Guest Column
I’m the national spelling bee winner, and here’s a better ‘pedagogy’ to teach it | Column
The Palm Harbor University High student says there needs to be critical thinking, context and right-track answers, not just rote memorization.
Dev Shah, from Largo, reacts to winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee on June 1 in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)
Dev Shah, from Largo, reacts to winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee on June 1 in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard) [ NATHAN HOWARD | AP ]
Published Nov. 2, 2023

There’s more to spelling and vocabulary than rote memorization, which is how schools are teaching it. You’ll probably never use words like “fastidious” or “legerdemain” in your life, but wouldn’t it help to increase your vocabulary? Don’t you want to avoid those “what’s the word for when you XYZ” moments? Wouldn’t it be great if you could impress a future employer or add some flavor to college essays? Research has proven that increasing your vocabulary and sharpening your spelling skills increases intelligence. It’s necessary to teach spelling and vocabulary, but the problem is the schools are doing it wrong.

Dev Shah
Dev Shah [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]

In my experience, I was given a test and I’d vomit the exact definition my teacher gave me a week ago. Most schools give out the traditional vocabulary test, writing down a memorized meaning. A single hyphen or misplaced letter could cost me a point. There’s no room for right-track answers. There’s no context whatsoever. The Scripps National Spelling Bee leans toward context-based questions. For example, when I was asked the word chiromancy, they phrased it with context.

Q: Someone who engages in chiromancy does what?

A: Tells fortunes using lines on the palm of the hand.

There’s critical thinking involved. Asking vocabulary like this requires knowing the context of the word. Through context-based questions, students can learn the nuance of the word. For example, the word “arrogant” means “prideful.” That’s a good thing, right? Not exactly. There’s no point in learning a word if you can’t use it correctly.

Another strategy is to study roots. Studying roots gives an understanding of why a word means what it does. In my experience, a teacher would give a list of roots, and the next week there would be a test. There’s a problem with this. What’s the point in teaching roots if you can’t apply them? It’s like teaching the alphabet, but not how to form words using the alphabet. To study for the National Spelling Bee, I wrote down the roots for each vocabulary word. For example, the word “legerdemain” comes from the root “manus” meaning hand, as in manuscript. Therefore, “legerdemain” means sleight of hand or magic.

Vocabulary and spelling are like bread and butter. If you know what a word means, you should know how to spell it. Schools can teach spelling through roots as well. For instance, podiatrist comes from two parts: “pod” meaning foot and “iatrist” meaning doctor. Another word with “iatrist” is psychiatrist. Now you have another root to know: “psych” meaning mind. Then you’d find another word with “psych.” Most words have roots. Some words like rendezvous and squirrel must be memorized. There are programs like Quizlet or Anki to help with memorization.

All in all, spelling and vocabulary are necessary in today’s world whether it be for a college essay, a job application, or writing an article like this. We need to ramp up how we teach vocabulary and spelling. Florida has only three national spelling bee winners. Texas has 16. What are we doing? Let’s catch up.

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Dev Shah, the national spelling bee champion, is a freshman at Palm Harbor University High School. His winning word was “psammophile,” an organism that prefers sandy soils, from the ancient Greek “psammos” (sand) and “phile” (lover of).