Word for Word: Language — first, second or both — plays role in spelling bee competitions - Albuquerque Journal

Word for Word: Language — first, second or both — plays role in spelling bee competitions

Natalie Smith, a fifth-grade teacher at Southern Heights Elementary School in Hobbs, and student Ivanna Nevarez work together on a classroom reading assignment. Ivanna, 11, who spoke more Spanish than English in kindergarten, has won the school’s spelling bee two years in a row. (Courtesy of Southern Heights Elementary)

Ivanna Nevarez, a fifth grader at Southern Heights Elementary School in Hobbs, comes from a family of Spanish speakers. When she was in kindergarten, she spoke more Spanish than English.

But that did not stop her from winning her school’s spelling bee this year and the year before. She thinks spelling in English is easier than spelling in Spanish.

“Because Spanish has more letters sometimes,” Ivanna, 11, said.

Bonnie Salazar, who taught Ivanna in fourth grade, said that when attempting to spell words in English, pronunciation may be the biggest challenge facing students whose first language is Spanish.

“Letter sounds in Spanish are not the same in English,” she said. “There are no short or long vowels in Spanish.”

She said Ivanna succeeds because of her work ethic.

“She is very determined,” Salazar said. “She has high standards for herself.”

Need to succeed

Are spelling bees a valuable tool in helping students such as Ivanna learn English? Do students who speak English and another language do better in bees?

The New Mexico State Spelling Bee, sponsored by the Albuquerque Journal and Nusenda Credit Union, is part of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Students competing in the April 1 state bee had to first win in school-level and district-level bees.

Garrick Tam, 15, who speaks English and Cantonese, won last year’s New Mexico spelling bee. In fact, Tam, who started competing in bees in third grade, won his school contest every year and won at the district level four times. He does not believe speaking two languages helped or hindered him in bee competition.

“I spoke English first, and I am just comfortable spelling words out in English,” said Tam, a student at College and Career High School, a dual-credit school that is part of Albuquerque Public Schools. Now too old to take part in the Scripps bees, Tam does appreciate the benefits of the competition.

“It helps your vocabulary a lot, and that helps your writing improve,” he said. “I know that because of all the essays I do in school. And you meet people who have the same mindset as you, a mindset that you want to succeed. Even if you lose, you say ‘I can do better next time.'”

Rules for words

Claudia Stovall is the English-learning coordinator at Puesta del Sol Elementary School in Rio Rancho. Of the 600 students in the kindergarten-through-fifth-grade institution, she said 106 are English learners, the most in any Rio Rancho school.

Stovall, a judge in her school’s spelling bee, said no English-learners took part in Puesta del Sol’s spelling bee this school year.

“Spelling bees provide a positive goal, a good place for them to display their hard work,” she said. “But a lot of them get nervous. It is hard for them to speak in public. It depends on where they are on their journey (into English). If they are new, they might not want to participate. If they are older, they may want to try.”

Stovall said two of the school’s dual-language students did compete in the school spelling bee.

“The spelling bee has likely benefitted those two students,” she said. “We are focusing on not memorizing words but at looking how the word is made up, vowel patterns and the like. Spelling bees also focus on the root of words. Is it Latin? Is it Greek? Learning the rules that govern words is very helpful.”

Consolation prizes

Sixty percent of the 380 students at Hobbs’ Southern Heights Elementary School are English-language learners. There are 120 students in the school’s dual-language programs.

Natalie Smith is a fifth-grade teacher in the dual-language program. She is school spelling champ Ivanna Nevarez’s teacher this year.

She said she does not think of spelling bees as a primary tool in teaching children to speak English.

“But it’s fun,” she said. “The kids like the competition and it introduces them to words they would not ordinarily see.”

Smith said 10 students, more than half her class, competed in the school spelling bee.

“They were excited to participate and were disappointed when they were eliminated,” she said. Ivanna was eliminated in the district competition.

“I was very nervous this year because I studied hard to make it up there,” Ivanna said. Although losing was difficult, Ivanna understands there are consolations.

“I like reading poems, and (spelling bees) help me with reading,” she said.

Tough journey

The Sandoval Academy of Bilingual Education (SABE) in Rio Rancho is a state public charter school with 230 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

“We have students whose first language is English and students whose first language is Spanish,” said Jackie Rodriguez, SABE’s executive director and principal. “All the kiddos are learning in a dual-language immersion program. Bilingualism is our mission.”

Two of the school’s students, a fourth grader and a sixth grader, made it to the district-level spelling bee competition this school year. The sixth grader, Sophie Otero, 12, won the district competition and will compete in the state bee. Sophie was born in this country, but lived several years in Colombia before moving to Rio Rancho a few months ago. Her first language is English, but she also speaks Spanish.

“It was a tough journey, but I’m glad I made it,” she said of qualifying for the state bee. She competed in Spanish spelling bees in Colombia.

“Words come to me easier in English,” Sophie said. “It is easy, too, in Spanish, but I would say I prefer spelling in English.”

Sophie said the bees develop vocabulary, which she appreciates.

“I read a lot, in both English and Spanish,” she said. “I read mostly biographies and history, things that really happened, World War II and the Holocaust.”

Alice Banks, SABE’s spelling bee coordinator, said the biggest challenge facing students is writing and spelling bees improve writing skills.

“Bees also help with learning habits and confidence – standing up in front of a crowd, making a presentation,” Banks said. “They encourage persistence and working hard, all those things that are, in my opinion, more important than learning how to spell words.”

Maybe next time

The first language of the spelling bee coordinator at Eva B. Stokely Elementary School in Shiprock is not English, or Spanish, or Navajo. It is Cebuano, a language spoken in the Philippines.

“I started speaking English when I was maybe 10,” said Ma. Leonora Abing, who is Filipino. (Ma. is an abbreviation of Maria, which is customary in the Philippines.) “It is hard for me to think in English. What word will I use? The kids will say ‘Miss Abing, I don’t know what you are saying.'”

Abing, whose written use of English is impeccable, is laughing as she tells the story.

Her students are Navajos who speak English with occasional Diné (Navajo) words mixed in. She believes spelling bees give them a firmer grasp of English.

Eva B. Stokely participated in its first Scripps bee this school year. Abing took three students to the district bee in Kirtland, but none advanced to state.

“Maybe next time we can do it,” she said. “My champs were very excited and nervous at the same time. I could see it in their eyes. The spelling bee will allow our students to develop a range of cognitive skills, including the ability to handle pressure.”

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