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UnspellingTM -- Almost Ready for Primetime!
By David H. Albert
I took the day off from work. I was feeling quite under the weather (and we have a lot of weather where I live!) I settled myself into my ten-dollar, coffee-stained Salvation Army recliner (being brown to begin with among its saving graces); tea in hand (encupped, of course); two dogs happily yawning at my feet; and began to channel surf. Yes, guilty as charged. I throw myself on the mercy of the Court, my only mitigating circumstance being that my eyes have declined to the point that it is now difficult to read unless I am in tip-top physical condition.

Switch to ESPN. I am in luck! Well, maybe. No Gaelic stone-tossing, or heavyweight Strong Man auto-pulling. Today is the National Spelling Bee! I probably would have preferred college womenís softball or trial runs for the Iditarod, but this promises to be different.

It is scheduled for five hours (as long as two Montana State football games!) It will never in my affections surpass Olympic curling (wish I could get those guys with brooms to come to my house! and why isnít this sport co-ed, inquiring minds want to know?) or singles synchronized swimming, but it is deadly and highly addictive. In exchange for a single $10,000 college scholarship, parents and schools across the entire United States have united in this cruel effort to uncover their childrenís spelling deficits. ESPN rakes in hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue on the assumption that I am more likely to purchase golfing shoes (I HATE golf!) or use "Duz" ("May I have the language of origin, please") to take care of those nasty grass stains if they can just keep me glued for the next five hours to my recliner. The advertisers are probing for my deficits as well. Well, here I am.

Donít get me wrong now: Iíve taken as much delight in homeschoolersí recent monopoly of the National Spelling Bee as the next homeschooler, and have been just as outraged by official attempts to limit our kidsí participation. But, as a Washington Post staff writer recently wrote, this really is "an archaic exercise in brutality". The idea behind the Spelling Bee is that one is supposed to keep oneís deficit hidden as long as possible, while hundreds of other prepubescent geeks (having been one myself, I remember the feeling) reveal their fatal flaws and are banished ignominiously from the island. No team spirit here; there definitely will not be any bug-swallowing for the good of the group. And there most definitely are not two Miss Spelling Bee North Carolinas.

No, once the fatal flaw is revealed, as in Survivor II, one has to leave, alone, returning, with any luck, to a more comfortable surround. Itís one giant Ďsudden deathí playoff. So there it is, five hours of morbidly watching kids fail! But not only that, for as the game progresses, the words get harder and harder, and, progressively, less and less useful. Consider how many times you have utilized any of the following words in your writing or speech in the past several decades: xanthosis; vivisepulture; euonym; chiaroscurist; logorrhea; demarche; succedanaeum; prospicience. These were the final words in each of the last eight National Spelling Bees. (I would note that my spellchecker highlights all but one of them as misspelled. Now, going for one million dollars, can you tell us which one? And for ten million: Use all eight in a single, meaningful sentence - you have 60 seconds. Ready?) (I just did: "The following words - xanthosis, vivisepulture, etc., etc. - never appear together in an English sentence." Applause!) One word you donít see on this list is triskaidekaphobia, a word that has probably resulted in more banishments than any other. (Meaning? Fear of the number 13!) My daughter, Meera, having just mastered triskaidekaphobia, has just downloaded a list of 276 other phobia words, and is now busy memorizing.

I finally managed to turn it off. There! That wasnít so bad, was it? Next time, scanning the globe for the world of sport, there are a host of other events Iíd prefer to see (I hope the folks at ESPN are reading this), such as the Great Bathtub Race of Nome, Alaska ( ), the World Championship Rotary Tiller Race (which, as everyone knows, is part of the Purplehull Pea Festival of Emerson, Arkansas (, or the Extreme Ironing World Championships, last held in Munich ( I also might express a preference for the World Bog-Snorkeling Championships, "run" (?) every August in Llanwrtyd (love the spelling), Wales, or the Punkin Chunkin World Championships ( ) held in Rehoboth, Delaware. (There are college scholarships attached to this one!) And most definitely, none of these will outdo my predilection for the Cooper Hill Annual Cheese Rolling and Wake (www.cheese-rolling, ), a favorite of the BBC and an event known through documentary evidence to be at least 200 years old, and which may date back as far as pre-Arthurian Britain. If there are advertisers, there is sure to be an audience, or is it the other way around? I think there is likely a lot less violence associated with these (with the possible exception of Extreme Ironing) than with word-flaying.

