Another reason to hate the Spelling Bee

I have written before that I am not a fan of the national Spelling Bee contest. One reason is that the format is inherently unfair and needlessly nerve-wracking to the children taking part. The second is that it results in students pending enormous amounts of time memorizing the spelling of esoteric words that they are unlikely to ever even encounter again, let alone use them.

This year’s contest that ended yesterday produced a telling example of the latter problem. During the final rounds, a student was ousted after misspelling the word ‘kabaragoya’. What was particularly poignant was that he initially excitedly thought he had nailed it and must have been devastated to be told he was wrong.

Although most of the words used in the final rounds of these bees are ones that I have never heard of, I would have been able to spell that particular word easily because it refers to the large Asian water monitor that is commonly found in Sri Lanka and that everyone there is familiar with. What bothers me is that the animal is found only in that country and the word is the Sinhala name for the lizard and Sinhala is also spoken only in that country.

It seems pointless and harsh to ask students to be able to spell in English words that are from other languages, especially languages that are not widely used, of obscure items found in remote parts of the world.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    They should stick to cromulent English words like floccinaucinihilipilification.

  2. Al Dente says

    It’s one thing to throw English words at the contestants but when they start using foreign language words for uncommon, non-native animals then it’s getting a bit much.

  3. Menyambal says

    I agree. Wierd words from other languages have no place in a spelling bee. It is wrong, also, to make the contest about those with the ability and time to memorize long lists of useless data.

    The contests could be changed to include speed in spelling, which is a useful skill.

  4. lorn says

    Without spell check I’m pretty hopeless at spelling.

    Standardized spelling is a relatively recent development. Even into the late nineteenth century spelling of a lot of words was highly variable. Variable spelling can have uses. When some pedant would chime in a perfectly civil discussion and derail it with spelling corrections I would start spicing up my comments with English spellings like colour and cheque hoping they would say something. For when they did I would rhetorically pound them around their head and shoulder with a large virtual cod for being both ignorant and unkind.

    One of the founding fathers said something along the lines of: ‘Only a fool can only spell a word one way’.

    I find that a certain relaxed attitude in the use of grammar and spelling is more conducive to dialog. Of course, a lot depends on the work at hand. Important legal documents, such as contracts and technical manuals, need to use language with precision.

  5. A Jones says

    Good post. The spelling bee is child abuse--it exploits kids for entertainment purposes. If they cared about getting the best speller, then everyone would have to spell the same words and the person with the highest total score at the end would win. Nobody would ever be eliminated after missing just one word. Not only is the contest humiliating and cruel--it’s a big waste of time. A couple of years ago, one mother estimated that her kid had spent about 8,000 hours(!!!) studying for the spelling bee over 5 years!! It’s all about the parents seeking glory, not the kids. And the parents are turning the kids into robots and depriving them of normal childhoods in the process. At best. the spelling bee is silly, and at worst, it’s just plain sick.

    I think these parents are doing serious damage to their kids as well. Someone needs to coin a term for excessive devotion to rote learning--how about “rotomania”? Studies have shown that placing a high emphasis on achievement in kids is a recipe for unhappiness. Maybe many of them will win spelling bees, but how well adjusted will they be later on in life? Yes, I do think many of the kids who make it to the National Spelling Bee are victims of child abuse. Very sad. Instead of applauding these winners, we should have sympathy for them.

  6. says

    I know. We can replace it with a “Number Bee”.

    “What are the 15th-23rd digits of pi?”

    “Please provide the 122th to 130th digits of e.”

    Equally pointless.

  7. alanuk says

    It is interesting how Mano is able to bring things seen from a different viewpoint. In British English we have many words that have more than one acceptable spelling. Often the variants are described by Americans as the ‘British’ spelling and the ‘American’ spelling. Lots of true American spellings are unacceptable in British English but this is often not the case.

    The question that I would like answered is, in American English, is there always only one acceptable spelling of any word?

  8. Mano Singham says

    Good question. I don’t know but I suspect that the organizers of this contest have some sort of rule saying what sources of spelling are acceptable and go with that. I also think they probably choose words that their dictionaries spell in only one way.

