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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.)

Legacy Comments27

Hey nothing wrong with being liberal. If the world had been left to conservatives, we would still be banging sticks together to make fire. Afraid of anything new, and always waiting for the sky to fall.

Laughable. Few liberals have created anything beyond rules, regulations and big government. Conservatives are not afraid of anything new, their fear is well founded that liberal emotion stands in the way of intelligent, common sense solutions and governance.

Great column Jonathan. I agree - let's start adding other contests and activities as well to allow for better learning and opportunities to participate for all types of students in various ways.

Don't worry about it all you people. With the short cuts for texting, none of the future kids will know how to spell or use correct English.

Interesting comments about the requirement to do the spelling bee to build confidence in someone that does not spell well. Accepting the challenge and ye shall overcome. I am curious if those same people feel every student should have join the football team, debate team, chess club even though they don’t want to be involved with those activities? Do you force the student into areas that they are not interested in or lead them into areas they are interested in and then show them how these interest will lead to others. I never enjoyed math in high school but I did enjoy architectural drawing. Quickly found out that without math the walls don’t meet. Get them into something they do enjoy and they may find spelling or public speaking becomes important.

You twisted what I said about building confidence Jim. My point was that I would encourage my kid to overcome their issues. I would work with him at home with spelling. I also said kids should have the option of not participating in the Bee. I also asked how far should we go with opting out. Should they opt out of reading out loud, or anything else that is uncomfortable. Just my take. I think we are far too concerned about making sure our kids are not stressed, unhappy, told no, or dissapointed. Not working so well either with so many young people on drugs for depression, etc.

As a winner of spelling bees and the parent of winners, I still agree with author's points. Keep the bees and allow kids to opt out. Group competitions are not the same as group projects-which sometimes lead to an imbalance of work and distorted grading. Competitions with heterogenous, yet self-selecting groups such as Destination Imagination are wonderful. Invention Convention is another program that allows traditional and nontraditional learners to shine. Rather than forcing introverted, painfully shy kids to read aloud, for example, individual challenges and strengths should be taken account. WE are not equally all good at everything, let kids shine where they can.

I disagree Lilac. I do not see it as forcing, I see it as the child learning to cope with their issues, like maybe speaking slower or getting past the anxiety. That to me is a much better lesson than branding that kid as not being able to do it. What happens when that kid gets a job and has to present something at a meeting? Do they have a panic attack? Protecting can often mean stunting growth in my book. I like to think that encouragement has a better outcome. Just maybe if a kid who has a hard time speaking in school does it a few times it will get easier each time. If they do not do it, it will always be a roadblock for them. That goes against building confidence in my book. And confidence is gained by overcoming, not getting a pass. Getting a pass destroys confidence I feel. Says your not up to the task.

spelling a word, letter by letter out loud, is NOT public speaking. It is an unnatural, non-transferrable skill. True Public speaking is another type of task. They can do public speaking in another forum.

Funny instead of commenting on what I said, you pick out public speaking vs spelling. That is not the issue. The issue is what I wrote in my comment. I was talking about confidence and dealing with issues as opposed to being given a pass.

I agree with Sail. The goal in public education is to make sure no kid feels bad, has to overcome anything or should be judged by taking a test. That is unrealistic and will create students that are not prepared to face the real world. The idea that kids are better off in groups has been tried. My daughter was in that years ago when it first was seen as a good idea. Totally failed because you had kids in the group who were put in the position of dealing with the ones in the group that would not work on the project. So the whole group was judged as one. The ones who worked hard got taken down by the ones who did not. The idea was that the kids who did the work would inspire the kids who did not to work harder. Did not happen, just created kids being mad at each other in the group. My kid is 30 so I have seen a lot of different styles of teaching and they all have failed.

"My kid is 30 so I have seen a lot of different styles of teaching and they all have failed." I learned a long time ago that when you point a finger at somebody else, you point four others back at yourself. And as for this nonsense: "The goal in public education is to make sure no kid feels bad, has to overcome anything or should be judged by taking a test[,]" it seems you have little or no insight into the ACTUAL (not as portrayed in somebody's propaganda) workings of public education.

its not the workings that is the concern it is the RESULTS and they are DISMAL at best....double dare you to ask a public school senior to calculate a 15% tip on the dinner check

Oh, sail, why don't you just saw off that limb you've climbed out on. I can show you dozens of high school seniors and several juniors who can do calculus. I can compute 15% in my head, but I can't do calculus. Which do you think - the ability to do mental simple arithmetic or the ability to do higher math - will contribute to the next technological breakthrough to improve the human condition?

You need to look at the failed unfunded NCLB act signed into law by Bush Jr. It's results is what you see today in schools. Unfortunately, everyone suffers because it is easier to teach the test so the teacher doesn't get a downgrade on performance and it makes the school system look as they have "improved" because of the higher test scores.

I think it is fine that students have the option of not participating in the spelling bee. But how far do you take this? Should a student be allowed to opt out of reading their paper in class, or sharing what they did over the summer? We have a lot of young people who have a hard time coping with dissapointment and being told no. They are on antidepressents. Could it be that by shielding them we are not teaching them to cope? Are we teaching them that life will always go their way?

good one rabbit - That is the future the liberal democrat union dominated public education system debacle has wrought on America

the disaster known as the liberal democrat dominated public education system would whole heatedly support that idea

"...whole heatedly[sic]"? Sail's post offers nothing except an illustration of the danger to people who live in glass houses....

whoopsie - my bad - big fingers and a small tablet thingy - good to see a liberal catching a typo

I'm not a "liberal" Sir. I'm an "independent."

He is an independent liberal.

Then again . . . labels are overrated.

I "whole-heatedly" support lilac-city kid's proposal to keep the bees but not force kids to participate . . . except for sail, he obviously needs the extra practice!

LOL, you are correct Sail, these are the folks who don't want school sports teams to keep score, they want to give a trophy to the winners and the losers, they support math where no answer is really wrong, they want sameness, total financial equality and everything to be based in living the moment rather than accomplishment, excellence, ability, drive, innovation, etc. Yes, they are the drivers of mediocrity in our system and they are attempting to break down all traditions because they have it all figured out. Now the over educated egg heads are pontificating about spelling bee. What is certainly not equatable to "successful" is following the progressive agenda in lockstep. I have no problem with teamwork and teams solving problems but the spelling bee has a place. Why is it that the progressive movement is out to change EVERYTHING. Does that not signal their true intent.

Maybe they are seeing that it is Asians that win most of the National Spelling Bees Itsa.

It has nothing to do9in this case) with progressives. Put the blame where it lies with Bush Jr's failed unfunded NCLB act! Now we are reaping what was sowed many years ago. I seem to remember there were many educators rang the alarm on what would happen downline. Seems they were correct and the conservatives were totally wrong in this. Again put the blame squarely where it belongs, the failed NCLB act.

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