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The Wild Universe of Spelling Bees

Cover Photo by Element5 Digital via Unsplash

From the outside, a spelling bee seems like a commonplace and unremarkable occurrence. What’s so thrilling about a bunch of school-aged children standing at microphones and spitting out strings of letters? The whole affair might look like something you’d hate to sit through in person. 

On the contrary, I’d like to assure you that the world of spelling bees is about as far from boring as it gets. If you’ve ever sat down to watch Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The film tracks a handful of young competitors hoping to snag the top spot at the Scripps National Spelling Bee of 1999. More recently, Netflix has gotten in on the spelling bee action with an original film, Spelling the Dream, which premiered in June. 

Scripps is perhaps the most notable competition in the spelling universe. The origin of the event goes all the way back to the pre-Depression era days, commencing in 1925. The finals are held annually in National Harbor, Maryland, during “Bee Week.” In order to qualify for the national finals,  spellers must either emerge victorious from a local bee cleared by Scripps or be granted a place in the self-sponsorship program. Additionally, a speller must be a student at a Scripps-registered school. Spellers must be below the age of 15 by the end of August of the preceding year, and they must have not yet graduated from eighth grade by this time. The conditions I’ve outlined here aren’t even comprehensive — there are a whole host of other specifications.

The premise of a spelling bee is more or less quite simple. The judges give each contestant a word to spell, which they then attempt to nail down correctly. Spellers can also ask for clarification on several counts, such as other possible pronunciations, languages of origin, or parts of speech. However, when a speller’s best guess isn’t the right one, they lose their spot in the contest. (Unless of course, none of the competitors still in the running can provide the accurate answer.)

Similarly, there’s no telling how long the bee might last. In 2010, for example, it only took 9 rounds to determine a winner, while 39 rounds were necessary in 2016. While the majority of Scripps spellers tend to come from the United States, in 2017 contestants also made the journey from Japan, Ghana, South Korea, and Jamaica. In the same year, roughly 65.6% of spellers emerged from public schools, while about 15.5% attended private schools. 

For many champion spellers, the preparation process is incredibly rigorous. Several months or even years of concentrated study can go into the drive for a spot in the finals. In the case of Scripps’ 2012 champion, for example, the task might even take tens of thousands of flashcards — approximately 30,000 in this scenario. 

If you still think that spelling bees are nothing to be taken seriously, examine the stakes of the competition. For many contestants, especially ones from immigrant or BIPOC families, the bee represents a chance to achieve a lifelong claim to fame and establish a sense of indisputable accomplishment. In 2019, the reward for the champion speller was a $50,000 payoff, plus excursions to the East Coast and West Coast and chances to be special guests on Live with Kelly and Ryan and Jimmy Kimmel Live!  Past victors have gone on to numerous professions, ranging from voice actor to Ivy League professor to professional poker player. 

What’s your take on spelling bees? Are they exciting intellectual challenges or outdated and unnecessary practices?

Cover Photo by Element5 Digital via Unsplash

  • What do you think about spelling bees?

    • they’re irrelevant! a computer can spell on its own
    • they keep students motivated and engaged

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Written by Megan Pontin

Enthusiastic word-collector, avid pancake-consumer, and experienced hammock-lounger. Student at Cornell University.

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