On May 30, 13-year-old Arvind V. Mahankali won the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee correctly spelling the word knaidel (a Jewish/Yiddish word derived from German for a matzo ball like dumpling). A controversy quickly erupted challenging the official ruling. The debate escalated when it became front page news in The New York Times on June 1. Although Arvind's winning spelling, "knaidel," is the one that appears in Webster's Third International Dictionary, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City objected. Linguists at YIVO insist that "kneydl" has historically been the preferred spelling, according to the Times report. But what has been lost in this amusing brouhaha is the question: Does it really matter how you spell a word?
The spelling bee is a revered American tradition that is unique to the English language. Other languages, especially the Romance languages like French, Spanish and Italian are phonetic. If you can speak the words, you can spell the words. There are exceptions, but they aren't numerous enough to warrant a contest — and they are few enough for most people to master.
So the spelling bee is only for English. What's the problem? Perhaps the question should be rephrased. What's the payoff for mastering spelling? Could the curriculum time spent on spelling be used to greater advantage? Surveys say that American students are falling behind their European and Asian counterparts in crucial subjects like math and science. Wouldn't our students profit more if spelling time were applied to academic subjects, particularly during the foundation years of elementary school? Professor John Wells, president of the British Spelling Society, which campaigns for spelling reform, agrees that "teaching correct spelling is a waste of time." He adds, "There are lots of other things that are neglected in class because so much time is spent on spelling."
Like many adults, I still have disturbing memories of the annoying daily spelling homework and the frequent, and sometimes humiliating, elementary school spelling tests. The exams were often the first activity to greet me in the morning, setting a bad tone for the day. I never quite mastered spelling — and I know I'm not alone in this failing despite all that homework and curriculum time. That's why so many people today worship the "god" of spelling — spell check
Some years ago, my friend Joey Geritano was called to a school conference about his son's poor third grade performance in spelling. Geritano was urged to exert greater effort to keep Joey Jr. focused on his spelling homework. Weeks later my friend was called back for another school conference. His son's spelling wasn't improving. In his frustration, since he had spent considerable time in helping Joey Jr. with spelling, Geritano blurted out to the teacher a wise pronouncement that could be useful guidance for educational curriculum planning: "You've got to be pretty stupid if you can't think of more than one way to spell a word."
Of course, this discussion may be moot. Texting and tweeting are likely to bring spelling down and eliminate it as a formal subject. These tech methods of communication contract words, spelling them in a variety of ways that convey the meaning with the greatest economy of characters. Texters and tweeters aren't stupid — they can think of many ways to spell a word; perhaps the rest of us should as well.
Bernard Starr, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at the City University of New York (Brooklyn College) where he taught educational and developmental psychology in the early childhood education program.