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The Sting of the Bee

Cedar Grove third-graders David Lim, left, and Clark Smith work on their spelling. Behind them, teacher Brian Lucas's word board lets them check the spelling of their grade's most frequently misspelled words.
Cedar Grove third-graders David Lim, left, and Clark Smith work on their spelling. Behind them, teacher Brian Lucas's word board lets them check the spelling of their grade's most frequently misspelled words. (Ricky Carioti - Ricky Carioti - TWP)

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By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 14, 2007

Spelling bees are hot.

Broadway plays host to one nearly every night with an award-winning musical about six overachieving spellers in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." Hollywood has embraced them too: "Akeelah" would be nothing without her "Bee," not to mention "Bee Season." And the Scripps National Spelling Bee, set for May 30 and 31, is popular enough for the finals to be televised in prime time for a second year.

Still, don't expect to find a spelling bee in Sue Ann Gleason's first-grade classroom at Cedar Grove Elementary School in Loudoun County. She doesn't think much of them.

"They honor the children who already know how to spell, but they do little to support those who need explicit instruction," she said.

As popular as spelling bees have become, academic researchers say many schools are giving spelling short shrift. That, they say, is because some teachers don't believe great spelling is necessary to pass the high-stakes standardized tests that drive public education. And because many don't know how to teach it.

Some wind up substituting spelling competitions for real instruction and insist that students memorize lists of words for a weekly test. That is no way to help students understand what words mean, experts say.

"Most teachers -- unfortunately -- think of spelling as a rote visual memory skill, and it's much richer than that," said Marcia Invernizzi, an education professor at the University of Virginia and a spelling researcher who has written textbooks on the topic.

"They think that somehow it is less important than other educational subjects, and that technology, such as spell checkers, has further diminished the importance of spelling," she said. "So they say, 'Let's not pay any attention to it at all.' But spelling is critical to reading and writing."

The advent of computerized spell check has taken a toll on the use of physical dictionaries, which include many more words and more information about each word, including origin and added definitions. Some students say they have come to rely on spell check.

Melissa Cohen, a 17-year-old senior at Rockville High School, said she took an Advanced Placement test in literature last Wednesday and thought about using some words that might make her essay sound, well, smarter. But she didn't. She wasn't sure how to spell them.

"I didn't have a computer, and I didn't want to spell it wrong," said Cohen, who is headed to New York University next year.

"It's kind of crazy to say spelling doesn't count," Invernizzi said. "In applications here at U-Va., if you have a misspelling in your essay, that is going to reduce your odds greatly. It's the kiss of death."


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