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.