Tuesday, May 22, 2007

To Bee, or Not to Bee?

Flip your television to ABC at 8:00 EDT on the last day of this month, and you’ll catch the Championship Finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Tune in to ESPN earlier that day, and you’ll find the semifinals. Spelling has apparently become prime time entertainment—but spelling bees still aren’t good pedagogy.

As a recent Washington Post article suggests, spelling bees provide limited support to students learning about words and the ways that they work. Sue Ann Gleason, the teacher quoted in the article explains the spelling bees “honor the children who already know how to spell, but they do little to support those who need explicit instruction.” If students truly prepare for a bee, they can certainly learn some spelling rules, and the allowances to ask questions about a word’s definition or language of origin encourage students to think of the quiz word in a variety of contexts. Those very questions, however, demonstrate the problem.

Spelling bees ask students to look at words in isolation. Students have to ask for a context because there is none. In fact, the words are frequently ones that students themselves would never use. When was the last time a student you taught needed the word appoggiatura or Ursprache (the final words in the 2005 and 2006 Scripps Finals)? With such words, what context could ever be authentic for a student?

The most effective way for students to learn spelling is in the context of the reading and writing that they do—not word-by-word in a parade of spellers on a stage. To bee, or not to bee? I‘ll take authentic spelling instruction over a spelling bee every time!

For more resources on authentic spelling instruction, check out the Spelling Teaching Resource Collection on the NCTE site.


Anonymous said...

I think it is also worth pointing out that there are some high functioning individuals out in the world who are poor spellers. My wife has a doctorate in developmental biology from an ivy league university, and is truly a horrible speller (and has still published a few times). The person in charge of her laboratory when she was in graduate school is a widely recognized biologist and chemist, and he is dyslexic. His office is covered in spelling cheat sheets of common English, Latin, and Greek terms, and he has published and patented several important ideas in his field. We may come to a time when spelling is simply not that important.

Susan said...

About 20 years ago, I read an article about the "games" teachers play with their students, like having weekly spelling/vocabulary tests and spelling bees. These were called games because they were activities that kept students busy with artificial competitions without really teaching them anything. I'd love to find a copy of that article and see how much is still relevant to teachers 20 years later. I suspect that many of these "games" are still going on, alas.

Anonymous said...

Using a spelling bee as a manner of instruction is not effective and can be embarrassing for many students - this I understand. But this blog seems to extend criticism to formal spelling competitions. Participation in district or regional spelling bees is, to my knowledge, voluntary. Those students who join a local spelling team learn about spelling tricks, patterns, and vowel combinations. In addition, they expand their vocabulary and get involved in a little friendly competition.

In addition, most local spelling bees include words that are commonly found or heard on a regular basis. It's only at the Scripps level that the words become so very esoteric.

Anonymous said...

Traci is exactly right. The selection of words for bees is fraught with problems, especially when one starts including words common to other languages but uncommon in English, except to some with college degrees. I mean why isn't "subacutebacterialendocarditis" on the list? I learned it in high school biology class, but not "ursprache."
So spelling bees are an interesting pastime, and nobody should expect more from them than that. In the end, it's just another way to play the lottery.

Anonymous said...

There are two things you can teach about spelling. One is know how to spell as many words as possible. The other is to remind yourself of the many spelling curiosities in English and how to get in the habit of looking up suspicious words.
I used to use an assignment (game?) to teach the latter, to demonstrate to students how puzzling spelling is and how their perceptions need to be checked. Collect 50 hard-to-spell words (things like "occurrence") and put them all on one passout sheet. Spell them right! Ask students to put a check mark in front of every misspelled word. Students will mark from 6 to 20 words. When the last student has finished, admit that they are all spelled correctly. They will learn something about their own spelling habits AND that some words just need to be looked up. Hmmm. How many Ms are there in "hemorrhoid?"

dawn said...

I happen to be a lucky person who has always been able to spell easily, and it has directly led me to love teaching kids ABOUT words. I never competed in anything other than a school-wide spelling bee, but that was when I was allowed to be "good" at something. Sometimes that's okay, too, right? For some of these competitive kids, that's what they are good at. Again, it's offering something different for all kids, isn't it?

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