The Spelling Bee

Timeshifted from my notes in early June

I watched the finals of the Spelling Bee last night. Obviously, as a professor, I need to support all academic competitions on TV. Additionally, the thrill of the contest exceeds that of pretty much everything on television. It’s like a last second shot to win or lose, every time a contestant stands at the microphone. Alone. I got nervous getting filmed at Gencon 2004 for the .hack final, and that wasn’t live in front of millions. Did I mention that none of the players are more than 14? Then after a miss, Stuart Scott waits for an interview. The preteens handle the interviews better than most athletes. So, here are some comments.

I immediately got one of the round 7 words, cilice, which Kavya missed because she doesn’t read my blog. What a failure! should now become mandatory reading for future spelling bee contestants. In a round 7 feature, we were also introduced to a word I suspect will enter political debate, kakistocracy, rule by those least competent.

I do wish the first round didn’t run so many features, because it takes the spellers out of rhythm. My suspicion is that increases failures. The numbers aren’t enough to verify this, though. Round 7 had 8 misses of 15. Round 8 had 2 errors of 7. Round 9 took the 5 down to two. During the commercial break, I wanted Tina Turner to bring the Thunderdome. But one of the finalists was playing with his mother’s hair, which seems rather inappropriate for post apocalyptic Australia. The other metaphorically picks the wings off the butterflies in his stomach when he’s waiting to spell. One of the two finalists in the National Spelling Bee is Canadian, which makes him like Toronto in the NBA. The judges allow “zed”. This isn’t a Canadian Rant. It’s Zee, not Zed!

The Canadian crumbles under pressure, but then an extra cool moment occurs. The Spelling Bee cannot end on a misspelled word. I love this rule. It makes so much sense. It’s not about losing. Games never should be about losing. That’s why I don’t play Jenga. People only lose in Jenga. I can’t stand that.

Evan, the boy from his mom’s lap 20 minutes ago, must spell a word correctly to win. The word I misspell, serrefine, but he gets it in about 15 seconds. It’s a big trophy. Even though he’s the champion, Evan still likes to do math and music. “With spelling, it’s just a bunch of memorization.” He knew the word as soon as the judge said it, and he’s got a good outlook on memorization. Memorization is not cool. I hope he enjoys the $35,000.

About Adam

My quest is a world where calling someone "virtuous like a fairy tale hero" is routine, not fantastic or ironic. My vocation is the teaching and learning of statistics. My dream is a long happy life with a wonderful wife and kids. Who knows if any will become true? More information is at my homepage on the twelvefruits network:
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3 Responses to The Spelling Bee

  1. Allan Campbell says:

    “With spelling, it’s just a bunch of memorization.” What a telling quote! In uther words our spelling is NOT a sistem! It has to be memorized rather than figured out. Memmory rather than logic! And yet we expect children to master it so they can lern to reed and rite. No wunder a fifth of all English speekers ar ilitrat! We mite as wel be lerning Chinese!

  2. Steve Bett says:

    There is a difference between memorizing the spelling of each word and the memorization of rules. There is a difference between memorizing the dictionary key and memorizing the dicitonary.

    With a dictionary key, after you memorize 40 sound-signs and you can spell any pronunciation and correctly pronounce any phonemic spelling. Transparent orthographies such as Spanish and Italian are almost as easy.

    English spelling is not random. 85% of the words in the dictionary use one of 2-6 spelling patterns per phoneme. To spell 85% of the /J/ or /dZ/ phonemes dictionary words, use one of the following pattersn: j, gi, ge, dge, dg, as in jam, gin/giant, gem/cage, bridge, …

    The high frequency spelling patterns are the teachable part of English spelling. Unfortunately, it is also the part that is usually left out of the curriculum.

    If you know the high frequency spellig patterns for each speech sound you can invent a plausible spelling. You still have to memorize the “correct” spelling.

    English spelling is a mix of different spelling systems and a vowel shift.

    Every child could memorize a dictionary key in as little as 3 months. There is not that much to memorize.

    At the end of 3 months they would be fully code literate. They could spell unfamiliar words and read aloud a newspaper that was transcribed into dictionary key spelling.

    In English, short of memorizing the dictioanry, it is almost impossible to achieve an equivalent level of literacy.

    A skill that could be mastered in 3 months takes over 3 years. For some it takes twice this long. Some never master the writing system. 20% just stop trying and remain functionally illiterate for life.

  3. Nigel says:

    It is interesting that those languages that have more rational – and user frendly – spelling systems do not have the illiteracy problems that the anglophone countries have and, therefore, have no need for things like Spelling Bees. Learning to spell in english is mostly a feat of memorization – something that a minority of us are capable of with any confidence.

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