U.Va. Education Expert Discusses the Pros and Cons of Spelling Bees

May 23, 2007 — In recent years, the Scripps National Spelling Bee has captured more and more public attention. Not only is the final round televised live by network TV in prime time, but three popular movies and a novel have also been based on the competition.

Marcia Invernizzi, an expert on spelling and learning language at the University of Virginia, says that while spelling bees are terrible teaching tools, they offer a glimpse of how spelling is “a rich, language-based phenomenon.”

“Certainly there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of students, who have been embarrassed by the spelling bee and learned nothing from it. From that point of view, they are dreadful,” said Invernizzi, the Edmund H. Henderson Professor of Education and program coordinator at the McGuffey Reading Center.

On the other hand, Invernizzi calls spelling the doorway to the world of human meaning.

“Spelling is central to reading and writing competency,” says Invernizzi, who has shown clips of the documentary film “Spellbound” in the word study class she teaches at the Curry School of Education.

From a linguistic point of view, Invernizzi says that watching the final round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee shows how sound, meaning and syntax are connected.

“When you watch the contestants asking for the linguistic cues about words they are asked to spell, it is a great demonstration of the richness of our orthography,” Invernizzi says. “It shows how their minds are working to integrate all of the word’s identity.”

Invernizzi and colleagues developed the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening about a decade ago, which measures children’s knowledge of literacy fundamentals, including knowledge of sounds and letters, word recognition, reading aloud and spelling. PALS is used in 43 states and six countries.

Every spring since 1925, Scripps Howard and other newspapers sponsor spelling bees at grade schools across the United States. This year, 286 students, ages 10-14 (and one 15-year-old) will compete in the final four rounds, which will be aired on ESPN and ABC.