Really, I guess itís not too terrible to have a Little League World Series of Spelling. Some of our children will never make it as shortstops, and, if they like competition and arcane words, this is their chance for 15 minutes of fame. But for most of our kids, this is not a good, or even particularly enjoyable way to advance the spelling skill. As enthusiastic as we may be, some of them are less than enthusiastic in learning about Latin and Greek roots, terms for obscure medical diagnoses, or even spending a lot of time with the dictionary.

And they shouldnít have to. For many children, with lots of good reading and good conversation that allows them to expand their conceptual horizons, spelling takes care of itself. In terms of vocabulary, research has shown that the average five-year-old child (if there is such a thing!) knows approximately 10,000 words. She will gain another 2,000-3,000 a year until her vocabulary at age 18 will be approximately 40,000. And again, with more good reading and good conversation, it will just keep growing. (The same studies show that in classrooms, children are formally introduced to no more than 300-500 words a year, and since they may already have known about half of them before being "taught", they are obviously getting well more than three-quarters of them from somewhere else!) They learn to spell them, too. Some simply remember words after seeing them in print. Others draw phonetic analogies from other words they have heard or seen, and that works about 90% of the time. Still others pick it up through the computer spellchecker.

Parents who participated in spelling bees as children have repeatedly given me a tidbit that I think we can put to good use. They always remember the word that stumped them in the childhood spelling bee, and now (unlike so many other words) always spell it correctly (although I have also met one person who is permanently blocked from ever feeling that she can spell this particular word), even as they remember the shame and embarrassment of having been banished from the island. So I began to ask myself whether there might be a way of making use of this fact, without the shame, embarrassment, and banishment that characterized the competition.

And Iíve found one! Iíve now used it with a dozens of kids ages 7 to 15 (adults, too), and it works. They always want to do more of it. Itís a game Iíve given the name Unspelling.TM UnspellingTM works like this: one person picks a source word. Then, in turn, each of the players must spell this word incorrectly, but with a basis in a sound-analogy with the way another word (or words) is correctly spelled. If challenged, she must produce that word. If you run out of spellings, if you repeat a previous UnspellingTM, or if you spell the word correctly, youíre out. The first few times you play, it is easier to write the UnspellingTM words on a blackboard or piece of butcher paper hung on the wall, but doing it without aid of writing will enhance memory development. Example: The UnspellingTM source word is "phonics". Appropriate responses are: Phonix fonix fonics fonicks phonicks foknicks phoknicks foknics phoknics phanics fanics phanix fanix phanicks fanicks phaknicks faknicks faknics phaknics fonnics phonics phonnix fonnix fonnicks phonnicks fannics phonnicks phannics phannicks fannicks

One could add words beginning with "pf" as in "pfennig" (German currency, but used in English, it appears in the dictionary.) (And if one decides to allow analogies with Polish or Slavic proper names, the list might expand to include words ending in "icz".) Get the idea? A favorite UnspellingTM source word of mine is "weighty" (which has among the strangest correct spellings). Just to get started: waytee wheytea whaytea weitie whaytie wayttie waittea weighteaÖ.

You can see that this particular UnspellingTM source word would make for a very long list!

The benefits of UnspellingTM are obvious, or at least they are to me. First of all, once kicked out of the game for spelling a word correctly, it will never be forgotten. Secondly, players come away with an expanded sense of the phonetic possibilities of the language, which will help both with future spelling questions, and in figuring out pronunciation from written sources.

More important than either of these, UnspellingTM is fun! A lot more fun than the spelling bee, or so every kid who has ever tried it has told me. Probably more fun than Extreme Ironing or Bog-Snorkeling (at least for many), though I doubt it can measure up with the Cheese Rolling. ESPN - are you there? We are almost ready for prime time!


David H. Albert is a homeschooling dad, popular conference speaker and author of And the Skylark Sings With Me as well as the new book Homeschooling and the Voyage of Self-Discovery: A Journey of Original Seeking (Common Courage Press, 2003). David is available for workshops or speaking engagements in your community -- e-mail him at or through his website at