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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Has Common Core Practice Invaded the Spelling Bee?

One of the talking points of Common Core Math Standards proponents is that a child shouldn't just know equations, the child must understand the process of getting the answer and have to explain how he/she arrived at the answer.  Memorization of facts is not of primary importance.  The process by which you can explain your answer is largely how your child will be graded.  The answer 2 x 2 = 4 is not a sufficient answer.  Now the student must use language and diagrams to explain the process by which he/she arrived at the answer.  If the language and diagrams are not correct, the student will not gain full credit for the answer, even if he/she knows his/her multiplication facts table.

The contestants in the National Spelling Bee must now not only be able to spell the word, they must now be able to pick from a multiple choice list and determine the meaning of the word.  From npr.org and At The Spelling Bee, Spelling Is No Longer Enough:

This week, the National Spelling Bee announced that spelling will no longer be enough.
Beginning this year, contestants in the early rounds will not only have to know how to spell, say, "flocculent," but also know whether it's:
A) an intestinal disorder among sheep
B) the stuffing inside a sofa pillow
C) a clump of wool
It's C, by the way.

Paige Kimble, executive director of the Spelling Bee, says the change was made to reinforce that the purpose of the whole national contest isn't just to produce a newsclip of brainy and endearing youngsters in bottle-thick glasses spelling "borborygmus" — which is a rumbling in the intestines, by the way — but to encourage students to strengthen their powers of communication.

And she says good student spellers are apparently not like Major League Baseball pitchers, who might throw a ball 100 miles an hour, but can't hit one with a surfboard.

"What we know with the championship-level spellers," says Ms. Kimble, "is that they think of ... spelling and vocabulary being two sides of the same coin."

Linda Holmes this week that "the Bee at its best is not rote memorization of the largest number of words, divorced from their context and floating outside of sentences."

But it's interesting to review the words that have been correctly spelled to win the Spelling Bee since it began. "Luxuriance" was the word in 1927, "promiscuous" in 1937, "psychiatry" in 1948, "eczema" in 1965, "croissant" in 1970, and "psoriasis" in 1982.

All those words may have been a little tricky to spell, with X's, Z's, silent P's or inexplicable double S's. But they were familiar. The fact that they were spoken in everyday conversation made it humbling and instructive when we were uncertain how to spell them.

But as the National Spelling Bee has grown more popular and publicized, the words youngsters spell to win the championship have grown increasingly unfamiliar — corkers to stump a contestant, not to leave anyone with a new word they can't wait to use.

In 2011 the word that won the contest was "cymotrichous," which is to possess wavy hair, though I doubt Taylor Swift or Matthew McConaughey describe themselves that way. Last year, it was "guetapens," which is a kind of trap. Especially if you try to pronounce it.

Maybe putting the meaning back into words will remind us that most of the students we see in spelling bees aren't spelling out words that will win a contest, but knowing them may help make them wiser through that real contest called life. 

Some of the readers commented on the new spelling bee rule and took exception to the new rule:

I do not agree that this will "help make them wiser through that real contest called life". Most of these words are not used commonly. How many people do you know that use the word "guetapens". (Which, by the way, my auto-correct wants to change to "vagueness") And if you did use it in a sentence, you would probably spend more time explaining what it means than it would take you to use a more common word. Spelling Bees are for spelling. So many people no longer know how to spell. Recently my friend's son couldn't figure out how to "sound out" a word for himself. People use abbreviations and acronyms so often that we are losing out ability to even notice when a word is not spelled correctly. Spelling Bees, in and of themselves, are an achievement. Don't negate that by changing it into something else.


Why not just turn it into a quiz show? Sorry, but i am a spelling purist. Granted, the meaning of the words is interesting, but the spelling bee is almost like a feat of strength, but with words... should they be required to compose poems onstage ten years from now? Additionally, these kids do happen to have an extensive knowledge of root forms and parent languages, all of which indicate the words' meanings... don't know why, but this makes me so sad!

and these comments from Althouse readers offer insight:

In the old days, they'd tell you the meaning because, if you'd been exposed to Latin and/or Greek, you could figure out the spelling.

Now they change the rules.

If you like your bee, you can keep it...

Spelling bees measure spelling,not vocabulary.

There are some words in there you might be able to spell but have no clue as to meaning. And prior to now you could have someone ask the judge for the meaning. This sounds more like a really hard vocabulary competition .

A spelling bee has turned into a vocabulary competition and math problems have turned into a language art exercise.  Sure sounds like Common Core practice has invaded the spelling bee.


  1. State School Board MemberApril 14, 2013 at 4:01 PM

    Has anyone considered that this new feature of the National Spelling Bee might just be a logical manifestation of the dominant philosophy behind the Common Core State Standards Initiative? I am referring to the constructivist belief that memorization is bad. For over 10 years, I have repeatedly been told, "We can't make students learn the states and capitals, or the names of the Great Lakes or the continents, or even the math facts up to 12 x 12 because NCLB forbids memorization." My personal favorite: "We don't want to teach or assess facts; we want to teach higher order thinking skills." Hence, the CCSSI mandates a system of "assessments" not "tests or exams" because assessments can include portfolios, group projects and other subjective methods of grading that do not require "regurgitation of facts." Who needs facts when we have calculators and computers to find them for us?

  2. Please consider for a moment if a student was asked to spell their. But instead did there because they did not know the difference. Spelling and Vocabulary are linked, it is idiots that try to separate them.

    I would rather have made it past the first round and not known a cymotrichous, than to have known how to spell that word and gotten the word too, to, two spelled wrong...... Which ones is actually smarter?


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