By Christopher Dart

What’s the point of spelling bees? In an age where we have spell-checkers, apps like Grammarly, autocorrect and predictive spelling, why should we make children, such as those featured in the documentary Bee Nation, spend hours learning how to spell words? Wouldn’t they be better of learning to code?

According to Julie Spence, founder and director of the National Spelling Bee of Canada, children should learn to spell not just because it improves their literacy level, but because it helps grow their brains. It teaches them life skills, and has spin-off benefits for their families and communities.

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Spence founded the bee in 1987. She says she started the bee after hearing then-Ontario Education Minister Sean Conway asking parents to take a more active role in their children’s education. Spence had fond memories of taking part in spelling bees in her native Jamaica.

“I remember back home in Jamaica, how much it brought the community together,” she says. “How much you know, they’re rooting for you, they’re cheering you on. And then [adults] would tell you ‘Well, I could have never spelled that word.’”

A group effort

Thirty years later, she says, parents still form the backbone of Canadian spelling bees, from school bees, through regionals, right up to the national level. She adds that often an entire family will get involved in helping a student prepare for the bee.

“When you have a sibling that’s in a bee, everybody gets involved with the coaching,” she says. “Grandma, grandpa, sisters, brothers, everybody. Because they know you’re going up, it’s a competition. And here is one program that they all can get involved with. They’ re going to throw words at you from different angles, just to prepare you. So we’re really seeing that at the dinner table, you know after supper, during supper, reading the newspaper, they’ll see a word and think ‘Hmm, maybe you’ll get that in the tiebreaker round.’”

We have the children write about their unsung hero. And the person that they most times write about is their teacher who helped them, their grandparent or their brother or their sister or a mum. It really brings the family together.”

9-year-old William Kaysaywaysemat III is featured in Bee Nation.

Building confidence, asking questions

Beyond the benefits to the family, Spence also points out that learning to spell has huge benefits for students’ academic development.

“It improves their writing skills,” she says. “Their vocabulary. They’re able to think, not just memorize.”

Recently, one of her students had been asking for the words, definition and sentence to be repeated over and over. “I said to her, ‘What was that?’ And she said, ‘Well I had to think my way through.’ Because there are some words that sound so similar and I had to be absolutely sure.’ So that’s part of development. “ 

“We’re teaching them to be able to ask questions at some very early stage. For instance, if they have a word, they can ask questions about the word. It helps them to build confidence.”

And unlike spelling itself, no app can replace that.