While recovering from a medical procedure recently (I'm fine, btw), I had the chance to see some of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. I don't think I've ever watched any of it before, though I've been peripherally aware of it through the years.
was a good speller myself, winning classroom bees and sending the
teacher to her books to find ever more challenging words ("camouflage," I
remember, was one of them, and I was lucky that I had just read a book
right before that with the word in it). I still have the dictionary I
won as a prize in my junior-high spelling bee. But I never competed
beyond that, or even considered it. I've had mixed feelings about the
idea of such a high-stakes spelling competition. On one hand, I love
language and spelling, and I considered spelling bees to be fun (I even
like the chapter in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little Town on the Prairie
where they have a spelling bee). On the other hand, I had to wonder how
practical such a skill is, and whether it's really worth it for kids to
study and memorize lists of such obscure words. (I would say that of
the contest words I heard during the couple of hours that I watched, I
recognized maybe 10-15% of them.)
What I didn't realize until I
watched it was the puzzle-solving approach the contestants take, because
they are often confronted with words they've never seen before. From
pronunciation, definition, usage, and language of origin, they are often
able to figure out the correct spelling. I became aware, as I watched,
how much spelling is involved with the development of languages, and how
many cues we get about learning language from context. Breaking down a
new word requires certain analytical skills as well. I could easily see a
good speller become fascinated by linguistics or cryptography.
Interestingly, the bee's own website reports that among this year's
contestants, the subject they most frequently cited as their favorite
was math. This exercise in spelling is much less narrow and more
relevant than I had guessed.
But who better to opine on the long-term usefulness of such an exercise than former contestants? The bee's blog contains a pretty frank interview with three former champions of how they've done, and what the bee meant in their lives. Some highlights:
agree that it gave them new skills - everything from better study
habits and achievement in standardized tests to the knowledge that
success will arrive when they work hard."
"'I want to make the Spelling Bee a feather in my cap, rather than the one thing I'm remembered for.'"
he has become much more easy going and relatable as a result of his
experience. As a shy sixth grader, he never could have imagined being
president of his senior class at Harvard."
"The Bee participants are also the most diverse group of people he has ever been involved with, Thampy said."
" ... it's those who aren't named champions who are often most able to turn their skills in new directions."
"... he learned that he can't judge himself against others. His validation, he said, must come internally."