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Spelling and Reasons for Participating in Spelling Bees

Updated on September 28, 2012
Barbsbitsnpieces profile image

Barbara Anne Helberg is a Fiction freelancer, Internet writer, WordPress blogger, former Journalist, and a Famous Writers School graduate.

Some have a talent for good spelling, while others may need to hit the books to achieve a degree of success in the discipline.
Some have a talent for good spelling, while others may need to hit the books to achieve a degree of success in the discipline. | Source

Breaking My Third Person Viewpoint Code

As an Internet writer, I very much adhere to the article-writing code of using third person viewpoint, but for this particular article, I'm breaking my own strict code to use, instead, a first person viewpoint. This article is about a survey I took long ago, in 1987 to be exact, to find out more about why elementary and middle-school students participated in their classroom and school spelling bees.

Spellers of Yesteryear

In my own younger school days, teachers conducted competitive classroom spelldowns to boost our skills in spelling. Eventually, when my two children launched themselves into classroom spelling challenges, as well as county competition, I mentored them at home with spelling lists that they practiced almost every night.

In the 1980s, I worked for the Northwest-Signal newspaper in Napoleon, of Henry County, Ohio, as a feature writer and a sports reporter. One day, I pitched the idea of an article on school spelling bees to my editor. I would interview children from the various southern Henry County schools -- Holgate, Hamler, Malinta, and Deshler -- which were on my reporting beat, and write my article based on the experiences of the children themselves.

Not long ago, I came across the numerous written interview sheets I had handed out to those school children to answer briefly my key questions about their spelling bee participation. Indeed, I am a saver of all things pertinent to my writing aspirations. Thus, in my "Holgate box", I found those papers of yesteryear, and as I read them, once again I realized a gambit of emotions and expressions from these children who had put themselves into positions and mindsets to become better spellers.

Henry County Spelling Bee (Photo by Barbara Anne Helberg, 1986)
Henry County Spelling Bee (Photo by Barbara Anne Helberg, 1986)

Challenge and Competition

The southern Henry County high schools long had been consolidated by the time I conducted my Spelling Bee Survey of 1987. In my yesteryear, each Henry County school had its own high school and county competition among those schools in sports and academics was fierce.

Things hadn't changed in the area of competition by 1987, however, as the students from the third grade through the eighth grade whom I interviewed, most often sited the challenge and competition provided in a spelling bee as their main motivations to participate. Some were in the bee to become better spellers; some wanted their parents to be proud of them; and at least one seemed bent on trying until she was successful.

That latter student turned in the following interview sheet:

This interview was written by a 12-year-old Spanish sixth grader attending Malinta-Grelton Elementary School, one of the smallest schools in Henry County. The reason I mention her ethnicity is that Henry County was one of many in which Spanish laborers worked as tomato pickers for many years before their families were able to settle in the area and send their children to school. This little speller was the only one to express herself in the manner displayed on her interview sheet. I believe she spoke eloquently, if not perfectly, to the idea and to the dream of improvement and not giving up, as taught to her by generations of families rooted in migration and faced by great challenges.

Fun, Trophies, and Parental Encouragement

Numerous students who answered my interview questions sited "fun" and "challenge" as their reasons for entering spelling bees. About half of them said they had to work "very hard" to become good spellers, while the other half stated they needed to work less because they were "natural" spellers.

My abilities in spelling and English were "natural", handed to me by my Mother's genes of the same nature. My children, one boy and one girl, were also good natural spellers, but they took nothing for granted and practiced quite hard on their spelling lists before Spelling Bee dates.

My interviewed students also stated they worked with spelling lists provided by their teachers, and received support and willing helpers at home to master those lists. A third grader said she enjoyed competing in spelling bees "because I learn new words", and a fifth grade student said, "It's fun and my mom is glad if I'm in it".

A couple of answers quoted the age-old desired reward for accomplishment in any competition: "Because I like to see if I can get a trophy".

Spelling is "testing and a lot of competition" said a 13-year-old Deshler seventh grade student who had already placed second and third in his School Spelling Bee in two previous years, as well as placing fourth in the Henry County Spelling Bee. A strong work ethic wasn't lost on this speller, as he answered my question on whether he was a natural speller or had to work hard to be a good speller like this: "I am a good speller but I still work because I think no matter how good you are you still have to study".

He attributed his spelling bee preparations to continuously going over the words in his spelling book and to spelling list help from his "mother, brother, sister, and father".

I also liked the thoughts of the following sixth grader:

He had already finished third in his School Spelling Bee three years earlier, but the hard work necessary to maintain good spelling obviously had made an impression on him, as he was studying "where ever I go".

A fourth grader mentioned another worthy study practice on her interview sheet. "I am marking the words that I don't know," she said, and she was "studying the words" in question, she added.

A sixth grader said she studied "one section" of her spelling book, "then someone asks me the words".

"Because you learn to spell a lot of words, big words especially and it's fun being able to be in it," said a fifth grader about her reason for participating in spelling bees.

"My mom told me to read through the list of words and it worked," said a third grade student in answer to my question about how to prepare for a classroom spelldown.

Another stunning answer as to why competition appeals was declared by this fifth grader: "Because I feel good about myself".

"It's very exciting because you can learn more," said a third grade student.