  9. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    My sense is that the Spelling Bee has gone the way of the SAT and ACT exams in the sense that perfect scores have become so common--because an increasing number of students do spend hundreds of hours in preparation classes (full disclosure, one of my sources of income is tutoring for those exams)--and only the professional (the student that spent 8,000 hours over five years) can compete and simply referring to words in the Merriam-Webster 10th Collegiate is insufficiently difficult.

    Speaking to your question, Mano, American dictionaries most typically refer to a preferred spelling but do offer alternate spellings if appropriate.

    Do all you can to make today a well-spelled day,


  10. Ravi Venkataraman says

    @#6: I think the 8000 hours in 5 years is a typo. That works out to 1600 hours a year, which is more than 4.5 hours for every day of the year including weekends and holidays.

    But I agree that the spelling bee is a total waste of time.

  11. hyphenman says

    @A Jones…

    Also see the suicide rate of adolescent Japanese students…

    @ Ravi Venkataraman

    I had the same initial reaction but when I did the math i came up with 30.7 hours per week. While this number is well into the child abuse realm, I don’t find it incredible. I’ve come across too many parents in my role as a tutor who would willingly subject their child to that kind of regimen in the name of success in areas such as sports, dance, Olympic aspirations and academic prizes.

    Horribly sad, yes. Beyond belief, no.

  12. moarscienceplz says

    The question that I would like answered is, in American English, is there always only one acceptable spelling of any word?

    There are some words with multiple spellings. Anglicized foreign words like ‘koran’ or ‘quran’. ‘Clew’ was a common form of ‘clue’ in the first half of the 20th century, but has faded away. I suspect the board game “Clue” might be the cause of that. Much of our spelling was created by Noah Webster who, as an American patriot, consciously tried to differentiate American English from British English, and was also a big fan of standardization. I’d say the Merriam-Webster dictionary is still the most influential one in the USA, so its spelling would tend to become authoritative.

  13. moarscienceplz says

    (From Mano’s 2010 post):

    nahcolite, a white mineral consisting of sodium bicarbonate

    Interesting. This must be a fairly recent word. The chemical formula for sodium bicarbonate (or, its preferred name, sodium hydrogen carbonate) is NaHCO3. Whoever named this mineral must have already been aware of this.

  14. A Jones says

    To answer Mano’s question, the official dictionary for the spelling bee is Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which is huge. A few years ago, one girl who won the National Spelling Bee said that she went through the whole thing *twice*--and that something must have stuck! 🙁 Also, yes, I think most of the time they pick words for which only one spelling is listed.

    Ravi, that may appear to be a typo, but please simply do a Web search with the following terms: “Nicholas Rushlow” 8,000 hours. I think that estimate really is true, which shows how shocking it is since you honestly thought it was a typo. Sad to say, I think many of these kids will end up needing serious professional help as adults because of this kind of abuse. Balance is so important. It’s bad enough when adults become workaholics, but to make kids maniacal about achievement against their wills is simply evil.

    A few years ago, a woman named Jessamyn Tracy had a blog in which she described her trek to the NSB in the late ’80s. IIRC, she said that her mother made her study spelling 2-3 hours a day on weekdays, and 8 or more hours a day on weekends! She described it as a “personal crusade” for her parent. And some kids trying to win the NSB are forced to study spelling 8 hours a day in the summer!!! One girl, Marjory Lavory, who was the first runner-up in the NSB in ’95, said that even though she and her siblings achieved a lot, it was all based on fear and abuse, not healthy enjoyment. She said she was upset not because she missed her word in the NSB and didn’t win, but because she was terrified about what her father was going to do to her afterward. She said that she and her siblings would often joke at home about saying aloud the following in a spelling bee: “Well, I’d better get this word right, or else my father is going to beat the hell out of me!!!”

    hyphenman, yes, I believe that about the suicide rate of Japanese students. Putting a lot of pressure on kids to achieve leads to depression, and, when things get bad enough, sometimes suicide. 🙁 Colleges like Harvard and MIT have among the highest suicide rates in the nation, and Asian Americans have higher suicide rates than other groups of Americans.

