Sunday, June 10, 2012

The annual Scripps National Spelling Bee

As reported by the Guardian, the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, on which I always have a few words to say (here, here and here), has been won this year by Snigdha Nandipati, a fourteen-year-old from San Diego.
Funnily enough, the word she won the competition with reminds me of just how daft are the arguments contrived by the people who oppose the phonics screening check. The word was ‘guetapens’, a word which is derived from French and means an ambush, a trap or a snare. I wouldn’t go flying off to your OED, by the way, because you won’t find it. At least, it’s not in my rather weathered edition.
One has to admire the competitors as much for their single-minded dedication to the task, as for their sheer nerdiness. I suppose some people will think that the $30000 dollar prize is the main motivation. Not so! The money probably goes nowhere near compensating the entrants for the hours they put into studying word spelling, meaning and etymology. Nandipati reckons she spent between ten and twelve hours at weekends and six hours on weekdays preparing for the Bee.
As always, there were some agonising moments. To see competitors come so far only to fall at the final fence can only make your heart go out to them. Lena Greenberg, for example, was tripped up by ‘geistlich’, which means ‘soulful or with great feeling in music’; six-year-old Lori Anne Madison, the ‘youngest competitor ever to qualify for the bee and clearly a girl with a great future in front of her, couldn’t get past ‘dirigible’; while Nicholas Rushlow, the owner of a dog called ‘Cosmotellurian’, was unlucky enough to have to spell ‘vetiver’, the name of a perennial grass which is native to India and also of a band from San Francisco!
Oh well! There's always next year.

4 comments:

palisadesk said...

If you're a fan of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, you may already know of these films (available on DVD -- and in Canada, at least, readily available at the public library for borrowing):

(1) A 2002 documentary entitled Spellbound that follows several contestants through the months preceding the Bee, with vignettes of their family life, friends and commitment to the challenge. You don't think a documentary about a spelling be would be an edge-of-the-seat, gripping viewing experience? You'd be wrong! It's riveting.

(2)A drama centring on the Bee but fictionalized (very well acted, and a real feel-good story in the end) is Akeelah and the Bee with some top performances, great acting from the youngsters and embedded tips on the importance of morpheme knowledge and spellings based on language of origin.

If you haven't seen them, run --don't walk -- to the library or DVD rental outlet!

I attended a local (regional) spelling bee for the first time this spring, to cheer on my school's primary and junior division contestants and was surprised to find how exciting it is. You wouldn't think listening to a troupe of small children spell would be an engrossing way to spend a Saturday, but it was. Our rules differ slightly from the U.S. ones (the same word is spelled by successive contestants until spelled correctly, which doesn't happen in the Scripps competition). A dozen or more children (aged 8 and under) wiped out on the word "cortisone," but all errors were phonemically probable. One of our students placed 2nd overall -- about 30 schools competing.

John said...

Hi Susan and thanks for your posting. As a matter of fact, I'm fascinated by these spelling bees and find them hugely exciting. It's obvious that these kids work so hard for so long to fight their way through to the finals only, with one exception, to get, as you put it, wiped out at the last moment. It's all very nerdy but it's also so full of tension.
I'll do my best to get hold of your suggestions for viewing and thanks!
Btw, have you read Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein or Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. I'm rapt by them both and can't bring myself to put them down to do anything else!

palisadesk said...

Thanks for the tips, I've ordered both from the library. Good thing school wraps up for the summer in 2 weeks -- if they're half as engrossing as you suggest, reading them could be a career-endangering move if I start now!

Just had another look at Spellbound -- great movie. The extras are also of interest (on the DVD), and so is the director's commentary track. You might even want to buy it; you can often get movies used on Amazon.

John said...

Hi Susan,
After a bit of a hunt, I've just managed to get hold of a copy through Amazon.
I'll let you know what I think when it's arrived and I've had chance to watch it.
Be warned though about the Foers book. It takes you elsewhere! I've already got hold of Frances Yates's book The Art of Memory, which I'm already finding gripping. It also has you trying out various mnemonic techniques. I memorised (in one brief sitting) a shopping list of fifteen separate and unconnected items last week and it's sitting there now (no rehearsal!) as large as life.
Funnily enough, this book, like so many other popular science books, keeps coming back to the work of K. Anders Ericsson.
Have an enjoyable end of term.