Roger Dickinson


Spelling bees are both a distraction and a boost for literacy improvement efforts!

Posted by Roger Dickinson on 24 July 2023, 11:30 SAST
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Anyone following my social media profiles or those of our African Spelling Bee partners, will be inundated with posts and videos about our upcoming spelling bees. (If you haven’t - then you please do check us out at.


Spelling Bees are an integral part of our programming at A Better Africa Foundation but were never intended to be the primary focus. A concern right from the start of our programmes in 2009 was whether spelling bees actually assisted in literacy improvements or if they were simply a distraction.

14 years later and our spelling bees have now expanded to partnerships across 25 countries with hundreds of thousands of spellers coming through our various competitions each year.   

The questions still persist though.

 Do spelling bees help in improving literacy skills or are they simply hyped-up competitions for those can already read and spell? Or do they have other benefits?

The Spelling Bee

A spelling bee is a competition in which participants are asked to spell words correctly. It is typically organized for students, although there are also spelling bees for adults. In a spelling bee, participants take turns being given words to spell aloud. They usually receive the word's definition, origin, and sometimes its use in a sentence. The participant must then spell the word correctly, following the rules of pronunciation and spelling. The oldest and most well known spelling bee is the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the US.Homepage | Scripps National Spelling Bee

The term "spelling bee" is believed to have originated in the United States in the early 18th century. The exact reason behind the choice of the word "bee" is not entirely clear, but there are a few theories:

Working Bee: One theory suggests that the term "bee" was used because a spelling bee resembles a social gathering or communal activity. In rural communities, "bee" was often used to describe a cooperative gathering where people came together to work on a specific task, such as a quilting bee or a barn-raising bee. Similarly, a spelling bee brought people together to engage in a shared activity of spelling words.

Worker Bee: Another theory suggests that "bee" is used metaphorically, drawing a comparison between the hardworking nature of bees and the effort put into learning and spelling words. 

Bene: There is also a possibility that the term "bee" evolved from the Old English word "bene," which means a prayer, favor, or help. Over time, "bene" may have transformed into "bee," and the term was later applied to spelling competitions.

Regardless of the origin, the term "spelling bee" has become widely recognized and used to describe this type of competition around the world.

Our own experience over the last decade and more, has been that Spelling Bees create excitement in schools and communities around reading, learning words and academic excellence. Especially when a local child wins or excels. This extends to national pride where winning teams gain praise and even popularity because of their success at spelling bees.

But not everyone agrees!

Promoting the wrong literacy skills

A number of research papers and media articles have pointed out the shortcomings and even harm of spelling bees. The article Promoting the wrong literacy skills sums up much of the critique, including:

1. The focus on memorisation of complex words and word roots in spelling bees, is skewed, as it only involves one part of the literacy skills building process.

2. Spelling bees can dishearten children who struggle with spelling. Students with specific learning difficulties, like language impairment and dyslexia, struggle to master the spelling and reading of words at a much more fundamental level.

3. The purpose of literacy and education is to access and create meaning, not to endlessly memorise spellings or facts. Studying for spelling bees wastes time better spent on real-world tasks like reading literature, writing stories, or debating ideas.

These are all valid points and to them I would add; that spelling bees can  create unheathy competition and put unnecessary pressure on the participants. Our experience however shows to more of a "parent's issue" than that of the participating spellers!

But that does not tell the whole story.

And the main part of that story has little to do with literacy enhancement!

Benefits of Spelling Bees

Spelling Bees do contribute to improving literacy in the obvious ways.

Firstly spelling bees require a dramatic Vocabulary Expansion by any one participating in a spelling bees. Secondly, and related to the first point is that children and youth are encouraged to read more. To participate in a spelling bee, contestants need to be able to accurately recognize words and spell them correctly and the best way in achieving this, is to be an avid reader. 

However the most important aspect of the spelling competition, to me anyway, goes back to the 'working bee' root of the word. "To come together to do something as a community." 

The image that stays in my mind and heart is of our 1st African Spelling Bee that took place in Johannesburg in July 2016. 9 Teams of spellers from across the continent participated.

The evening before the competition we introduced a multi-lingual word list from across the continent. This list included words from diverse languages such as Swahili, Igbo, Amharic, Twii, Luganda, Zulu, Afrikaans and French.  The spellers were instructed to teach each other how to say the words correctly and what the meaniings were. The next hour and a bit of running around, shouts across the hall,giggling and hugging,  was probably the most exciting in my life. These young spellers, who had just met each other the day before, showed what it means to collaborate and educate. To laugh and learn together. To respect and affirm each other.  To honour Africa and its languages and cultures.

It also all happened in English in a region of the world known for racism, xenophobia, tribalism and intolerance!

So are Spelling bees both a distraction and a boost for literacy improvement efforts!

The answer is Yes!

But more a boost!!!

Especially when the beauty, passion and excitement of young Africans is allowed to flow through them!

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