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Spelling it like it is

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Thursday, May 31, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. EDT

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Championship Finals

Thursday, May 31, 8 p.m. – 10 p.m. EDT

Live on ESPN

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As the 2012 National Scripps Spelling Bee enters its semifinals and championship finals Thursday, Germanna Community College wishes to thank The Free Lance-Star for its generous support of regional spelling bees over the years –including this year’s first ever Spotsylvania Lions Club’s First Adult Spelling Bee fundraiser for GCC, fittingly won by The Free Lance-Star’s own BrainStream Media team.     

 We found that, unlike the precocious 6-year-old in the video above, many successful, accomplished area leaders are terrified by the idea of participating in a spelling bee. And they’re not alone. Why?  (Please click twice to view video on YouTube.)
 Germanna Vice President for Academic Affairs and Student Services Ann Woolford thinks she may know:
Spelling bees can be nerve-wracking to watch.

   Watching young students compete, we as adults transport ourselves back in time, imagining what it must be like to be onstage in grade school, in front of a crowd, dealing with such pressure. Many of us probably believe we could handle it better as educated, professional, poised adults. And we feel for the young people who, one by one, are eliminated and slink away.

   But as the Spotsylvania Lions Club recruited educators and business and political leaders to compete in the Adult SpellingBee fundraiser at the Fredericksburg Country Club earlier this year, we kept seeing their inner spelling bee child emerge.

   Smart, successful individuals we would never have suspected were confessing that they are terrible spellers and would not be caught dead on stage at a spelling bee, even in the company of a team of three adults—a format more reassuring than that in which children compete.

There appear to be three groups of individuals who shrink away from spelling in public: the orthographobic, the dyslexic, and the cacographist.

 First, the orthographobic, who gulps and stammers, “No way, no how, I would die.”

   Who is to blame for this fear of spelling?  A third-grade English teacher who traumatized her students with word lists to memorize? Or the high school English teacher who put his students essays replete with red ink on the class bulletin board? Or is the reason for orthographobia merely having whole language study in school versus eschewed phonics lessons?

Some might say that underlying this phobia of spelling is logophobio, the fear of words. Well, maybe not fear of all words, just big words – sesquipedalophobia, the fear of big words.

 My college-educated, twenty-something son said recently: “Mom, there is no longer any need for big words. Everything you have to say can be said in a text message.”

 Maybe I should have bought that dictionary of texting words for Christmas after all.

 The dyslexic is the group with which I empathize the most. This group just cannot spell well in spite of trying. This group has a learning disorder that results in severe difficulty recognizing written words or differentiating sounds and matching them to correct letters. This disability is no laughing matter, and many dyslexics have shared the depth of their struggle with spelling with those of us in the Lions Club about why participation in a Bee was out of the question.

 Most often, we have heard the cacographist’s reaction–a dismissive, “Spelling is for Spell Check.” No argument that Spell Check is a great invention, but the problem that many don’t realize is that Spell Check only works well for good spellers. The cacographist does not appear to have any excuse for poor spelling and in fact admits unashamedly that good spelling is just not worth the effort. The cacographist appears to be of a generation that has never heard of Dan Quayle and writes nothing longer than a text message or a tweet.

 So when we found the one in four whose eyes lit up at the thought of an adult spelling bee, we immediately felt an affinity.


Someone else who appreciates the richness of the English language with its complex multi-lingual sounds and structures of words that allow for deep nuances of meaning.

 Someone else who reads for the pure love of words.

 The likes of 3-year-old Samuel Chelpka of YouTube poetry recitation fame along with all those third-grade lone spelling bee champions give us much hope that spelling is far from a dying art.

 Dr. Ann Woolford is president of the Spotsylvania Lions Club and vice president for academic affairs and student services at Germanna Community College.