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The Sting of the Bee
Despite Their Rising Popularity, Spelling Competitions Aren't Good Instructional Tools, Some Teachers Say

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."

For Gleason, spelling is of central importance to progress in reading and writing. The importance hit home several years ago when she returned to her first-grade classroom after a brief absence to find a typewritten letter from a substitute student teacher.

"Well," the note went, 'if I wasn't sure before, I am now. I defiantly do not want to teach the younger kids. . . . On your desk is your mail for the week and the teacher appa rition stuff.' "

Gleason realized the student teacher had meant to say "definitely" rather than "defiantly," and "appreciation" for "apparition" but knew the computer's spell check hadn't caught these mistakes.

"Do we want to teach our children to be lazy, or do we want to teach them that spelling matters?" said Gleason, who did not give the student teacher a recommendation but learned that she was hired as a full-time teacher

She was appalled by the mistakes and decided to take action. She began taking courses in effective spelling instruction. She now uses a multi-layered system that features sound, pattern and meaning, which experts say improves not only word recognition, but also fluency, comprehension, vocabulary and compositional skills.

Lesson plans are individualized, depending on where students are in the process. Teachers can figure out where each child is by analyzing spelling mistakes.

There are patterns to the misspelling of words in every language, Invernizzi said, and if teachers understood even the most basic mistakes, they could better guide students.

For example, in Spanish, the letters "b" and "v" are nearly indistinguishable in sound. Knowing that could help a teacher better decipher the English writing of a native Spanish speaker.

Knowing patterns can also help teachers figure out a child's "invented spelling," a practice in which students spell words according to how they sound. Some parents fear that unchecked invented spelling will stunt their child's spelling development, but Invernizzi said it can be helpful if teachers use it as a starting point.

"I try to integrate reading and writing as much as possible, so when I see a child spelling a word incorrectly, I may say, 'If you can spell "day," you can spell "play" or "today," ' " Gleason said. "It's helping them construct knowledge.

"We create charts together during our word study sessions, collecting as many words as we can that follow a particular pattern, and we refer to those charts all the time."

Brian Lucas, a teacher at Cedar Grove Elementary School in Montgomery County, uses word boards to help students with the most troubling words, which, he said, turn out to be those most commonly used: "their" and "there," and "to," "too" and "two."

Lucas is on Gleason's page when it comes to spelling bees. He started teaching 16 years ago and had spelling bees in class because that's what he was taught to do in college. He came to dislike them.

"Quite frankly, I think it could be embarrassing to kids," he said. "Humiliating would be the better word."

But Invernizzi has mixed feelings about them.

Using spelling bees as a regular classroom tool makes no sense, and participation should always be voluntary, she said. But she loves the national bee.

"You get to hear the spelling bee contestant ask great language-based questions," she said. " 'Can you tell me the meaning of the word?' 'The origin of the word?' 'Can you pronounce it more slowly, please?'

"That speaks to the language basis of spelling," she said. "And it is cool to watch the way their minds work."

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