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Not Just Another Spelling Bee

By Joyce McPherson
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #83, 2008.

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Joyce McPherson


I like to think about spelling. How can I teach it? What is my goal? Do children learn best by simple memorization, or does it help to show word patterns and roots of origin? Is my goal simply correct orthography, or is vocabulary important, too? I was a poor speller as a child, and some of my children share my handicap. Yet, we all enjoy words, and spelling has been a bridge to richer vocabulary and new means of expression. Perhaps the single best aid to our spelling has been participation in spelling bees.

Spelling Bees as Motivators

Early in our homeschool years we got involved in the local spelling bee. It was a satisfying motivator for our children. Not only did it validate the hours they spent studying spelling and vocabulary, but it gave them a desire to learn new words from the list given by the Scripps National Spelling Bee organization. Later I volunteered to be the spelling bee coordinator, and we developed our spelling bee further. We decided to make it a day to encourage the study of words and penmanship. Here’s how we conduct our spelling bee and workshop.

Advertise Early

At the beginning of each school year we notify the homeschool community that it is time to register for the Homeschool Spelling Bee. Our registration is $5 per family to cover the registration fees with the Scripps National Spelling Bee and the cost of awards. In the early years we sent all registrants a copy of the spelling list published by the National Spelling Bee, but beginning this year the families were required to access the list online. We remind families to begin studying early. We also announce that we will have a “Spelling Notebook” contest as part of the spelling bee.

The Spelling Notebook

The “Spelling Notebook” was inspired by the spelling notebook competition that takes place at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Our competition encourages students to keep a notebook during the school year just for spelling. At the bee all the notebooks are judged for creativity, penmanship, and spelling effort. This competition motivates my own children to write more neatly in their daily assignments. It also gives them the desire to make spelling more fun. One successful idea they have used is to create stories with the assigned words. Some of the words are quite esoteric, so it gives the stories a whimsical turn. For example: “Joe was upstairs one day practicing on his saxophone when he heard about the debacle. A mysterious saboteur had taken a huge bite out of the praline and boysenberry pie!” Another student in our group uses his spelling notebook to write out definitions and sample sentences of words that are new to him.

The Advantages of a Written Test

We conduct our spelling bee as a written test. In our region, the best homeschool spellers compete at an oral zone bee before going on to the regional competition, so we feel that a written test for the first level is justified. We have discovered that by conducting a written exam, more students participate. It takes away some of the fear factor for them. The written spelling bee also gives students a chance to really show what they know. In a conventional oral spelling bee most contestants spell only two or three words before being eliminated. They often say, “But I knew lots of the words the others were spelling.” The written test gives students the satisfaction of trying their hands at about thirty words.

Handwriting Awards

Since we want students to learn the value of good handwriting, we give awards for the best penmanship for each grade level on the written test. Some of our students take great pains to develop a beautiful print or cursive style, and they enjoy the recognition they receive at the spelling bee.

The Workshop

The last element we add to the spelling bee is a “Spelling Workshop” which we conduct while the judges grade the papers. We have had a newspaper editor (and homeschool father) and several accomplished homeschool mothers share their insights into words and spelling. They have shared tips for memorizing the spelling of difficult words (like those with -ant and -ent endings) and have encouraged the children to be “word detectives” to look for roots and origins. Some of them have brought handouts and games. Many parents told us that they brought their students to the spelling bee for the benefit of the workshop alone.

Award Ceremony

At the conclusion of the workshop, we make the presentation of awards. We have framed certificates for the winning notebooks, the best spellers in each grade and the best penmanship in each grade. We also give trophies for the five best spellers for the whole spelling bee. These five students represent the homeschool community at the next level of the spelling bee. Each year a large proportion of these students go on to compete in the regional competition. We end our Homeschool Spelling Bee with refreshments and fellowship. The many children who have won awards go home encouraged, and the rest of the children take home plans to study and perhaps win next year. It is an encouraging time for students and teachers alike.

Joyce McPherson is the creator of the online programs “Homeschool Tools” and “Shakespeare Tools,” as well as the author of a series of biographies for Greenleaf Press. With her husband, Garth, she homeschools their nine children. She can be reached through teachingtools.org or at mcpclan@comcast.net.

Coaching Corner

Here are some tips to get you started coaching students:

  • Teach them how to learn a new word:

    1. Write the word
    2. Say the word with correct pronunciation (check the dictionary if you are not sure!)
    3. Learn the definition
    4. Use the word in a sentence
    5. Write it ten times

  • Teach them how to identify patterns:

    1. Make lists of words that have similar spelling due to language of origin. For example, in Greek, the /z/ sound at the beginning of a word is often spelled with an x, as in xylem, /f/ is spelled with ph as in graph, and /k/ is spelled with ch as in Christ.

    2. Make a separate list for each ending for troublesome words: Ending in -ary, -ery, and -ory Ending in -ous and -us (Note if the word is an adjective, use -ous; if it’s a noun, use -us) Ending in -ance/-ant and -ence/-ent Ending in -yze, -ize, and -ise Ending in -able and -ible Ending in -ar, -er, -or

  • Make lists of interesting words. For example:

    • Homonyms (e.g., stationary and stationery, complement and compliment)
    • Words from classical mythology and history (like mercurial, hector, herculean, lethargic, protean)
    • Words with double letters (like accommodation, occultation, millennium, occurring, rapport, succeed, recommendation and words that end with -ll, -ess and -ii.)

  • Useful resources are available at www.spellingbee.com and www.myspellit.com.


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