    Another reason the spelling bee is stupid is that humans were never meant to be robots. Yes, kids need to learn how to spell words like “accommodate,” “millennium,” “separate,” “embarrass,” etc., but for really obscure words, that’s what dictionaries are for--you just look them up. Since we already have computers, why are we trying to turn kids into them? It makes no sense. I heard one person say that things like this are the result of our society having too much testosterone and that “our entertainment brings us victories like a fast-food order.” In other words, our culture lusts after victory (whether vicarious or not) so much we’ll even sacrifice little kids to satisfy our collective appetites.

    There’s also plenty of research showing that competition is simply not healthy for kids in general. To read more, do a Web search on: “The Case Against Competition” Alfie Kohn, and the article should pop up.

  15. hyphenman says

    @A Jones

    Yes, Alfie Kohn is a marvel. I’ve long made his works a touchstone in my own teaching.

    The hardest bit to integrate, because the concept of training children like animals is so ingrained in all education, at home and at school, is that rewarding desired performance is just as damaging as punishing non-, or undesired performance.

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  16. A Jones says


    That’s interesting. What about rewarding effort? Is it helpful to reward kids for that? Such as saying, “I am so glad you gave it your best,” or “I am very proud of you for working so hard,” etc.? Or even “nice job”?

    Something else about the spelling bee: It seems to me that families that would make their kids study for several hours a day for a spelling bee are seriously dysfunctional. The parents (or at least whoever is calling the shots) obviously lack self-acceptance and do not know what “normal” is. As a result, the kids will grow up not knowing what “normal” is either. It is simply *not* normal to have a kid read through an entire dictionary, much less a huge one.

    And here are a couple of frightening snippets from news articles about 2 of this year’s NSB competitors, the first about the co-champion:

    “Thirteen-year-old Ansun Sujoe put spring break on hold to study about 30,000 words.” [30,000 words??? Who needs a life when you’ve got a dictionary, right? 😛 If you include weekends, spring break should have been about 9 days. So, he was studying 3,000+ words a day. If he did that 8 hours a day, that would be about 400 words every hour, or about 65 words every 10 minutes. Can you say “insanity”????]

    “Sumedh Garimella….a 14-year-old…eighth-grader….can recite pi up to 75 digits.” [Why would you want to be able to recite the digits of PI? Wouldn’t it be healthier for a kid to know how to *make* a pie than to recite the digits of PI??? Again, this kind of thing is simply not normal.]

    And what’s really sad is that many of these kids start getting groomed for the spelling bee when they’re frighteningly young. For instance, get a load of this statement from an article about the 2012 winner:

    “Snigdha’s father has trained her since she was four, and used 30,000 flash cards to help her memorise tough words — words like ‘guetapens’ and ‘chionablepsia’ that she is unlikely to encounter again in life.” [Since she was *4* years old????? Parents like that need to be locked up--seriously. 😛 ]

    This part was also interesting:

    “The fact is that [rote learning] plays to their strength, which is learning by rote. Memorising tracts is and has always been the Indian way of acquiring knowledge. It is also the way in which learning is examined in Indian schools. Answers to questions about history, geography and even science that aligned word for word with what the textbook said got you full marks when I was a child, and this hasn’t changed.

    “Indians have a word in each of their languages for this sort of learning. It is called ratta in Hindi, for instance, and gokh in Gujarati. It refers to reading, repeatedly reciting, and thereby, memorising whole pages of prose.

    “This may not be a good way of learning, if it is learning at all, but this has always been the case in India. Hindus developed a complex system of memorising and reciting the entire Rig Veda so that it would not be lost in the period before literacy.”

  17. hyphenman says

    @ A Jones,

    Kohn, of course states this much better, but here is my understanding in a nutshell: rewarding good performance in education reduces the process to a carnival game. There is no real value in being able to toss the ring over the coke bottle or or pop the balloon with the dart, but if you want the stuffed animal, you have to be good at that particular skill. Put another way, there is no value (for the dog) in learning how to heel or fetch, or whatever, but the dog is willing to repeat the behavior in exchange for a treat.

    When we reward our children for doing well in school (and, in Kohn’s mind that includes grades) we teach them that the reward is the thing and the learning is just a means to that end with no intrinsic value beyond that purpose.

    Again, I highly recommend Kohn’s books for a deeper understanding of his views on education.


