Friday, June 01, 2007

Spelling bees and other ways to waste your child's time

Warning: Rant ahead.

Last night I caught a few minutes of the National Spelling Bee contest on TV. Kid after kid tried to spell the most ridiculous words, stalling as they repeatedly asked for the definition, alternate pronunciations, etc. After the contest had ended, thirteen-year-old Evan O'Dorney, the contest winner, had this to say:
"My favorite things to do were math and music, and with the math I really like the way the numbers fit together, and with the music I like to let out ideas by composing notes—and the spelling is just a bunch of memorization."
This wise kid seems to understand the futility of spelling bees- it is nothing more than rote memorization of the long tail (see figure below). What I mean is, spelling bees don’t test your intelligence, only your ability to memorize words that no one, even the memorizer, will ever use in daily conversation or even in their writing in graduate school. (OK- a word or two may appear on your SAT.) Honoring a kid as the best speller in America is like honoring a kid for being able to memorize the most digits in pi.

It’s sad we English speakers have a language that uses so many words that aren’t phonetically spelled and words brought in from every other language on the planet. Consider there are about 100,000 words in the French language, but 10 times as many in the English language! Countless hours are wasted by children (and those learning English as a second language) learning trivial spellings and rules like “a i before e accept except after c.” Wouldn’t their time be better spent learning to play an instrument, playing a sport, or even just playing with their friends? Or how about spending that time serving their church or community?

Don’t hear me wrong- I acknowledge there are some benefits to spelling bees in general, but our focus should be on the blue circle, not the red. I'd much rather my son put down the Webster and pick up his tennis racket any day. wink

On a related note: Kudos to Mozilla Firefox 2.0. They added spell-check functionality into the browser, so now when I'm editing my blog or Wikipedia in a textbox, I can easily correct my spelling mistakes just like I would using MS Word! (Ha! No need to memorize the spelling of seldom used words for me!)