Meade Pandya, a seventh grader at Heights Middle School in Farmington, thinks of spelling bees as a fun experience, not a challenge. They are certainly not something he gets all twisted out of shape about.
“I am going to be honest with you,” Pandya, 12, said. “I probably only studied two hours for the spelling bee.” He finished third in his school’s spelling competition last month.
“My favorite pastime is fishing and I actually got (the word) tilapia wrong,” he said. “Kind of embarrassing.”
The Scripps National Spelling Bee will turn 98 when it’s held in the Washington, D.C., area May 28-June 2. Contestants are in grades first through eighth.
Competition starts at the school level and winners move on to district bees and then state bees. State winners earn the right to compete in the national contest.
There are 224 New Mexico schools signed up for the 2022-23 bee competition, more than 40 of those for the first time. Schools in 25 of the state’s 33 counties are participating and most have completed their school-level competition. District bees must be done by Jan. 31.
New Mexico’s state bee will be held in person on April 1 in Albuquerque unless health concerns dictate otherwise. In that case, an online state bee will take place on March 30. The state spelling bee is sponsored by the Albuquerque Journal and Nusenda Credit Union.
But just how significant are spelling bees in the age of spell check, autocorrect and texting shorthand (LOL)?
“Spelling seems to be something of a lost art, somewhat like cursive (penmanship),” said Sara Allen, sixth-grade general education teacher and spelling bee coordinator for the Reserve (New Mexico) Independent Schools. “Technology has made spelling take a back seat.”
That’s not where she thinks spelling belongs, however. She wants to see spelling patterns and vocabulary emphasized more than she believes is the case in a lot of schools these days.
More than spelling
Allen is firm in her opinion that spelling bees are valuable for students in multiple ways.
“I think students get out of it what they put into it,” she said. “Our school champ got an app through Scripps National that she used to study. Also, competing reveals the courage students have inside themselves to step out. Even if they don’t spell that word correctly, they have the satisfaction of doing something that is difficult.”
Tracie Willard, instructional liaison and spelling bee coordinator at Yarbro Elementary School in Lovington, said spelling bees can transform students.
“I have seen children who were not the best of students, maybe not the best behaved of students, change after winning their classroom bee and advancing to the school bee,” Willard said. “Suddenly, they are in front of a crowd. Their parents are there to see them. It may be the first time they have had something to be proud of. It changes the way they see themselves. It is so much more than just learning to spell words.”
Read to succeed
Meredith Burdell, a first-grade teacher, is the spelling bee coordinator at Clovis Christian Schools and an advocate of spelling as an integral part of writing and literacy.
“I use reading to teach (first graders) different ways of writing,” Burdell said. “How do the sentences begin? They notice they all begin with a different word. I will have them find silent ‘e’ words in a book. I tell them words are important because they are how we communicate and can affect a person’s life, so we need to spell them and use them correctly.”
Jennifer Nilvo, the spelling bee coordinator at School of Dreams Academy in Los Lunas, agrees that spelling is an important component in building literacy.
“Spell the word, define it, use it in a sentence,” said Nilvo, a self-proclaimed science geek who serves as the school’s STEM research teacher and teacher of gifted and highly talented students. “Is it a verb, an adjective, a noun? When kids learn words, their reading levels skyrocket.”
Nilvo is big on books. Her school, which consists of portable classrooms, does not have a library, so she has created book bags for her students.
“We’d do 15 minutes of quiet reading time,” she said. “I’d read with them. I’ve turned kids who did not like to read into kids who love to read.”
Heights Middle School’s Pandya likes reading about as much as fishing, and he thinks that helps him be a better speller.
“I’ll read while in the car on the way to go fishing,” he said. “I like comedic action books, like the Percy Jackson books (by Rick Riordan). I feel like reading is subconsciously helping me learn words. If you read, you need to understand what the word means and that helps you spell it.”
Clovis Christian Schools spelling bee champ Charles Busija, a 10-year-old fifth grader, is into the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series by author/cartoonist Jeff Kinney.
“I think I read one book every week,” he said. “The way I think it helps me be a better speller is that I look at the words on the page very closely.”
Eighth grader Ariahna Law, 13, is the spelling bee champ at School of Dreams Academy. She reads fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction and some psychology and, like Busija, says seeing words on a page improves her spelling skills.
“I’m usually able to see a word in my mind if I hear it,” she said. “In normal conversation, I can almost see the word flashing in front of me.”
Maiya Mershon, a 13-year-old eighth grader, finished second in the School of Dreams bee.
“I prefer reading high fantasy,” Mershon said. “I don’t like nonfiction at all. It bores me – unless it’s about snakes. I think reading helps not only with spelling but with my vocabulary. I don’t like it when people use the same words over and over. I like creative writing.”
A kind of writing actually aids Mershon during spelling bees.
“I’m really bad at spelling words out loud,” she said. “I’m good at writing a word down. So (in bee competition) I will trace it out with my finger on my arm or on my hand.”
The word is nervous
Leonora Abing, who is from the Philippines, is a resource teacher at Eva B. Stokely Elementary School in Shiprock. She is also spelling bee coordinator for the school, which is participating this year in its first Scripps competition.
“We announced the spelling bee two months ahead of time, and our students were motivated to learn more words every day,” Abing said. “They were motivated to read more. And they were very excited about it.”
Excitement and nervousness appear to be the key elements of spelling bee competitions.
“To me, it’s like a really nervous game you play,” said Calvin Lam, 12, an eighth grader who is the spelling bee champion at Farmington’s Heights Middle School. “Like you are on the edge of your seat, shaking all the time.”
Charisma Bautista, a 13-year-old seventh grader, finished second to Lam at Heights Middle School this year. But last year, she was the school’s champ and made it all the way to the state bee. Even so, she still gets the jitters.
“I usually feel nervous, but I like to switch it to excitement – like a brain trick,” she said. “Sometimes it works.”
Fifth grader Ashley Clamosa, 10, competing in her first spelling bee, won the championship at Lovington’s Yarbro Elementary.
“I had mixed feelings about it,” she said. “It was fun, but I felt mostly nervous about it. I just dealt with it.”
Maya Cordova, 12, is president of her seventh-grade class at Reserve Independent Schools. She plays basketball and volleyball, is a member of Future Farmers of America, an avid reader of historical fiction and part of a peer-helper team that reaches out to fellow students who are having problems. But she had never taken part in a spelling bee until this year.
“I just wanted to try something new and see if I was good at it,” she said. Turns out she was. She won the school’s bee competition. But she concedes she had to battle her nerves to take the title.
“When I got more nervous, I started spelling faster,” she said. “I just had to remind myself to be calm and slow down.”
Good to learn
Laura Dalton, the spelling bee coordinator at Heights Middle School, teaches seventh-grade language arts and is head of the school’s English department. She was also a student at Heights and took part in the school’s spelling bees.
“I never made it past the school bee,” she said. “I couldn’t spell anonymous. The important thing in spelling bees is to cheer students on, make sure no one feels bad. Spelling bees are an opportunity to compete in something other than athletics. It’s good to learn the value of studying, the tricks to spelling words.”
Winning doesn’t hurt anything. Heights Middle School champion Lam’s case of nerves vanished when his last word – counterfeit – was announced.
“When I heard that word, it was a guaranteed win,” he said.