English-Language Learners

Spanish-Language Spelling Bees Catch On Around the U.S.

By Jacob Bell — July 01, 2015 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 5 min read
Andres Arreola, the 2014 National Spanish Spelling Bee champion, plays video games as his mother, Silvia Rios, reads words for him to spell earlier this month at his home in Sunland Park, N.M. Arreola will defend his title at the 2015 National Spanish Spelling Bee competition in mid-July.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Isabel Koran.

The nation’s best spellers—en Español—will go head-to-head later this month in Albuquerque, N.M., to battle for the national championship title in the Concurso Nacional de Deletreo en Español, or the National Spanish Spelling Bee.

Following on the heels of the wildly popular, ESPN-broadcast Scripps National Spelling Bee—which had co-champions for the second straight year—the fifth annual National Spanish Spelling Bee this year will feature a mix of young spellers, including some native Spanish speakers and several who are not.

Though the number of participants overall remains small, the number of spellers in the national competition has steadily grown to nearly 30 this year, from 11 in the bee’s inaugural year in 2011. Nationwide, local and regional Spanish-language spelling bees are happening in at least 10 states. This past spring, the first annual Northeast Regional Spanish Spelling Bee took place in Foxboro, Mass.

The Spanish-language bees’ budding popularity, according to David Briseño, the coordinator for the National Spanish Spelling Bee, stems from a burgeoning recognition of the benefits of bilingualism for students’ academic and professional careers.

Interest in the Spanish spelling competitions is also another clear signal that the stigma of bilingual education is wearing off as demand grows in school districts across the country for dual-language education, both for students who come from non-English-speaking homes and those who are native English speakers.

“People are more comfortable with the idea of globalization and globalized economy, the idea that bilingualism is going to help their kids get a foothold in college or the job market,” said Phillip Carter, an assistant professor of English and linguistics at Florida International University.

Silvia Rios refers to a list of words supplied by the organizing committee as she helps her son, Andres Arreola, prepare to defend his title in the upcoming National Spanish Spelling Bee competition.

Highly Marketable

That newfound comfort, according to Mr. Carter, is based largely on recent research.

A meta-analysis published in 2010 in the journal Review of Educational Research, for example, looked at 63 studies on the cognitive outcomes of bilingualism and found that it correlated to increased creative and divergent thinking, problem solving, working memory, and ability to pay attention.

Proficiency in more than one language has also become a highly marketable skill.

In the U.S. alone, interpreters and translators are the fifth fastest growing occupation and have a projected growth of 49 percent, or nearly 30,000 jobs, between 2012 and 2022, according to a 2013 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For the 4th through 8th-grade students who participate in the Spanish-language bees, though, it’s more about the thrill of competition.

In next week’s national bee, competitors from Massachusetts to Oregon must demonstrate their mastery of a list of 2,300 Spanish words, including all the accent marks. Unlike the Scripps spelling bee, there will be no preliminary elimination rounds, Mr. Briseño said.

In years past, most spellers are fully bilingual and the majority have been native Spanish speakers, Mr. Briseño said. Though non-native Spanish speakers have never won the national championship, they have done well at other levels of competition.

The Northeast Regional Spelling Bee is one such level, according to its founder and director Annie Azarloza, who is the world languages instructional leader at the Foxborough Regional Charter School in Massachusetts. At that competition, just five of more than 130 spellers were native Spanish speakers, she said.

And in New Mexico, non-native Spanish speakers have won at district and state-level competitions, according to José Reyes, a bilingual instructional specialist for the Gadsden school district in Sunland Park, N.M., and the planner of its districtwide spelling bee.

“I work with 15 elementary schools, three middle schools, and each of those schools prepares children who are either in a bilingual program or a nonbilingual program,” said Mr. Reyes. “There are [non-native Spanish speaking] children who are champions, and it’s beautiful.”

While participation in Spanish spelling bees may be rooted in a mounting movement from parents—especially, as researchers note, those of native-English speaking children—for more dual-language education, students and organizers agree that the competitions’ appeal often comes from principles of camaraderie and of honoring language.

Three finalists compete in the 2014 National Spanish Spelling Bee. Judith Villa, center right, and Stephanie Lara Arevalo, listen while Andres Arreola, the eventual winner, spells a word.

“There were a couple native speakers in my round, and I enjoyed talking to them from being a non-native speaker.” said Isabel Koran, a 9th grade student at Foxborough Regional Charter School in Foxboro, Mass., and the runner-up of the Northeast Regional Spelling Bee.

“I definitely made a couple new friends for the day.”

Ms. Koran got her first taste of Spanish spelling bees in 4th grade. Now a student in Advanced Placement Spanish, she said the new people she gets to meet and the fun she has practicing with her teacher are what keeps her coming back to competitions.

‘Celebration of Language’

Spanish spelling bees, according to Mr. Reyes, tend to be different than contests such as the NCAA basketball tournament, in which many schools are invited but almost all leave as “losers.” “We try to avoid that idea,” he said. “We try to say ‘this is a celebration of language.’”

Those celebrations of language, however, are likely to evolve in the wake of increased exposure and participation in the Spanish-language spelling bees.

The New Mexico statewide Spanish spelling bee—which has been around since the mid-1990s—has already developed standardized rules to make it more equitable, said Mr. Reyes, and the Northeast Regional competition is looking to have a larger assemblage of students from different states at next year’s event, according to Ms. Azarloza.

The national competition is also poised for a change, one that some have been asking for since its early years.

Back in 2009, when the National Spanish Spelling Bee was still was more of an idea than a reality, it caught the attention of ESPN. The sports broadcasting titan sought a partnership, but backed out shortly after making a promotional video of the competition’s 2011 debut.

Its reasoning, according to Mr. Briseño, was that the competition wasn’t growing fast enough.

For its sixth installment next year, the national competition is slated for expansion, with a likely move from its Albuquerque home to San Antonio, Texas.

The move would put it in the seventh largest Hispanic television market in the United States, according to consumer research group Nielsen, and be a step toward branching into other major Hispanic markets—a prerequisite ESPN had in order to move forward with televising the competition, according to Mr. Briseño.

A version of this article appeared in the July 08, 2015 edition of Education Week as Spelling—en Español—Catches On, With Bees In Multiple States

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