Saturday, February 27, 2010

OH, SAY, CAN YOU SAY THEM: Being word 'pronouncer' at a spelling bee is harder than it looks

By Sandy Banks, Los Angeles Times Columnist

    Scripps National Spelling Bee

    Scripps National Spelling Bee competitors listen to a fellow contestant in 2007. The winner of Saturday's bee at Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood will attend this year's event in Washington. (Shawn Thew / EPA / May 30, 2007)

February 27, 2010 -- I'd spent 10 years drilling children for spelling tests, calling out words for my daughters to spell aloud as they prepared for their weekly exams in the car on our morning drives to school.

So I didn't hesitate to accept when Walter Reed Middle School teacher Debra Vodhanel invited me to serve as the pronouncer at the local spelling bee this weekend.

I'm a writer, a reader, a mother of three. How difficult could announcing a spelling list be?

Extraordinarily ( ek-strawr-dn-'air-uh-lee) difficult, I realized, when Vodhanel handed me the list. Ninety-six pages; 500 words. . . . And many I'd never heard or seen.

I wish I could give you examples, but the list stays secret until Saturday's contest.

But here are winning words from recent national bees: ursprache, appoggiatura, prospicience, succedaneum.

You see what I mean?

Vodhanel tried to reassure me. Spelling bee judges will correct me if I mispronounce a word during the competition, she said.

So I won't sabotage the spellers' efforts; I'll just be publicly humiliated.


Spelling tests have slipped in and out favor in the 20 years since I began those back-seat drills -- cat, mat, door, floor -- with my then-first-grade daughter.

By the time her younger sister came along, "invented spelling" was all the rage. The "whole language" approach to reading downplayed the practice of sounding words out and favored contextual clues instead.

And spelling contests became as outmoded as handwriting drills on blackboards.

But 10 years ago, the pendulum swung back with the advent of standardized testing and scripted reading lessons. Now, even kindergartners study phonics and are expected to print short narratives using "conventional spelling."

Spelling tests are "an important way for students to demonstrate their knowledge," said Gayle Pollard-Terry, spokeswoman for L.A. Unified, which hosts its own series of spelling bees next month, to "give students an opportunity to shine."

The competition at Walter Reed in North Hollywood is part of the network of regional spelling contests that lead to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Saturday's winner will join other finalists from around the country in June in Washington, D.C.

The 75-year-old national bee has developed a cult following. It is televised live by ESPN, has been dramatized in plays and feature films, and was the subject of "Spellbound," an Oscar-nominated documentary.

But this year, local spellers were almost locked out after the San Fernando Valley bee lost its sponsor last fall.

The middle school stepped in as sponsor "because we had students who'd been studying all year, and we didn't want to let them down," Vodhanel said.

The school will host the competition, provide the trophies and refreshments. The Scripps National Spelling Bee will pay the winner's way to the Washington competition.

Walter Reed has a mock spelling bee every Friday after school. "Fifty words, with a podium, microphone . . . just like the real thing," said math/science teacher Sandy DiSimone, who runs the 30-student Spelling Club.

"The kids love it," she said. "Especially the sixth-graders. It's a social thing for a lot of them," a way to carve out a niche in a giant middle school.

They've left behind elementary school drills -- the spelling lists and graded exams -- but still find "a sort of intrinsic joy in doing well, in getting an award, and that recognition that you excel."


Students from 50 schools -- winners of their campus spelling bees -- will be competing this weekend. I imagine they've spent hours with drills and flashcards and practice sessions. So has their pronouncer.

My job is simple, according to the Sponsor Bee Guide: "The pronouncer strives to pronounce words according to the diacritical markings . . . in Webster's Third New International Dictionary."

But those diacritical markings -- odd dots and lines and symbols -- look like gibberish to me.

I was on study day three and word 121, tediously flipping back and forth between the spelling list and my pronouncer's guide, when my 19-year-old daughter interrupted me.

"You're using a dictionary?" she asked, as if it were the oddest thing she'd ever heard. "You can look it up online," she said, plopping her laptop on my desk.

Type in the word, scroll down, click on the symbol of a megaphone . . . and I suddenly had my own pronouncer: a confident, mellifluous voice reading each word aloud to me.

Which means the pronouncer just might get through the morning without flubbing a word; an outcome I'd have considered unlikely a week ago, and now consider plausible ('plaw-zuh-buhl).

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