News and Tribune

March 15, 2013

STAWAR: Spelling from ‘A’ to ‘bee’

Local columnist

— Many students have sought fame and glory in the world of competitive spelling. I, however, hold the distinction of misspelling the word “curriculum” six times in my application for a doctoral program in curriculum and instruction. 

Kindly Dr. Clark with a remarkably straight face told me that it would probably be a good idea if I learned how to spell the word if I intended to get a doctoral degree in it. Thus was the world before spell- check. 

Thanks to comic books I was a pretty good reader, but I seemed to have a touch of dysgraphia, as my handwriting and my spelling always left much to be desired. Oh, I could learn to spell hard words in areas that interested me, like “Mr. Mxyzptlk” (Superman’s impish adversary from the fifth dimension), but I’ve always had a devil of time remembering even common words that have complex vowel combinations or doubled constants. 

Spelling always made me kind of anxious, so I was surprised when my wife Diane and I found ourselves attending the 20th Annual Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee. It was held Saturday morning at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The contest, which is sponsored by Ford Motor Co., took place in the swanky PNC Club, a luxury stadium suite with a glassed-in view of the playing field. 

We were there because our oldest granddaughter Tori was one of the 65 contestants participating this year. This was Tori’s second appearance at the event. She represented Kenton County and had won the county championship by beating out a number of other school champions, including her younger sister. 

The Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee is sometimes referred to as the Kentucky State Spelling Championship, but it includes students from Indiana as well. In fact, the second-place finisher this year was a girl from Lawrence County.

The rote learning of spelling is an old tradition in American elementary schools and the spelling bee competition has evolved into a popular nation institution. Nonstandard spelling is routinely taken as indicating a lack of intelligence, illiteracy or lower socioeconomic status. Hoosier U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle’s misspelling of potato at a 1992 spelling bee in Trenton, N.J., was widely taken as a strong verification of his alleged lack of intellectual chops. 

Of course, many folks (mostly poor spellers) take an opposite view, such as President Andrew Jackson, who once said, “It’s a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word.”

 Back in 1978, spelling reform advocate Abraham Citron, from Wayne State University, vehemently attacked our system of spelling, as well as tradition educational methods saying, “At the portals of education we have laid, not a highway, but a labyrinth.” He described spelling as “difficult, irrational, deceptive, inconsistent, clumsy, frustrating and wasteful.” He called it “one of the basic sources of academic discouragement and failure.”  

 Godfrey Dewey, a chairman of the national Phonemic Spelling Council, found that Americans use 561 different spellings for the 41 separate sounds that make up our spoken language. The 26 letters of our alphabet are pronounced in 92 different ways. English spelling rules are so irregular, rote memory is the educational strategy of choice. If mathematics was organized in the same haphazard manner, our society would have screeched to a halt long ago.

Citron — who founded Better Education thru Simplified Spelling — argued for creating a more rational spelling system. While major spelling reforms did not occur, many school systems banished spelling textbooks and de-emphasized the spelling curriculum for many years. 

Last year, however, Boston Globe writer Linda Matchan reported that spelling is making a dramatic comeback nationally, with an increased interest in spelling clubs, as well as the reissue of spelling books and the reestablishment of weekly spelling tests in many schools. Matchan also notes the growing popularity of spelling bees with fabulous prizes, like the legendary Scripps National Spelling Bee, which is now broadcasted live on ESPN. 

When it comes to prizes, the Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee is no piker, with a first prize that includes a $10,000 savings bond. The top five places not only receive cash, but a number of other awards as well. Emily Keaton, an eighth-grader from Pikeville who won this year’s Kentucky Derby Bee, making it four years in a row, walked away with a total of more than $43,000. 

Spelling bees have been featured in popular movies such as “Akeelah and the Bee’’ and “Spellbound’’ as well as the 2006 Broadway musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” As spelling has become especially “hot,” Florida reading and spelling consultant Richard Gentry says, “Researchers want to understand how we learn it, teachers want to know how best to teach it and kids want to know how to win competitions.’’ 

Spelling success also meets a need for an indicator of intellectual rigor that many parents find appealing. Spelling — along with activities such as academic teams and chess clubs — increasingly offer an alternative for children who aren’t athletically inclined but still want to compete. 

Educational psychologists have found that “deliberate practice,” which consists of memorizing words while alone, which is the most difficult and least enjoyable type of spelling preparation, seems to lead to the most success in competition. Also related to winning is a little known (noncognitive) personality factor that psychologists call “grit.” It mostly consists of passion and commitment to the task at hand. 

 Brian Palmer, a writer for the online magazine Slate, investigated what happened to National Spelling bee winners later in life. He found that many of them entered careers related to understanding the human mind. Many became psychiatrists, psychologists and neurosurgeons. Others went on to work with words as writers and journalists. One was even a Pulitzer Prize winner. A few continued to participate in competitions in other areas, such as television games shows like “Jeopardy” or the international poker circuit. 

Our granddaughter Tori survived the brutal second round and finished up in seventh place with another year to compete. Emily Keaton is on to future successes and all eyes are now on her younger brother to see if he has his sister’s spelling magic. 

There are also spelling bees for people over the age of 50. One of these is the AARP National Spelling Bee that was established in 1996 by AARP members in Cheyenne, Wyo. Organizers’ goal was to create a fun way to compete with each other, while keeping their minds sharp. 

This spelling bee is held annually in Cheyenne and you can find details on how to enter at the website. You can even win $1,000 if you take first place, but you will have to beat 67-year-old attorney Michael Petrina Jr., who has won twice — last time spelling the word “Rhizoctonia.” I’d consider entering myself, but I’d probably get the word “curriculum.”


— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at