School life in the USA: Spelling Bee wars

Hillside-School-Spelling-Bee-NJEXPAT LIFE: I got a huge surprise when she told me.

“Mum, I’m going to be in the Spelling Bee final.”

“Congratulations! That’s fabulous!” I exclaimed with pride.

Although I was thrilled for her, when I looked in her eyes, I could see she didn’t think it was fabulous at all.

My daughter had a terrified look in her eyes and I knew why. Performing any feats in front of a crowd is her own personal version of hell, let alone intellectual super feats.

“You’ll be fine. Look how many words you have been able to spell so far”, I said knowing full well, I was lying about the ease of the task ahead. I knew the next two and a half weeks were going to be a Herculean task of keeping her calm about the event she was dreading. Standing in front of a whole school of kids, teachers and parents, while they all watched her try to spell without making mistakes.

Then there was the wholly unappealing job of learning the Spelling Bee Word List and Glossary.


Spelling bees in the USA are a commonplace activity in public schools. They are held not only at class and school level but also at state and national level. The Scripps National Spelling Bee is the final competition that competitors vie to get into. This is a well-publicized competition held in Washington annually just after Memorial Day. First introduced in 1925, the bee produces guideline word lists that are given to potential competitors to learn. This list is disseminated country-wide and is the foundation list that my daughter’s spelling list is based on, provided by Scripps, who are the event sponsor.

Spell Words from Hell

Spelling has always been relatively easy for me. However, on reading the Scripps list, I was gob-smacked. If you thought that the difficulty level would be hard for children but easy for adults, you’d be very wrong. The list includes words I have never heard of until now and unlikely to ever hear again. Here’s just some examples:

abecedarius eudaemonic lamasery payonine
altazimuth felsenmeer lebkuchen pickelhaube
argillaceous gallimaufry machiocolation quidnunc
barratry gallinule metaphrast sesquipedulian
chrematistic grimoire mynheer stultiloquence
chrestomathy grisaille nyctalopia subfulgent
circumambulate grobian nystagmus thurible
electuary jadeite ojicient unau
eleemosynary lambrequin pabulum zeugma

Most of these are not only hard to spell but are also unpronounceable, which makes learning them that much harder. Remember too, that these are just children who are competing and trying to handle all this pressure. Entrants have to be under the age of 15 or in 7th Grade or below, so are they are either teens, pre-teens or younger.

laloplegia-spelling-bee-word unciferous-spelling-bee-word

Despite the difficulty of this task, competing in this spelling bee is very popular, and extends now outside the USA. Other countries such as NZ, China, Japan, Mexico and Jamaica provide entries too although the heart of the competition remains American.

A Cultural Icon

Spelling bees in the USA are such a part of local culture that there have been several books, documentaries, and even some films on this topic. ‘Akeelah and the Bee’ is a recent movie about the tribulations of an 11 year old preparing for the Regional and then National competition. It conveyed just how tough this competition could be emotionally and intellectually on the kids involved.

[Clip from the movie Akeelah an the Bee]

Another reflection of the cultural icon status of the spelling bee is ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’; a Tony-Award winning, Broadway play about six adolescent school kids competing to get into the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

[Film clip of a segment from the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ ]

This classic musical comedy is performed regularly in regional theaters around the US states and elsewhere. It’s is definitely going on my American culture bucket list.


Win or lose, my daughter should be proud that she made it to the school final. It is an achievement to be proud of. For us as a family, she has been able to shine a light on another tidbit of real American life that we’ll get to experience as we continue our expat life in the USA.



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