The Value of the National Spelling Bee in the Age of Spell Check and Predictive Text

Yesterday 275 kids gathered in Washington, DC, to take a spelling test. Today, they’ll start spelling in the preliminary rounds until just 50 spellers move on to the semifinals of the National Spelling Bee. A few of them are here by luck. Most of the spellers, however, got here through incredible hard work and determination. This is no fluke. This is the culmination of hours and hours of intense studying, rote memorization, and the deep exploration of language. These kids are the best of the orthographic best.

Why bother?

Even our smartphones are now capable of correcting our spelling, and contemporary spelling conventions offer wide latitude in expression.  A legitimate conversation today might consist of this jumble of characters:  Sup? Nm, u? K, gtg, ttyl. While some have questioned the value in taking spelling seriously, I think it’s a skill for the masses. Spelling should not be the private domain of one subset of specialized geeks.

Rote memorization is not all bad. Remember your times tables? You do?  Well, that was rote memorization. And thanks to mnemonics like King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti, you can quickly access information that lets you move forward in a hurry. Can you imagine how much more difficult geometry and algebra would be if you had to work out 7 x 7 = 49 every single time?

Words are the building blocks of thought. While we have generic words like “thing” and “stuff” to get us through those situations when we are at a loss for words, language allows for sophistication. Shakespeare might have written “Could I think of you as like that one thing? You’re better than that stuff.”  But a richer vocabulary offers the romance of “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”  If we can’t spell words, we can’t communicate our most nuanced thoughts.

Spelling is so much more than memorization. Spelling connects us to history and culture, to science, poetry, and mathematics. A word is more than the sum of its parts. Words tell stories and act as the doorway to all the realms of knowledge. For example, I was once given the word S-I-L-I-C-I-F-E-R-O-U-S in a spelling bee. I’d never heard the word before. I asked for the definition. Containing silicon. I asked for the etymology. Latin. I asked for the part of speech. Adjective.

With this information, I was able to construct the word in its entirety. I knew about silicon, and thus had the S-I-L-I-C-I beginning. The Latin root told me that the middle part of the word would be F-E-R rather than P-H-O-R and the fact that it was an adjective, not a noun, told me that the word ended in O-U-S rather than U-S. Siliciferous. One word can encapsulate an entire education.

When we encourage kids to learn to spell and applaud their accomplishments, we are celebrating the fullness of thought that can only come from human beings.

Rock on, National Spelling Bee contestants!