Despite Spell Check, Interest in Spelling Bees Is Way Up

More kids are participating than ever before, and the words are getting harder. Maybe society does still care about spelling.

Every English teacher I ever had told me spell check would make us a nation who could not care less about developing our spelling abilities. Well, it turns out my teachers were wrong—at least if the popularity of spelling bees is any indication. Since the widespread adoption of spell check technology in the mid-1980s, participation in the Scripps National Spelling Bee is up 74 percent. And the words students are tackling are no joke. The 275 champion spellers gathered in Maryland this week to compete in the 84th annual Bee breezed their way through words like "acetarious" and "pinealectomy" in Tuesday's first round.

The spellers range in age from 8 to 15 years old, and while most of them come from the United States, students from China, Japan, and Jamaica are also participating. Interestingly, given all the national attention on the declining quality of our public schools, 65 percent of this year's participants and five of the six most recent national champions are public school students. Sure, the winner walks away with almost $40,000 in cash and prizes, and the glory of being a national spelling champion, but becoming a champion speller is tough work that's usually done without the benefit of private spelling coaches. Seventy-five percent of this year's participants say they only have family or friends help them practice learning words, and another 12 percent are helped out by teachers.

A look at the winning words over the years suggests that the Bee might be getting tougher—or at least, the words are becoming more obscure. In 1925, the Bee's first year, winner Frank Neuhauser had to spell "gladiolus," a flower species that anybody who's ever planted a garden or visited a florist knows. In comparison, last year's champion, Anamika Veeraman, had to spell "stromuhr," which is an instrument for measuring the velocity of blood flow. Yes, I had to look it up.

Of course, what sets Bee participants apart from the rest of us is that they spell words in front of a live audience, without the benefit of writing the word down to see if it looks right, or typing it to see if the spell check catches a mistake. To watch them in action, check out this year's championship match on ESPN on Thursday night.

photo via Mark Bowen / Scripps National Spelling Bee

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