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Jul 31, 2015

Do spelling bees teach L-I-T-E-R-A-C-Y?

The Great Australian Spelling Bee is coming to our screens. But what place do spelling bees have in the teaching of literacy? Elisabeth Griffiths examines the impact (or lack thereof) alphabetic gymnastics has on student understanding.

Considering the success of the annual United States National Spelling Bee, our appetite for reality television shows, and the passion with which people debate language and/or fret about the youth, it is surprising that The Great Australian Spelling Bee is only now coming to television. Airing from Monday August 3rd on Network Ten, it appears to have all the ingredients for ratings success: cute kids, big words, and the possibility for audiences to realise how good – or hopeless – we may be at spelling. The covert messages that the show will send about language and intelligence are, however, a little less innocuous.

The show will be hosted by Chrissie Swan, a primary school spelling champ, and Grant Denyer, “someone who can’t spell to save himself”, so it will undoubtedly frame the competition as a friendly and fun challenge for the kids who appear. It even bills itself as putting “Australia’s brightest young people … through their paces as they inspire and surprise us”. The up-and-coming word nerds might tug at our heartstrings, but labelling them “Australia’s brightest” is a misleading way to approach literacy and success.

While education funding debates rage and schools try to prepare students for a twenty-first century world, spelling bees masquerade as educational, both on television and off. A not-for-profit organisation called Spellmasters Australia runs regular spelling competitions and claims that participation helps to improve students’ comprehension and communication skills. Yet  there’s no evidence this is more than a mere correlation, rather than actually attributable to participation in spelling bees themselves. There are aspects of the preparation for spelling bees that have proven to be helpful, such as understanding the etymology of words, but spelling bees themselves are only tests of recall, the lowest form of understanding.

Mark Fennessy is the CEO of the production company behind The Great Australian Spelling Bee and he claims that “By super-sizing spelling…we’ll present the universal art of problem solving on the grandest of scales”. But spelling bees are not problem solving opportunities. Success at these competitions depends on rote learning, memory techniques, and ultimately luck. Our modern spoken language has around forty-four sounds, which our alphabet of just twenty-six letters works overtime to represent. In fact, there are roughly 205 different ways to represent those 44 sounds, which is why luck is so much a part of success at spelling. If you’ve never seen the word written down, there are countless ways it could be spelt and you have no way of coming to the answer other than guessing. Success at spelling bees or other vocabulary-based competitions has so little to do with communicative competency that a New Zealander, Nigel Richards, recently won the French Scrabble championships despite the fact that he does not actually speak French. Richards relied on a translator to thank the audience, as his win was purely due to having memorised a list of words in the previous weeks.

While spelling is a part of communication which teachers consider to some degree  when assessing students’ literacy, the emphasis is on overall comprehension, coherence, creativity with language, and the abilities needed to analyse, interpret and construct a range of text types. These are all skills that they will need to apply in the world beyond schooling – a world in which we all use autocorrect and spell check. Spelling competitions present a single type of skill and elevate it disproportionately.  Success in communication is not dependent on accurately spelling (often obscure) words and an errant letter within a word is not a reflection of the sum of anyone’s intelligence.

Language is a powerful tool because of the range of ideas and emotions we can express with it. The importance of meaning in language is what makes a malapropism so grating or a pun so divisive, and it’s what will probably make this competition so disappointing. We can’t forget that literacy is also about understanding the different contexts that language is used in. The classification of The Great Australian Spelling Bee merely as ‘light entertainment’ in the TV guide should give us all a clue about its educational value.

Elisabeth Griffiths is an ESL and English teacher, gender-neutral pronoun user, and former Scrabble nut.  

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7 thoughts on “Do spelling bees teach L-I-T-E-R-A-C-Y?

  1. Allan Campbell

    Elisabeth: U say “some students are always going to struggle with spelling”. True with English-speaking students Unlikely to apply to all students in, say, Greek, Finnish, or Korean. They learn the spelling rules in their first school year, and because these apply to all words, the learners ar able to apply them confidently whenever they meet new, unfamiliar words.

    This idea boggles the English-speakers mind! Unbelievable!

  2. Elisabeth Griffiths

    While I might not agree with your point that “everything is stupid today”, you’re right Brendan that Spanish, Norwegian, and many other languages do not have spelling bees, as their spelling and orthography is much more closely aligned to the spoken language.