  18. Mano Singham says

    @A Jones #16,

    Carol Dweck has done some important work that adds to what Kohn has said and addresses your question.

    It is good to praise students for effort and for using or trying strategies because that focuses their attention on what they did and adds to their perception that they can do better by learning new things.It helps them think that intelligence is malleable and can increase.

    Giving ‘trait praise’ (i.e., praising the person by saying things like “that was smart” or “you are clever/good/” is bad because it reinforces the idea that intelligence is a fixed quality in people and in fact it discourages effort.

    I have studied this issue of motivation quite a bit and may write a more extensive post on this later.

  19. A Jones says


    Thanks for the heads-up. I never agree with any experts out there 100% of the time, and I’m sure Kohn won’t be an exception, but I like a lot of his ideas so far. Yes, I’ll have to check out some more of his stuff.


    Thanks for the clarification. That makes sense to praise the things you mentioned--if you don’t praise effort, it goes unaffirmed and unappreciated. Yes, it could be helpful if you write more on that area in the future.

    There’s a good short video on YouTube about this topic as well. I don’t know if we can share links here, but you can find the video by doing a Web search on: “effort, not achievement” YouTube

    Oh, one more snippet about 2012’s NSB winner, whom I mentioned yesterday:

    “Snigdha said she studies 10-12 hours on weekends and six hours on weekdays.”

    So, this girl was studying up to 50 hours a week for the spelling bee? 🙁 (Or did she mean on other things as well? Either way, it’s complete lunacy.) Why is the spelling bee so important to these parents? If you win the NSB, are all your problems going to be magically solved and then you’re just going to live happily ever after? Hardly. You get some money and your 15 minutes of fame, but that’s about it. Then within a year or so, you’ll simply return to your previous level of happiness anyway--your victory at the NSB definitely won’t make you happy for the rest of your life. However, then you just get vastly increased pressure to succeed in the future, like a horrible treadmill. (“Hey, son, now that you’ve won the NSB, you have to go Harvard and become a physician for sure! Nothing less will do!!!” 😛 ) In the long run, is it even close to being worth all that effort? I don’t think so. I truly feel sorry for Snigdha and all those other kids who grow up in homes like that with abusive, prestige-wh*** parents who seem to be mentally ill almost. I hope they’ll be able to find some freedom as adults at least.

  20. Mano Singham says

    @A Jones,

    I was never part of the Spelling Bee craze but I can testify to the subtle but intense competitiveness among the expatriate parents from the Indian subcontinent. They ‘compete’ with each other by how well their children do academically. So parents whose children make the national finals have bragging rights over those who don’t make the cut, and all the way down the line. And yes, what colleges your children get into is another important marker.

    The children never get off the treadmill.

  21. A Jones says


    Yes, sadly, I’ve heard all about that kind of stuff. Of course, many Chinese and other Asian parents are the same way. In fact, I had a very good friend in college who was born in India--she moved to the U.S. when she was about 4. Her sister was born here. Anyway, both were pushed by their parents and ended up becoming valedictorians at their high school. (They were both very pretty too.) She said that her parents (or at least her mother) would repeatedly tell her, “If you don’t become a doctor, Ph.D., etc., you’re nothing.” (That statement right there indicates a serious lack of self-acceptance by the parent, who is always trying to validate their worth--a process that is never-ending.) My friend was not allowed to date, and she had to be in her room every night by about 9 p.m. to call her abusive mother, who would often berate her with epithets such as “prostitute” (no joke 🙁 ). What’s really sad is that her parents put so much pressure on her that she took the MCAT 4 times and did terribly each time, so that she was never able to become a doctor. (Without all that pressure, I believe my friend would have done fine.) Sadder still, she ended up becoming a very bitter, off-balance person just like her mother.

    Going back to the spelling bee, another problem with it is that it emphasizes “weak” or “shallow” learning. So you’ve memorized a ton of “data”--how is that actually going to help you in real life? There’s nothing wrong with rote learning in moderation, of course, but taking it to an extreme is helpful to no one. Not only that, who even remembers NSB winners years down the road? We can’t even keep up with all the American Idol winners, much less former geeky middle-schoolers. 😉

    BTW, I just noticed that you’ve made a couple of new posts about the spelling bee as well--I look forward to reading those too.

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