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Opinion: A ‘bee’ that stings when you misspell

Can you spell “misspell?”

If you can, congratulate yourself, because many spell the word with one “s.”

Of course, for the 231 spellers from across the country and around the world who will gather on Sunday for the start of National Spelling Bee week, “misspell” may be a dreaded word in their vocabulary but child’s play for them to spell.

I was a coordinator of regional bees - first in Easton, then in Oswego, New York - for nearly 25 years. The contest had for years been co-sponsored by a local newspaper, once a requirement, but no longer. Now, any community organization can be a sponsor if it comes up with the required cash and follows the sponsorship rules.

In our area, The Pottsville Republican-Herald, The Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, and The Express-Times in Easton were sponsors for many years. Only the Pottsville paper is today. Its representative is Tyler Kulikosly, 14, an eighth-grader at the Blue Mountain Middle School in Orwigsburg. There is just one other regional contestant in this year’s competition - Aaditya Aiyer, 13, a seventh-grader at the Clinton Township Middle School in Factoryville, Wyoming County, sponsored by Diamond City Sports of Wilkes-Barre.

There has been only one national champ from our region: Sukanya Roy, representing the Times Leader newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, won the 2011 bee with the winning word being cymotrichous (having wavy hair).

From its humble beginnings in 1925, when nine newspapers joined together to host the first event, the bee has become world-renown that starts every year over the Memorial Day weekend,

In addition to the rigors of the competition, the young spellers, who can’t be older than 14, and their parents or chaperones are taken on educational tours of our nation’s capital and Annapolis, Maryland, home of the U.S. Naval Academy. In addition, there are social functions which give them a chance to meet and interact with each other.

This year’s competition was open to 11 million students. Regional bees cull the number of contestants, but at 231, preliminaries will reduce the number to a manageable few, who will compete over two days, May 31 and June 1, before a national television audience on the ION network.

Bee officials were surprised in 2019 when they ran out of words and wound up crowning eight co-champions, each getting all of the top prizes.

This year’s event will take place at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. Last year’s winner was Harini Logan of San Antonio, Texas, who prevailed after 18 rounds of grueling competition. She clinched the championship title by correctly spelling 22 words in the bee’s first-ever spell-off finish.

Contestants will be competing for the top prizes - $50,000 in cash, the Scripps Cup (the official championship trophy of the Scripps National Spelling Bee), a $2,500 cash prize and reference library from Merriam-Webster (the bee’s official dictionary) and $400 worth of reference works from Encyclopaedia Britannica. In addition, Scholastic will donate $2,000 to the champion’s school.

The format of the bee has evolved in recent years because of the growing number of contestants and their proficiency. The second round, for example, will be a word-meaning round, which will require the speller to orally select the correct multiple choice answer to a vocabulary question. This element of the competition, introduced in 2021, is designed to challenge the spellers and further advance the bee’s focus on word knowledge and literacy.

Historically, the competition ends when a finalist spells correctly in a one-person, one-word round and is declared champion. The officials, however, can choose to activate a spell-off to declare a winner as they did last year. Each remaining contestant has 90 seconds to spell as many words as they can from a predetermined list. After all remaining spellers have competed in the spell-off, the one who spelled the most words correctly is the champion.

Here are some of the winning words from over the years: gladiolus (1925), eczema (1936), Chihuahua (1967), croissant (1970), staphylococci (1987), appoggiatura (musical ornament note) (2005), koinonia (communion with fellow Christians) (2018) and moorhen (female red grouse) (2022).

While millions of TV viewers marvel at the abilities of these young spellers - third through eighth grades - the bee is not without its critics, who question its value. Professional educators see spelling bees as a throwback to the days of rote learning. Do we communicate more effectively because we can spell every word in the dictionary? It’s doubtful, they say. In most of the 21st century, South Asian American spellers have dominated the upper echelon of the bee. Capitalizing on the success of professional immigrants, there are now spelling bees that have been established exclusively for children of South Asian parentage, according to Shalini Shankar writing in Newsweek.

The parents of these super committed children are as invested in spelling bees and academic competitions as are families with star athletes or exceptional musicians, Shankar said. As several parents explained, spelling bees are the “brain sports” equivalent to travel soccer or Little League.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.