To bee or not to bee

8 Jun

ImageLast week, I read in the news about the youngest competitor ever in a Scripps National Spelling Bee, the 6 year old Lori Anne Madison.  According to the Mail Online she is an exceptionally gifted young girl with varied interests and an affinity for the written and spoken word. I do not want to belittle her accomplishments – it is indeed impressive that such a young person is so capable in spelling.

But I do question the value of spelling bees. Wikipedia states that “The earliest evidence of the phrase spelling bee in print dates back to 1825, although the contests had apparently been held before that year. A key impetus for the contests was Noah Webster’s spelling books. First published in 1786 and known colloquially as “The Blue-backed Speller,” Webster’s spelling books were an essential part of the curriculum of all elementary school children in the United States for five generations.” The 1824 edition of Noah Webster’s “The American Spelling Book: Containing the rudiments of the English language”, can be viewed online. Included in this book, are the elements of sound analysis in the English language; pronunciation guides, syllables and accents, participles, derivates, comparatives and other grammatical concepts.

So, what started out to be a part of the curriculum to teach English spelling rules to students, has grown into an absurd competition with participants awarded for remembering the word order in little used English and foreign language words. Take a look at this list of winning words from the Scripps National Spelling Bee:

1990 FIBRANNE
1991 ANTIPYRETIC
1992 LYCEUM
1993 KAMIKAZE
1994 ANTEDILUVIAN
1995 XANTHOSIS
1996 VIVISEPULTURE
1997 EUONYM
1998 CHIAROSCURIST
1999 LOGORRHEA
2000 DEMARCHE
2001 SUCCEDANEUM
2002 PROSPICIENCE
2003 POCOCURANTE
2004 AUTOCHTHONOUS
2005 APPOGGIATURA
2006 URSPRACHE
2007 SERREFINE
2008 GUERDON
2009 LAODICEAN
2010 STROMUHR
2011 CYMOTRICHOUS

Don’t misunderstand me – I am a closet dictionary afficionado. I love reading about the etymology of words. I can probably think of worse things on which students can spend all their time, like playing computer games. But I can certainly think of far better things. What is the use of spending hours and hours a day, practising how to spell words that you will probably never use? Even a highly precocious 6-year old will not find most of these words useful in everyday conversation. E.g. If you play a musical instrument, you should know what an appoggiatura is; but when would you ever use it if you did not play an instrument? Why not rather spend that time learning a second, or a third, or a fourth language? Is it not much more useful to be able to speak an entire language, than to be able to spell hundreds of words from a score of foreign languages? Or why not spend the time mastering a musical instrument? And what about good old-fashioned developmentally appropriate activities, like playing outside, building with construction sets, or baking cookies?

I believe spelling bees are just another symptom of our society’s preoccupation with competition, testing and measuring our children’s worth. But sadly, in this principled demarche, I might as well be speaking a special unintelligible Ursprache in trying to convey my pococurante feelings towards spelling bees to the afficionados…

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