The National Spelling Bee’s Indefensible Move to Force Kids to Memorize Definitions

Language and how we use it.
May 28 2013 6:02 PM

Wait, I Have to Know What It Means, Too?

Shame on the Scripps National Spelling Bee for forcing contestants to memorize definitions.

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In a statement, Kimble said the vocabulary testing “represents a deepening of the Bee’s commitment to its purpose: to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives.” Spelling and vocabulary are, she said, “two sides of the same coin.” When a kid studies spelling, Kimble continued, he learns about etymology and meaning. When he learns meanings, spelling becomes easier.

All true, as far as it goes. But that’s not what a spelling bee is, or what the National Bee has been. The goal of a spelling bee is to spell words correctly. Meanings, in this instance, don’t matter. The order of the letters is what matters. How the speller gets there—by learning definitions or by employing other mnemonic techniques—is, or should be, completely up to the speller.

What the Scripps people are saying is that spelling on its own isn’t educational enough, that simply learning the correct sequence of letters that constitute the correct spelling of a word is a lesser exercise without the simultaneous assimilation of the word’s meaning. That’s high-minded—who can argue with making kids know the definitions of the words that come out of their mouths?—but it’s also small-minded. It’s perfectly fine and, in fact, healthy to use language narrowly, to strip words of their context and history and meaning, and to teach kids that that’s OK.

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We do that all the time, not only in spelling bees but in word searches and Games magazine puzzles and Will Shortz’s Sunday spots on NPR and my passion, competitive Scrabble, in which players learn thousands and thousands of letter strings with the sole purpose of laying them down on a board. As Dmitri Borgmann, the father of modern wordplay, wrote in his 1965 book Language on Vacation, “Language consists of words, and words can be looked at as objects of art, to be examined and evaluated, admired or criticized, accepted or rejected.”

That’s exactly what the National Bee does, and its participants, wittingly or not, embrace and reflect and promote the idea that language is complex and beautiful. Top competitors pore over word lists and spell along with computerized word pronouncers. They dog-ear copies of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, the unabridged, 2,662-page book that is the official word source. Last year’s champion, 14-year-old Snigdha Nandipati of San Diego, said she studied six hours a day on weekdays and 10 to 12 hours a day on weekends to prepare for the bee. That reflects a remarkable love of words, no matter how limited their purpose, and it develops all sorts of “real-world” and “useful” skills, from discipline to competition to a recognition that language is broad and deep and cool.

Top spellers face enormous pressure to prepare for and perform in what has evolved into a high-stakes event witnessed by more than a million people. They already understand the utility of definitions, as well as etymologies and parts of speech, in helping to suss out correct spellings. Now, just six weeks before this year’s Bee, the adult organizers have moved the spelling goalposts in a big way, imposing new pressure on the kids and placing spellers who haven’t focused on definitions at a disadvantage to those who have. “Changes are not a surprise, but these changes are massive,” the father of one top speller told the AP.

The big shame here is that the spellers are being asked to alter their approach on the fly to make the Bee itself look better. Learning the meanings of the words they will be asked to spell—vivisepulture, succedaneum, pococurante, cymotrichous, guetapens—won’t make these children any smarter, more driven, or more appreciative of language and education than they already are.

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Slate's sports podcast Hang Up and Listen. Email him at sfatsis9@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.