Saturday, January 12, 2019


In the spirit of our friends over at Elevate Maryland, I have for you today my most unpopular benign opinion:

I hate spelling bees.

They really aren’t a sign of anything more than a capacity for rote memorization. Why must generation upon generation of American schoolchildren endure this 19th or possibly even 18th century public ritual each year? For some: anxiety and stress. For many: a whole lot of sitting around and waiting until it’s over.

Although the concept of a spelling contest has now spread to a few other countries, it originated in the United States. We see references to public spelling matches after the publication of Noah Webster’s famous “Blue Backed Speller.”

The great American educator Noah Webster first published A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, otherwise known as the Blue Back Speller, in 1783. His goal was to provide a uniquely American, Christ-centered approach to training children.  (Product description on Amazon)

Often when we talk about things being uniquely American, it is out of a sense of pride. In this case I think we ought to look at the other countries that don’t have spelling bees and ponder why they don’t consider this to be educational or entertaining. They might have something there.

Yes, I have heard the reasoning that American English has such a variety of words with irregular spellings and that is why spelling bees are a valuable sort of challenge here. In other countries words are largely spelled following more regular patterns. My complaint is that spelling bees come from an antiquated system of skill and drill, rote memorization which we should have put to rest long ago.

Today many of the nationally ranked, prize winning spellers are home-schooled children whose educational programs are modified to included hours and hours of daily drilling. There’s no decent research out there that supports an education so skewed to favor rote memorization in one subject area. It is essentially the process of creating a bonsai or a topiary kid.

As an aside, I was a great speller in school and did well in classroom spelling bees. So it isn’t a lack of spelling prowess that motivates my opinion. More likely it’s because of the particular kind of social anxiety I had that caused me to get nervous for all the other participants as they waited their turns and struggled for the correct answers. I wouldn’t live through that again if you paid me.

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