Sunday, June 8, 2014

Spelling bee

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.

I 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:

"All 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."


  1. I hope you continue to recover smoothly from your procedure.

    I participated in a bee once, and made it only past the first cut. But even that, I considered an accomplishment.