Time To ‘Flip The Scripps’

Singdha vs. Stuti 2012 – Bring it!!

The day after the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee, I remember a quick morning conversation with my wife (you know, the one that you have between the screaming, whining, complaining, and throwing of various foodstuffs from the children). The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey! Did you see that a girl from Orlando almost won the spelling bee?

Wife: You know, I really don’t understand the point of the Spelling Bee.

Me: Yeah, I know, right? Anyway, I’ll change   his load if you brush his teeth….

There is no question in my mind that these kids are dedicated, hard-working individuals that have the right idea when it comes down to work ethic and striving for success. 

… and that’s about it in terms of the Spelling Bee’s usefulness…

The Spelling Bee demonstrates (and somewhat supports) what I consider to be one of the biggest problems facing the education system today, and that is the usage of rote memorization (or rote learning) in order to succeed.

Yes, in the context of the Spelling Bee as it is today, rote memorization is most definitely the ‘best tool for the job’ in order to succeed. However, what sort of message are we sending to parents and children by glorifying rote memorization? You, too, can be on ESPN if you spend 6+ hours per day rote memorizing the spelling of words that you repeatedly ask the judges for their definition, for them to use the words in a sentence, and for their country of origin…

So, I propose the following changes to the Scripps National Spelling Bee (in no particular order):

Add a time limit: In the real world, there are deadlines. If you asked your boss, say, 15 times for the definition or meaning of a particular work-related project, your boss (if astute) would start to reevaluate their decision to hire you in the first place. Not to mention, said boss wouldn’t give you UNLIMITED TIME to work on said project….

Give extra credit to those that can provide the definition of a word, as well as use it properly in a sentence:  If you can spell a word that in most circles would be considered an ‘SAT word’ (in other words, other folks want to slap you in the face when you use that word), then by all means you should at least know the definition and how to use it properly in a sentence. This will separate the true ‘cream from the coffee’.

If someone spells a word wrong, have an entertaining ‘exit’ planned for the kid: If someone is going to interrupt my sports highlights with a 14 year old misspelling “schwarmerei” on ESPN, there better be something remotely entertaining in its place. Perhaps a giant foot kicking them through giant goalposts into a safety net would do… or the stage floor just opening up beneath them and then letting out a huge burping noise. Enough of this ‘hotel bell’ crap.

Any other suggestions for ‘flipping the Scripps’?




  1. As a spelling bee champion myself, but (sadly) not at the national level, I found that studying for the rote spelling bee allowed me the freedom to get out of my mind-numbing classes in order to study linguistics. I don’t believe for one minute that a winner doesn’t know the context and derivation of most of the words on the list. Yes, it’s a specific discipline, but how is it any different from knowing all the dinosaurs or all of the scientific elements or even all the plays on the play list? As an adult, I know that there are many words I read in books that I would never have understood if it weren’t for my time as a spelling bee champ. It’s not about “appearing intelligent.” It’s about not being ignorant. I encourage my students to participate!

    • Chris said:

      I appreciate the comment, especially coming from someone relatively knowledgeable about the subject. I do believe that there is some value in the Spelling Bee as it stands today. Also, I would never discourage my children, or any other child for that matter, from participating. I’m sure, to your point, that your knowledge of certain words trumps others, and that it’s helped you pave the way towards your success.

      I will also say that learning words (of which there are many, according to Oxford) is similar to learning other lists of various disciplines, even though the volume of words far exceeds the scientific elements example mentioned ;). However, I absolutely (and respectfully) disagree that the participants of the televised finals have a clue of what ‘most’ of those words mean. If they did, they wouldn’t have to ask the questions that they ask, plain and simple. This is why (in my suggestion) I believe that they should offer up a bonus to the students that can provide a definition and use the word(s) in a sentence without having to ask the judges. It would be a better measure of knowledge, which is what I believe the Spelling Bee should measure, as opposed to rote memorization capabilities, which I believe is being measured by the format used today.

      • Do you tell a famous basketball player not to practice free throws? How many rote repetitions does it take to be successful? While I agree that there’s a limited market for experts in spelling and linguistics, we could make the same argument for children who want to be professional basketball players. I just hate to see people denigrating the work of these children — one does not get to be a spelling champion through the efforts of others. They do it themselves, while under negative and high-powered scrutiny that few of us could endure with equanimity. :)

      • Chris said:

        Who is ‘denigrating the work of these children’? Perhaps the bold and italicized praise that I offered within my post was missed by not reading said post with equanimity…:) Also, one does not become a champion, in basketball or spelling, ‘by themselves’. Out of the 278 participants at the national level, 238 of them had parents or family members coach them. That’s not ‘doing it themselves’.

        I do believe that rote repetition is good for certain things. The basketball example (especially shooting and passing a basketball) is a good one. However, as you well know, becoming a successful basketball player isn’t all about shooting; strategy, speed, agility, strength, situational awareness, and versatility by every member of the team is needed to win a championship. For spelling, rote learning is clearly the way to go. However, there are more to words than spelling them, and there’s more to basketball than free throws. This does not discredit the hard work and dedication to be experts in both.

      • My students would know definitely that I am a word nerd if they saw this conversation. Thanks for having it with me; it’s a rare opportunity to talk about something about which I care passionately. :)

      • Chris said:

        Haha! :) I’m GLAD that you care passionately about this, and that you are teaching your students to do the same. Thank you!!

  2. Actually, I think that’s what Mark Sanchez’s dad did while teaching him football. For real. He’d quiz him on homework. I’m not sure if it was to keep him on his toes, or just to kill two birds with one stone…

    I’ve never actually watched a televised spelling bee though.

    • Chris said:

      Yes – Mark Sanchez’s dad did, in fact, use that sort of training. I would venture to guess that it helped him academically, as well as athletically. :)

      I suppose I’d rather see kids solve complex problems on TV (perhaps in some sort of reality TV or game show).

  3. Cretin said:

    Good stuff. I think you’re onto something here. I suggest we combine the spelling with another activity. Have the kid spell while, shooting a free throw, riding a bike, killing zombies on an X-Box or arguing with their brother over who has to clean-up the dishes… Multi-tasking and appearing intelligent at the same time is the more valuable skill than the rote memorization.

    • Chris said:

      Haha! :) Yes, multi-tasking would work. It would have been interesting seeing the winner of this year’s ‘Bee’ riding a bike at the same time, considering she was writing the letters in her hand with her other hand. That might have been interesting :)

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