    Robin, I understand your point that there is a lot of memorisation in learning to spell and that this should not necessarily be seen as a bad thing, and I actually wholeheartedly agree. Unfortunately however, spelling bees are not the way to teach or test spelling ability, and I’m concerned about the messages being sent by this program which does seem to try to masquerade as more than purely entertainment. I’m not calling for a total overhaul of the Australian English spelling system (not here and not now at least, maybe more on that another time!). I’m not saying that us teachers should disregard spelling – it is important, but to a point. In tests and exams when students stress about spelling, teachers are fond of saying ‘as long as it’s close enough’, because some students are always going to struggle with spelling. Others care about spelling because they just have that spelling bug. It becomes a problem when students obsess over spelling to the extent that spelling bees promote, because it obstructs their ability to express themselves, develop their ideas and opinions and become “full member[s] of society” as you put it.

  3. Allan Campbell

    Brendan: There ar (sic) Spanish spelling bees in the south west United States, but i get the impression they ar struggling.

    It is true that in languages with sensible, logical, and predictable spellings spelling bees dont thrive. The competition takes too long to find a winner!

    I understand American troops tried to introduce them to Germany after the war, but they did not last. The Times of London introduced one to England about seven years ago, but they dont seem to hav lasted beyond 2012.

    A New Zealand one began 10 years ago and sent its winner to the Scripps, until three years ago. Now its just domestic. Good luck, Australia!

  4. brendan wynter

    They don’t have spelling bees in Spanish. They probably don’t have them in Norwegian. English has a lot of crappy irregularity that makes spelling a challenge. It is slowly being simplified through common usage. American English has at least made some good reforms that are now thankfully being imposed on us through technology. Spelling bees are stupid. The people who are sentimental about English spelling are usually a bit stupid. Everything is stupid today.

  5. Robin Brett

    “While spelling is a part of communication which teachers consider to some degree when assessing students’ literacy, the emphasis is on overall comprehension, coherence, creativity with language, and the abilities needed to analyse, interpret and construct a range of text types.”

    And there you have in a nutshell the supposed justification for not teaching children to spell correctly and write grammatically. Who cares about spelling and grammar, if the kid can be “creative” with language and interpret “a range of text types”?

    Yes, spelling has to be learnt. Yes, there are lots of rules and lots of exceptions. And learning the rules and the exceptions is no doubt difficult when half the teachers don’t know them themselves. But knowing how to spell and how to use correct grammar are essential to mount a coherent argument and carry on an intelligent discussion, and there’s no substitute for them.

    There’s a lot of pure memorisation involved in learning to spell. What’s wrong with that? If you want to be a chemist you have to have a pretty fair knowledge of the periodic table of the elements. If you want to drive a car you have to memorise the rules of the road. Use of the English language is essential to be a full member of society, and if learning it properly involves some rote learning, so be it. It’s not torture. It’s not even all that hard.

    Just by the way, nobody who has watched one of those spelling bees (I’ve seen a few, not many) and seen the minds of the kids ticking as they ask for pronunciation to be clarified and for the meaning of the word and its etymology as they figure out how to spell it syllable by syllable can be in any doubt that they are very smart kids.

  6. Norman Hanscombe

    Spelling Bees a la television are of course an educational farce, and how they’re run in schools much the same. The most effective approach ever tried in Australia was the system based on the work of the Schonell Queensland husband and wife team, which not only raised spelling standards but also had a positive effect on creative writing abilities. Sadly it was one of the success stories thrown out in the late 1960s obsession with adopting experimental programmes in many school subjects.

  7. Masha Bell

    The fact that some literary giants like John Steinbeck and Scott Fitzgerald were very poor speller proves that it is perfectly possible to be a good communicator without being a good speller. I remember even the 2007 US spelling bee winner saying that learning to spell involves ‘nothing but a bunch of memorization’.

    U are absolutely right to say that “spelling bees themselves are only tests of recall, the lowest form of understanding”. I find it shameful that schoolchildren keep having to spend to much time on mindless rote-learning because English-speaking countries continue to tolerate a spelling system which necessitates this. It is high time to remove some of the antique spelling dross which makes learning to read and write English much harder than it could be or need be.