My Turn: Is the spelling bee past its prime?
Spelling is a valuable skill, and it is important to teach and assess it. If I were to write a cover letter for a job and I misspelled “New Hampshire” or “experience” or “sincerely,” the employer would think twice about offering me an interview.
Nonetheless, I question whether it makes sense for schools to focus so much attention on that time-honored tradition, the spelling bee.
Consider that spelling bees are good for only a select number of students. Students with reading decoding weaknesses, language disabilities and overall cognitive impairments are likely to perform poorly in a contest in which:
1. They must hold a word in their short-term memory;
2. While remembering the word and its parts, they must attach letters that represent each of the sounds and syllables;
3. They must say each letter of the word in the correct order;
4. They have to do all this while all eyes are on them;
5. They can’t ask for help from anyone.
In addition, students who are shy, have fluency disorders (stuttering) or speech-sound disorders (known commonly as “speech impediments”) might be anxious or uncomfortable when they are the center of attention during an oral exercise such as a spelling bee.
Simply said, spelling words out loud can be humiliating for students who are not good at it.
Many people equate spelling skill with intelligence, but this is far from accurate. Many people who are intelligent and successful in life are very weak spellers, like Charles Schwab, Steven Spielberg, and the children’s author Avi.
I propose that New Hampshire schools add other school-wide contests. How about a contest in which students are placed on teams and must solve problems that involve math, science, geography and other skill areas? Team problem-solving is a much more functional, real-life scenario than spelling obscure words out loud. In the workforce, teamwork is essential. And being creative and innovative is something we can’t afford to overlook.
Spelling bees seem to have endured over the years because they are easy to administer, easy to judge, and we’re all familiar with them because we’ve been doing them for years. But some traditions aren’t for everyone. Therefore, students who wish to opt out of the school spelling bee should be allowed to do so.
My main point is not to eliminate the spelling bee but to add to it. We need to focus less on individual student success and more on teaching our kids to work as a team to solve complex, yet relevant problems.
Please don’t think I am a “sour grapes” parent whose children didn’t make it to the school-wide level of the most recent spelling bee. I am an educator and researcher who has a special interest in students with learning differences.
(Jonathan Clancy of Henniker is a speech-language pathologist and a doctoral fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.)