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Spelling bee runs out of tough words

Published June 07. 2019 12:14PM

For more than 90 years, the Scripps National Spelling Bee has featured young whiz kids who have amazed us with their ability to spell unpronounceable words.

This year, the competition was so relentless that eight co-champions were named after contest officials could not stump them and ran out of words tough enough to challenge them. This was the first time more than two co-champions were named and demonstrates how competitive the bee has become. Each of the eight received the top award of $50,000, prizes and a huge trophy.

Among the eight champs was Christopher Serrao, 13, of Whitehouse Station, Hunterdon County, New Jersey, who represented Discover Lehigh Valley, a destination marketing company which conducted the regional preliminary in Lehigh, Northampton and several counties in northwestern and central New Jersey.

Among the words Serrao spelled were “omphalopsychite” (those who stare fixedly at their navel to induce a mystical trance) and “cernuous” (pendulous or drooping).

The eight finalists were among 564, ages seven to 15, who competed during bee week in a Washington, D.C., suburb May 27-30. About 11 million students are eligible to compete in the bee.

Some of the other final words spelled by the other winners were “auslaut,” “erysipelas,” “bougainvillea,” “aiguillette” and “pendeloque.”

I was a coordinator of the regional bee — first in Easton, then in Oswego, New York — for nearly 25 years. The contest had been co-sponsored by a local newspaper, once a requirement, but no longer. Now, any community organization can be a sponsor. In fact, if your family is wealthy enough, it can buy a child into the national competition without going through the hassle of a regional runoff.

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, which one year sponsored the national champ, continues.

The idea of a spelling bee is to make students more proficient in one of education’s basic skills. Reinforcing the importance of this skill through a competitive bee gets the job done in a fun way, supporters say.

I am concerned, however, that the National Spelling Bee has become so specialized that unless students are willing to commit an inordinate amount of time to studying and memorizing Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, the bee’s official source, there is no way that they can be competitive. Even then, it’s problematic given the luck of getting a word the speller doesn’t know or recognize and the pressure of performing before a packed auditorium of several thousand and an international prime-time TV audience of millions.

Because of the caliber of the competition, words at the national bee must be arcane and unusual in the extreme. As such, many members of the audience can’t identify with the bee as they could years ago when at least a large percentage of the words were recognizable and likely to be used in everyday conversations.

In 1925, when the bee first started, the winning word was “gladiolus.” In 1928, it was “albumen;” in 1930, “fracas” and in 1932, “knack.”

By 2014, the winning words were “feuilleton” and “stichomythia.” To my way of thinking, knowing how to spell “stichomythia” (a technique in verse drama) is a useless talent that has little real-life applicability.

Being an elite speller requires a major childhood commitment that has intensified as the bee has become more competitive. Those who achieve success at the national bee have coaches and a rigorous training regimen in which they study six or more hours a day, longer on weekends, to learn the words and definitions in the official dictionary and their meanings. Many compete earlier in feeder bees.

Other critics have begun questioning the value of the spelling bee. 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.

When spellers prevail at the national spelling bee following the heart-pounding and pressurized competition, we want to know how they did it. This is particularly true in recent years, because South Asian-American spellers have dominated the upper echelon of the bee, winning for 15 years in a row. Six of the eight of this year’s winners were among them.

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 a Newsweek article.

The parents of these super committed children are as invested in spelling bees and academic competitions as families with star athletes or 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

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