Thursday, April 20, 2006

Spelling Bees

The new movie Akeelah and the Bee, about a girl from LA who wants to compete in the National Spelling Bee, is sparking some renewed interest in these contests. The National Spelling Bee has been a bit of a draw for curiosity-seekers since Rebecca Sealfon shouted out "euonym" to win it in 1997. Indeed, small children who can spell big words are always a TV draw, showing up on Jay Leno, Oprah, etc.

My one run at spelling bee glory was in 4th grade, when I was a runner-up in the 4th (or possibly 5th) grade Washington Elementary School Spelling Bee in Raleigh, NC. I lost when I spelled "attorney" wrong (little knowing that 15 years later I'd marry one). I blame my lapse on the fact that I studied the whole spelling list we'd been given, A-Z, not realizing that the bored teacher tasked with runnning the thing would only ask words from the A section. Turns out I should have concentrated my cramming there.

But I digress. My mixed feelings about spelling bees come not from my own lack of ability to spell, but because they're mostly about memorization. Rebecca Sealfon talks about the memorizing regimen she used in this article from the Nassau Weekly (a Princeton paper I used to write for, here. (Sealfon graduated in 2005 with a biology degree, and also studied creative writing). While Sealfon is very intelligent, broadly, the ability to memorize is not the same thing as intelligence. Intelligence involves piecing bits of information together, discerning patterns, and solving problems. There is some element of this in spelling bees ("eu" is Latin root for "true," "-onym" for name; so if you were told or knew the word meant a well-suited name, you could figure this out). But generally, students who do well in spelling bees have been drilling words from the dictionary into their heads. English is not a language well-suited to discerning patterns and piecing together spellings based on that information.

There is nothing wrong, per se, with a contest that rewards memorization. Nor is there anything wrong with kids devoting themselves to a goal and training hard for it. Kids do this all the time in rather useless sports; the fact that spelling is a rather useless skill these days shouldn't detract from the hard work winners like Sealfon put in to their victories.

The problem is that the population-at-large then thinks the ability to memorize is what being bright is about. Very bright toddlers often memorize things as they try to learn about their world. But being able to recite the long names of dinosaurs does a lot less for you as you get older. The kids on the Leno show may pursue that interest in paleontology when they grow up, but then being "good" at dinosaurs will mean discerning patterns from random bones, recalling links to other species found nearby, and using all the available research tools to learn more about the prehistoric world. I'd love to see a contest for kids that tapped all these skills. Then I'd love to see it get as much press as the National Spelling Bee. But "a-ha" moments don't necessarily make for good television. Or movies. So we get dramatic spelling moments, where the answer is clear-cut. Too bad learning in general doesn't work that way.


Kim Moldofsky said...

I also remember the word that knocked me out of the school spelling bee nearly 30 years ago!

To celebrate what the movie reviewer in this month's Oprah magazine referred to as "nerd-on-nerd action" I've arranged to host a spelling bee for my kids and their classmates at a local Starbucks. The Starbucks staff is very enthusiastic about our event and they've agreed to provide each participant with a kids hot cocoa.

Check out my blog (click on my name above or below) for details.

Anonymous said...

This was my reaction when I saw the movie Spellbound. It isn't a harmful activity, but I wish that all gifted kids had other choices too. There were kids in the film that clearly needed more intellectual challenge and spelling was the one place they could find it, but would I wonder if they would have gotten more value from another activity such as math contests, problem solving, internships, model UN, debate or newspaper.

Anonymous said...

two words: science fair

There are competitions that stress hard work and intelligence---they just can't be reduced to performances.

I have seen some hostility toward any competitive activity that isn't a performance (sports, music, theater, dance, spelling bees, mock trials, debates, chess, ... are ok, but science fair and art and writing competitions are not).

One problem is that when the work is done outside the performance, people (including judges!) assume that the child did not do the work.

Reel Fanatic said...

Never did very well in spelling bees myself, but I do think they help kids in being assertive, even if they are mostly an exercise in memorization .. I just saw Akeelah, and even though it is full of cliches, it is a surprisingly entertaining flick

Linda B. said...

We've been involved in a lot of spelling bees over the years, and while it's true that there is some memorization involved, the real fun of preparing is in learning the roots, and the rules for spelling words from various languages of origin. This is one of the long-term benefits of participating in spelling bees. I have learned (as an adult coaching my children) Latin and Greek roots that help me make connections between words. I keep making new discoveries. It's really fun when my children realize the connection between the Greek myths and many words that have come into English. This type of study leads to long-term vocabulary gains, and a deeper understanding of the various shades of meaning in words. We've also found that studying Greek and Latin roots early on makes mastering Biology, for example, much easier.

Another great reason to participate in spelling bees is to be able to think on your feet in front of people. And if you make it to the National Spelling Bee, you spend a week with other students who understand and respect you, which, as many competitors have remarked, isn't always the case back home. For some kids, this is an experience that helps them get through the middle school years relatively unscathed.

Anonymous said...

I think the competition you are looking for is called Destination Imagination. It is a team based creative problem solving program where teams of up to 7 kids work for months "solving" a challenge and honing their on-the-spot creative thinking skills. An adult team manager guides the team through the process, but anything the team creates, anything they build, any idea they have, must come from the team members themselves.

The program rewards hard work, research, originality, creativity and teamwork.

My son won two nice big spelling bee trophies this year, but he is much more proud of his first place ribbon and trip to the state tournament earned by his Destination Imagination team.

Anonymous said...

I am interested in the relation between discerning patterns (of any kind) and "meaning." Does "meaning" always involve a pattern of some kind? If a natural scientist discerns a pattern in data, e.g. objects fall, all things being equal with the same acceleration, has he/she found potential meaning in the data? Is "meaning" constituted by the relationship that exists between two things? Is an English sentence meaningful (syntactically, if not semantically) if and only if it contains a subject and an object (another kind of pattern)? Anyone with ideas about the relationship between discerning a pattern and the nature of meaning, please share your thoughts .