Sharp-witted students can spell it out

The Portora Wasps Spelling Bee Team who will compete in the Times Spelling Bee Competition (from left) Eoin Sweeney Lewis Redmond, Harry Humes and James Wilson, with Neill Morton, headmaster and Helen Gibson, English teacher.'Picture Raymond Humpries
The Portora Wasps Spelling Bee Team who will compete in the Times Spelling Bee Competition (from left) Eoin Sweeney Lewis Redmond, Harry Humes and James Wilson, with Neill Morton, headmaster and Helen Gibson, English teacher.'Picture Raymond Humpries

Could you confidently spell ‘clairvoyant’? Or be decisive about ‘deciduous’? Not all of us can admit to having been top of the class when it came to our spellings, but LAURA MURPHY reports on some local students who are taking such skills to a whole new level, as they prepare for this year’s Times Spelling Bee

PARENTS, take note of this advice.

The next time you’re tempted to order your child to promptly remove their nose from the latest Harry Potter book they’re engrossed in, please refrain.

Because by allowing them to digest words they mightn’t normally come across - like ‘transfiguration’ - in their day to day schooling, you could be helping them increase their vocabulary, polish up their spelling skills, and be transformed into a future Spelling Bee champion.

As emphasised by Elaine Higgleton, editorial director of Collins dictionary, the official adjudicators of this year’s Times Spelling Bee, there’s a lot to be said about the influence of popular culture on our children’s spelling habits.

“I bet a lot of 10-year-old girls in the UK can spell the word ‘numnah’ - and they’ll know it because they like ponies, and that’s a piece of equipment you have for a pony,” she says.

“But a 10-year-old boy probably wouldn’t know what you are talking about, so you have to take all of these kinds of things into account.”

Collins are responsible for putting together the word list for the Spelling Bee, which is biggest ever national spelling competition for schools in the United Kingdom.

There are 1,200 schools taking part in it this year, with each school being represented by three 11 to 12-year-old children and one reserve.

Championships kicked off last month, and 22 schools from Northern Ireland are to send their top spellers to the Waterfront Hall in Belfast on May 9 to be put to the test.

The two winning teams will progress to the semi finals later that month, and the 11 winning teams that emerge will travel to the O2 Arena in London to compete in the grand final, which takes place on Thursday June 23.

Last year, the competition attracted the efforts of more than 1,000 middle and secondary schools from the UK, with Newport Girls’ High School from Shropshire being crowned winners after a nail-biting grand final.

Spelling Bee spell master Opal Bonfante reveals that many of the children who take part come up with all sorts of weird and wonderful methods of preparation for the tests.

As well as regular cramming sessions in their lunch hour, and spending hours doing their ‘warm-up’ bees online, they’ve even been recording spellings onto their iPods.

Opal, who is in her third year of acting as a spell master, is currently travelling around the north of England and Wales attending the regional heats, and it will be she who comes to test the skills of Ulster students in Belfast next month.

“I’m there to keep the competition moving, explain the rules to the audience and the children, and keep a score although, there is a judge from Collins dictionary to oversee it,” she says of her role.

“I’m the one reading out the words, telling them if they’re right or wrong, giving them definitions, repeating the words.”

But she adds that she’s there to make sure the right balance is struck between a healthy level of competition, and fun.

“There are two parts to the day,” Opal explains.

“The first challenge is called the Spelling Play-off, and that’s a knock-out competition. Individually, they (the students) all come up in their teams and we give every single player a word to spell.

“If they get it right they get two points for their team and if they get it wrong, they’re eliminated. The words get progressively harder, and we go round and round until one person is left standing. That one individual will win the Collins medal for being last player standing.”

The Play-off is followed by a break in which teams huddle round to “talk tactics” about the next round - the Quick Fire.

In this section, they can opt to choose to spell words which are categorised as easy, of medium difficulty, or most difficult. Tackling tougher words reaps benefits in the shape of extra points. But if they decide to go for easier words, they can rattle quickly through their allocated time limit of two minutes, picking up smaller points at a fast rate - hopefully.

Opal will fire spellings at each team member in turn and there is no opportunity to confer.

She says that the likes of ‘jump’ would fall into the easier category, whilst ‘radiation’ would be an example of a medium word.

“The harder words are spelt completely differently to how they sound,” says Opal, giving the word ‘ennui’ - which means listlessness - as an example from this category.

“You have to remember though, a lot of the children have been studying for this, going on the Spelling Bee website and practising. So a lot of them really do know these tough words.”

She says that exposure to certain more challenging words via popular culture can aid them in their efforts to come out on top.

“‘Transfiguration’ is just one example - it is repeated throughout the Harry Potter books and most 11 to 12-year-olds will have read at least one of them.”

Getting back to the format of the Spelling Bee, Opal says that the children must say the spelling out loud, and are prohibited from writing anything down. She must also accept the first answer given - and this can prove troublesome for competitors who buckle under the pressure “in the heat of the moment” and “say something crazy”.

She adds: “Like jump - I’ve had children who have spelt it ‘gump’. We explain to them to take a breath and think about it before spelling that word.

“And also, to help avoid any confusion, we ask that they say the word before they spell it, and then they say it one more time, and that way the judge and I know they definitely heard the right word.”

Trickier words known as homophones - words that sound exactly the same but have different spellings - are also included in the test, and a definition of that word will be given.

“They’ve got things to help them out, they can ask questions at any time, they can ask me to repeat a word, or they can ask for a definition,” says Opal.

Collins is the official dictionary and adjudicator for the Bee again this year, and its editorial director Elaine Higgleton explains that they are responsible for putting together the word list and choosing which category the words go into.

“We create two words lists,” she explains.

“We create a word list of about 6,000 words which is used in the local heats and in the semi-finals. Each word in that list is graded for difficulty and the idea is that the words get increasingly difficult as the children move through the competition. We make sure the list is new and fresh, and each year there are words that weren’t on the list the previous year, so the children can’t learn the previous year’s list and think they’ve got it in the bag.

“Then we do a lot of work making sure that the step from an easy word to a word of medium difficulty and then to a word of harder difficulty is as seamless as possible.”

Elaine says that the second list Collins creates is a bespoke one of around 1,700 words specifically for the final.

“By the children have got to the grand final, there are some pretty good spellers out there, so you’ve got words for the first couple of rounds that will put them at their ease, and then you start to ask them some really difficult questions.”

Helen Gibson, an English teacher at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, is overseeing her school’s entry in the Spelling Bee, and explains that they selected which boys would represent their school at the heats by encouraging them to compete in their various houses outside school hours.

The response was good, much to Helen’s delight.

“It was an extra curricular thing, it wasn’t compulsory to enter the competition and they came because they wanted to, so it was great to see some enthusiastic boys coming to take part.”

Year 8 students Harry Humes, Eoin Sweeney, and Lewis Redmond and James Wilson all made the team, and are currently practising hard for the heats.

“We have been doing spelling strategies in class,” says 12-year-old Harry, adding that he and his teammates are “determined that we’ll win” the Spelling Bee.

For more information and videos of previous Times Spelling Bee championships visit: