By Gulrukh Tausif
Recently I had the privilege of attending a major spelling bee contest that is conducted by a famous English Media group every year. Thousands of students from hundreds of schools all across Pakistan take part in this competition. The regional rounds are held in different cities and then a national round takes place in either Lahore or Islamabad or Karachi. The purpose of the spelling bee competition is to help raise the educational standards of students by enhancing their vocabulary and improving language skills.
I personally feel that it is a very healthy educational activity and children learn to work hard, compete against each other and learn important skills. Such competitions are also very popular in countries like India and US and winners get hefty cash prizes and prominent space in newspaper and television shows. However I feel that over the years our children are performing poorly than before.
Out of curiosity, I researched a bit into spelling bee contests that are held by some other countries. I found that since the inaugural competition in 1925, Scripps National Spelling Bee that is held in America every year, the words featured have become increasingly more difficult and obscure. They require the young participants to have a commanding knowledge of root words, etymology, and world languages. Some of the words than won the finalists the coveted first prize were “chiaroscurist,” appoggiatura, cymotrichous, scherenschnitte, Feldenkrais, gesellschaft and Ursprache to name a few.
On the other hand, our children in 9-11 category struggled to spell words as simple as helium, scrutiny, deficit, glutton and glean. More disappointing was the 15-17 age group, where contestants misspelled words as easy as flurry, diaspora, ammunition, eulogy, anchovy and matinee. Though the finalists were able to spell an impressive set of words, many of the pool contestants had a very tough time spelling quite easy words.
From what I observed, it was clear to see the following things:
Our children do not read books: Reading habit in Pakistan among the youth is on a decline. It is very difficult to memorize a bunch of words before a competition unless you know how they are used and in what context. Reading enhances the vocabulary and difficult words become part of the memory bank. Unless our children read widely, they will struggle to express themselves eloquently or develop critical thinking.
Our children do not read newspapers: This was very evident when children could not spell words like amnesty, immigration and eulogy, words which frequently appear in our English newspapers. Parents must inculcate the habit of reading newspapers in children and not rely on television for their daily news. Reading the newspaper helps children be aware of the world around them and have a balanced view on life. Reading the newspaper gives you information about local and international economy, politics, business, world affairs, international issues, sports, entertainment, and it also enhances your vocabulary and English language skills.
Teachers are unable to prepare students for mega competitions: It is my own personal opinion based on what I witnessed but I felt many children were extremely underprepared for the competition. Of course, there are elements like stage-fright and English is not our mother language but when students are competing in a spelling contest, teachers should prepare them for appearing on a big stage. A booklet consisting of words that appear in the contest is also sent to each and every school well in advance. The children who battle it out in the finals have one thing in common…their teachers’ support and intense training sessions in schools for students to understand words and how to spell them.
Participating in competitions such as spelling bee is not about memorizing a bunch of words. It is learning to work hard to achieve a target, skills like persistence, time, management, sportsmanship and grace under pressure. It is learning how to compete on a big stage and be gracious winners and graceful losers. It is about learning that there are no short cuts to victory. It is about making friends with bright students and learning from them. Most importantly, it is about learning that sometimes in spite of your best efforts, you might not get the coveted prize but your training, hard work and strength of character are something that will not desert you. These are valuable life skills that go far beyond school education.
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