Saturday, February 7, 2009

Why spelling matters

This month sees the beginning of the 2009 Canwest National Spelling Bee. Nationwide, something like a quarter of a million kids will be taking part. The event culminates with the national finals in Ottawa in April.

I have been involved with the spelling bee as an official for the past couple of years, and people are often curious to know more about it. Many (understandably I should add) do pose some tough questions. Should we really be encouraging this kind of competition among kids? How does spelling really help kids use language in the real world? Isn't this just an exercise in memorization? Does spelling even matter any more in the age of computers?

Let me see if I can answer all these in a coherent way. To begin, I should point out that spelling competitions seem oddly subject to questions that we do not pose about other competitions, which are usually taken to have value in themselves. Hockey, for instance, does not build specific skills applicable in the real world (unless you live in Ottawa and can skate to work on the Rideau Canal), but we don't really care, nor should we. For one thing, hockey at its best is great fun for players and fans. For another, it builds broader aspects of character like sportsmanship, grace under pressure, discipline, and so on. But, of course, competitive spelling does all these things too. Last year at the Halifax bee, one of the two finalists looked at the other just before the final rounds were about to start and said with all sincerity, "I hope I win, but good luck." I have rarely heard a better formulation of the competitive spirit.

As for the more specific concerns, spelling is not just an exercise in mindless rote learning. The best spellers realize that to know how to spell well is to understand what words are and where they come from. Top spellers learn not just the letters, but the origins of the words, and how they are related to other words. Of course, these things help with the spelling, but it also opens up for kids the remarkable landscape that is the study of human language, with its incredibly vast detail, and its intricate history. They learn that the history of every people is not just written in its language but on its language.

And what of the competition? What of the crying children who must leave the stage after spelling hamadryad or hypobulia incorrectly? Well, trust me, they get over it. And if they have good parents, they have a chance to talk about some important truths in life. That one cannot always win, but that one can always compete with dignity. Sports parents, one hopes, take advantage of their children's losses and setbacks to teach this vital lesson. But not all kids are athletes. Not all kids are blessed with natural physical ability. Some are smart, and this is their chance to compete in the arena in which they excel. And to learn the lessons -- some thrilling, some heartbreaking -- that this arena affords.

And that's why spelling matters.

Todd Pettigrew