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Positioned as showdowns, smack-downs or friendly competitions, spelling bees have a long and storied past in the United States. The earliest spelling contest on record dates back to 1808 and was inspired by the dog-eared Noah Webster blue-back speller books children carried to school with them daily. It’s fitting that the name of the first winner is not definitively confirmed in any history book, leaving their identity to the imagination of future generations of hopeful winners. It may have been an eager youngster, egged on by a proud parent, or a young adult new to this country and mastering the English language. No matter who that talented first speller was, spelling bees continue to be used as powerful teaching tools and are particularly popular in California.

The Tradition Continues

Competing in spelling bees is a powerful educational experience. In California’s public schools, spelling bees are used as powerful tools both within the classroom and as a goal-oriented, extra-curricular activity. The spelling bee tradition extends from elementary school through high school.

Many pit classes against each other, fostering a sense of teamwork and establishing a framework of healthy competition and rah-rah spirit. Others focus on individual competition, generating an increased commitment to excellence and personal achievement. Some have an end-goal of competing in the high-stakes, Scripps National Spelling Bee, which offers a cash award to each winner. One of these was Sacramento’s Rageshree Ramachandran, whose winning word was “elegiacal” in 1988. San Diego has had two winners – Anurag Kashyap in 2005 with “appoggiatura” and Snigdha Nandipati in 2012 with “guetapens.”

All spelling bees support learning by providing students with a fun, goal-focused activity geared toward increasing vocabulary, enhancing study skills and providing development of correct English language usage. They are also used as fundraisers for schools, providing much-needed dollars for supplies and programs.

Spelling Bees in Action

The Los Angeles County Elementary Spelling Bee provides youngsters with a competitive platform geared towards enhancing self-esteem and learning. The competition is for district-level spelling champs in grades 4-6. Known as a “nerve-wracking competition for word-nerds,” the spelling bee sends the winners on to compete at the county level. All of the children competing win prizes and receive gift bags. The three highest winners also get trophies. For schools and communities new to the spelling bee game, Los Angeles County provides a hands-on, how-to Spelling Bee Coordinator Kit that includes a step-by-step planning checklist and complete starter word bank.

The San Joaquin County Office of Education coordinates California’s Elementary Spelling Bee Championship. The Marin County Office of Education coordinates California’s spelling bees at the Junior High School level. Throughout the state, multiple schools hold their own competitions, both in class and as extra-curricular activities. Many of these grassroots contests are managed by school PTAs. Others take place during after-school hours and are organized by educators and kids.

Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.

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