A 12-year-old Washington 6th-grader recently won a citywide spelling bee that included the following words: narcohypnia, biophagous, stanniferous, stupulose, and pseudosyllogism. The national winner correctly spelled luge.
Except possibly to keep children out of other mischief, why do schools encourage them to spell arcane words they’ll rarely read and almost certainly never speak or write? The common words my college students can’t spell, year after year, include these: predjudice, tradgedy, existance, recieve, seperate, dilemna, professer, mischieviously, exagerrate, bananna, and embarass.
Memorizing odd words, arithmetic tables, and long poems by Edgar Allan Poe, like “Bells,” used to be considered good discipline for “training the mind.” Long ago, educational specialists concluded that the mind was not an assortment of muscles to be developed like those of the body. In fact, we have learned to question the true strength of persons with irrelevantly bulging biceps.
Americans relish surface show. Many are still proud of their Palmer penmanship. In the olden days, the look of our compositions mattered more than what we said. Neatness, spelling, and handwriting always counted, along with good manners, correct pronunciation, and a well-scrubbed face.
We are reluctant to abandon old habits and skills. We remain vain about our hard-earned penmanship and the capacity to spell tricky words. We stoutly insist we don’t want computers to take over, however much we imitate them, or consult them, when spelling or doing sums. We value aspects of the past almost for the nostalgia alone.
By applauding winners of spelling bees, we support the schools in their seeming determination not to recognize the organic dependence of spelling on reading. We let them turn out champions at spelling who can win every contest they enter, but often can’t integrate into an intelligible sentence the obscure words that so glibly trip off their tongues.
No one can learn to spell sensibly and practically who doesn’t know how to read with attentiveness and some subtlety. Spelling is a skill that should be acquired through careful reading, through seeing and understanding words in context. Students who don’t read or write readily are not likely to retain the simple differences among to, too, and two or their, there, and they’re; or between your and you’re, its and it’s, and who’s and whose.
Publishers and bureaucracies like to issue lists of commonly misspelled words, without definitions and out of any context. I have had secretaries who, dependent on these lists alone, recorded hominy for harmony, menstrual for minstrel, prince for prints, and notorious public for notaries public, all spelled impeccably and making no sense.
Why do we cling to old-fashioned rituals like spelling bees, which only confuse genuine learning with the high-jinks that get one into Guinness record books?
I think we may do so because they remind us, however dimly, of vestigial intellectual capacities, even if we exercise these today only to do crossword puzzles. It is also easier to teach and test spelling, and comparable robot skills, than to teach and test meaningful reading and writing. But in doing these things, we grievously deceive our students, who develop a false sense of knowing something relevant and important.
A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 1984 edition of Education Week as The Existance (sic) of Spelling Bees Should Only Embarass (sic) Teachers