in other areas. We need to find a way not to embarrass a child who doesn't excel in spelling, while at the same time rewarding the child for whom that is a strength. For me, spelling bees were the place where I could shine. At my current school, many special education kids participate in bees, and often do better than regular education kids. We shouldn't assume that they can't spell because they're "special ed."

My kids beg me to have spelling bees. I don't usually do it since we have been explicitly told to spend no more than 10 minutes per week on teaching spelling. It's so frustrating. Teach to the test...teach to the test...teach to the test. Gotta pass that state test. That's the priority in the here and now classroom. We have one state test here in Florida that determines whether or not a third grader is promoted to fourth grade. Teach to the test!! If it doesn't teach to the test, we don't have time for it...end of story.

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