In March of 2018, Montpelier Middle School student Raghav Dhandi won the Vermont State Spelling Bee. In March of 2019, he won again. After the 2019 contest, Dhandi was featured on the front page of the Times Argus holding his Vermont trophy, smiling and determined to win the national contest “next time.” Although he never received the national prize, Dhandi knows that he belongs to an elite group, having been part of the Scripps National Spelling Bee two years in a row, an event now broadcast over ESPN with almost as much fanfare as a Super Bowl.
It wasn’t always this way. Long before ESPN, CNN, or PBS existed, the spelling bee was a uniquely American form of small town entertainment along with square dancing and listening to stump speeches. Why America? For one thing, a spelling bee held in Finland would be somewhat lacking in suspense. Words are spelled exactly as they sound. English is, on the other hand, quirky. For hundreds of years, the British were continually being invaded (or invading) and as a result, the language draws from many sources. Our words follow the phonetic rules of the Romans, Jutes, Saxons, Vikings, and any other group the English knocked their spears against. Many languages may not be as phonetically regular as Finnish, but English is especially weird.
Spelling bees are then a great test of a contestant’s ability to memorize the spelling of thousands of words and, ideally, to have some grasp of other languages. Although the popularity of spelling bees in the United States may rise and fall, they never seem to go away.
There could be no real spelling bees without dictionaries. When the first dictionaries were printed in the 1700s, English-speaking people had a guide to correct spelling. Samuel Johnson completed his British dictionary in April of 1755. Then in 1783, Noah Webster published his “Blue Back Speller,” the forerunner to his famous dictionaries. Although British schoolchildren played at informal spelling contests, it was in the United States that spelling bees became a national pastime. In “The History of the Spelling Bee,” Rebecca Sealfon notes that while in England you might be judged on your pronunciation of a word and your accent, in the United States, you were more likely to be judged on the basis of your spelling, making that a highly valued skill.
The exact origin of the word “bee” has been lost in time but may come from an Old English term “bene,” which could be roughly translated as “doing good for your neighbor.” In early New England, settlers enjoyed “bees.” There were quilting bees, apple-paring bees, and husking bees. All of these benefited the community but were also social events, an opportunity for getting together without any of the scandalous aspects of singing or dancing. In puritanical New England, it was acceptable to have a good time as long as you weren’t actually planning to.
But the word “spelling bee” did not become popular until the mid 1800s. Up until then, you might have participated in a spelling “contest,” a spelling “match,” or a spelling” school.”
Spelling bees by any name were generally school-related events until 1871, when Edward Eggleston wrote “The Hoosier Schoolmaster.” In Eggleston’s popular book, the hero, Ralph Hartsook, defeated the villain not with his fists or a pistol but by spelling him down. Then Ralph was himself spelled down by a servant girl named Hannah, the contest winner. American readers may have liked to think this was proof of the egalitarian nature of spelling contests. The book ignited such an interest in spelling bees that in April of 1875, The New York Times reported that there seemed to be an “epidemic” of “spelling matches.” The spelling bee had now moved out of the schoolroom and into adult events. Soon spelling “bee” became the common term.
In 1908 the National Education Association offered the country the first national spelling bee. Eighth graders came to Cleveland, Ohio, from all over the country to compete at the new Hippodrome Theater. The winner was Marie Bolden, a 14-year-old African-American girl from Cleveland. Her victory, less than 50 years after the abolition of slavery, rattled much of the country and, just in case they hadn’t got the point, African-American educator, Booker T. Washington was quoted as saying, “You will admit that we spell out of the same book that you do. And I think you will also admit that we spell a little better.”
In fact, no one admitted to anything. The New Orleans School Board passed a resolution deploring “the unfortunate occurrence at Cleveland and the pitting of our children against a Negro [sic].” (They also deplored the fact that New Orleans came in third.) The controversy was such that no other national spelling bee was held until the Louisville Courant organized a new national contest in 1925.
By the 1930s families could gather around the radio and listen to spelling bees every week. Over the decades, the documentary “Spellbound,” the musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and the movie “Akeelah and the Bee” have all reflected interest in spelling bees and fostered it.
In 1841, the Scripps-Howard company took over the national spelling bee, which continued with only two breaks, the first during World War II and the second in 2020 because of the COVID pandemic. Students are eligible to participate until they’ve completed the eighth grade. In 2021, 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde became the first Black American to win.
Spelling bees have become more popular than ever, but do we need them? We have spell check. We have autocorrect and auto-fill. Why should American students spend hours memorizing the spelling of words such as “marraya.” Memorization does, in fact, strengthen the mind by strengthening neural plasticity, the ability of the brain to change and develop. However, if memorization is good for the mind, why not memorize poetry, great speeches, or even batting averages? All of those may be of some benefit. The value of spelling mastery lies in its ability to deepen understanding of word meaning, grammar, and etymology. There’s a caveat here, though. Spelling bees may be a good teaching strategy primarily for those who learn to spell easily. Virginia Zahner, a long-time special educator and a reading coach in Vermont notes that, for children who struggle, spelling bees are a poor way to become better spellers. “While many kids are reliable spellers with minimal effort, a significant number need consistent and sequenced instruction in understanding of word structures and word patterns.”
There’s another caveat. Unlike team sports, spelling bees require participants to face an audience (at the upper levels, there may be thousands in the theater) and to stand alone in front of a microphone knowing that for you to win, everyone else must fail. Jane Nickelsberg, a Montpelier mother and former teacher, tells of watching tense parents mouth the letters as their children stand on the stage slowly working through a word. Both Jane and her daughter, Leah Shoaf, also a mother and a teacher, feel strongly that no one should be prodded or even asked to participate in a spelling bee. The desire to compete in this pressure cooker of an event should come from the child.
If spelling bees are not for everyone, they’ve been held up as an example of a true meritocracy. James McGuire, in “A Brief History of Spelling Bees in The United States,” notes that participants in the national spelling bee serve as “a wonderful representation of all races, classes, genders, and religions in the United States.” It’s a nice image, although we know inequities exist even within this group of super spellers. Not all can afford coaches. Not all can purchase the app SpellPundit ($600 a year). However, if the playing field isn’t as level as we would wish, the National Spelling Bee still inspires, and in 2013 gave us an “only in America” moment when an Indian-American boy named Arvind Mahankali won by correctly spelling the Yiddish word “knaidel.”