Australian Spelling Bee should not be taken seriously, says spelling expert

by Sarah Bachman06 Aug 2015

Tessa Daffern, a higher degree researcher at Charles Sturt University (CSU) says parents should not compare their children to the contestants on The Great Australian Spelling Bee, who she said were all high achievers with a competitive streak.

 “The first episode seemed to be quite entertaining and most of the children appeared to enjoy the experience,” Daffern said in a statement.

“It was obvious that the children were all high achievers and each had some kind of competitive streak. However, it is important for parents and teachers watching at home not to compare the contestants to their own children or students.”

Daffern said spelling ability “has no proven correlation to overall intelligence” and that children need to be nurtured on their own journey without comparisons to children competing in a “dramatised, highly-controlled and isolated environment.”

Daffern’s PhD is titled An examination of spelling acquisition in the middle and upper primary school years and is based on the learning experiences of almost 1,400 primary school children from year three to year six at 17 schools in the ACT.

The researcher said she noticed a range of strategies being used by the contestants and was glad to see them ask for the definition of some words, saying it is equally important to understand the meaning of a word.

Daffern said she also noticed mistakes that she said are common among primary school aged children.

“Many of the contestants stumbled at the middle of the word or at the different parts of the word and were challenged when there derivational suffixes such as ‘able’ on the end; these are all common challenges for children learning to spell,” Daffern said.

“For example, Blake’s hesitation when spelling ‘accelerator’ saw him pause and ask ‘where was I up to? Can I please start again?’ This shows how children can struggle to hold longer words in their working memory while they process the word and encode each letter one-by-one.

“Longer words with many meaningful parts can often be harder to retain in working memory. During my research I observed even the highest achieving spellers in year six found this challenging. Spelling less familiar words can be a memory test as much as a linguistic problem solving test.”