A fourth grader gave this astute evaluation: "Because I think it is to learn to spell words and the Spelling Bee makes it even more fun".

Alas, that learning should be fun!


Much of spelling is "seeing" the word in its exact form. The habit of not focusing on a word, or half-seeing it, many times leads to misspelling that word in the future.

The students I interviewed were very much keyed into studying their spelling words by using spelling lists given to them by teachers, by having family members repeat words to them, or even, as one seventh grade boy said, by "saying them (the words) to myself".

The seventh grader was a three-time previous placer in his School Spelling Bee, including a first place finish as a fourth grade student in both his school bee and the Henry County Spelling Bee.

Saying words to learn to spell them is a good practice. The use of phonetics became popular when I was in elementary school. Investigations show that only 22% of commonly used English words are non-phonetic. That means 78% are spelled as they sound and pronounced as they appear; they are phonetic.

It also has been learned that 8,000 to 10,000 words make up the average person's vocabulary, but that the same persons' writing vocabulary contains just 4,000 to 5,000 words. Yet President Woodrow Wilson used as many as 60,000 different words in his total written works, while using 6,200 different words in 75 speeches.

While I'm not certain that any of my interviewed students became Woodrow Wilson-like, I remain convinced that they competed and succeeded in their spelling lessons and spelling bees through their willingness to challenge themselves to learn.


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      3 years ago

      I've been thinking about this since I potesd the link to the original question raised by the BBC and have been looking forward to reading your blog post.I know that there is far more to being a teacher than being able to spell and I appreciate that aspect. I am currently at college, studying sciences however as part of the course I am having to do A level maths (hahaha! ) My math tutor is amazing. At maths. But she is hopeless at teaching and interacting with us and as a result I am not inspired. My Chemistry tutor however, is amazing and I find myself eager to learn. In our assignments and tests points are lost if spellings are incorrect and as a lot of these words are scientific the usual phonetic words don't apply. I have to learn them. When I applied to the college I was surprised to be sent an application form riddled with mistakes and I'm afraid I could not help myself but point them out. I realise that in some ways the teaching that the teachers have recieved whilst they were learning was not of a high enough standard, but, we need to continue to push these standards up, by expecting more of todays educators or it will be the same reason the next generation will use too.With regard to paying for proof readers, I do not know how much it will cost, and have not looked into that but, using your figures I am surprised that it is deemed ok to spend that much. I've done lots of work for the PSA of my childrens primary school and often we are being asked to try and raise funds for basics like pencil sharpeners and visualisers for the class rooms and even waste bins for them. Although we do also fund raise for things like better playground frames too. a32000 would buy a lot of essentials.So, my final thoughts. The original BBC question was flawed by design, it was supposed to get polarised oppinions and it did. All schools should be driving the standard of teaching up, for the pupils and if necessary the staff. If this is just one school then perhaps this school should look at the standard of teaching being carried out by its teaching staff in general. If there are more schools doing this, then perhaps, as a parent and a student, I should be concerned. Yes, people make spelling mistakes and typos and some leeway can and should be allowed for that but the standards still need to be raised.

    • Barbsbitsnpieces profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Anne Helberg 

      6 years ago from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA

      @Stove And Home...Glad you stopped by!

      In the back of my mind all my life was the idea that saving records and events material would serve me well in retirement, which I had always planned to spend writing. Those materials are the best writing resource collection I have, and it really is exciting to look back at them and reap a little inspiration from them.

      You're not alone in the minus-good department in math and science! I think, perhaps, spelling, reading, English, and writing are one thing and math and science are another. You can have one (group) without the other, so to speak!!

    • Barbsbitsnpieces profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Anne Helberg 

      6 years ago from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA

      @MsDora...Thank you for your compliments on this Hub!

      Yes, in looking back, I also found the "improvement" motivation to be quite remarkable!

    • Barbsbitsnpieces profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Anne Helberg 

      6 years ago from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA

      @teaches12345...Thanks for commenting!

      I, too, was usually nervous when a test, or challenge faced me, although when I was young, it didn't seem to get to me as much. As I got older, the pressure of the moment sometimes won over my ability.

    • Stove And Home profile image

      Stove And Home 

      6 years ago

      It is great that you had records from so many years ago. Those must have brought back memories. Children should always try to improve their spelling skills. The subject was something I was very proud of as a child. Spelling and reading were perhaps the only talents I could claim. I was not and still am not good at math or science disciplines.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      6 years ago from The Caribbean

      Voted Interesting! Would be nice if the motivation for today's spellers is still self-improvement. Congratulations on the good job you did then and the good job you do now--sharing this article.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      I remember those spelling bees. I could never quite get over the nervousness when it was my turn to spell; and I was a great speller under normal circumstances! Great share on this and the reality of how it all runs.

    • Barbsbitsnpieces profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Anne Helberg 

      6 years ago from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA

      @drbj...Nice to have you stop by again!

      Really, for sure! I find myself consulting the dictionary these days to make certain I'm spelling words correctly that I use to type out, or spit out as easily as I walked. Something to do with age, no doubt.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      6 years ago from south Florida

      This was a bit of deja vu, Barb, because when I was in the 6th grade, I won a city-wide spelling bee. Really! Nowadays eye find my spelink skilles hav vannished.


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