For Americans, spelling bees are in our blood

Mar 16, 2017

A few weeks ago, parents and students filled about half the bleachers at the Kingsley Middle School gym. It wasn’t for a sporting event but for the 2017 Grand Traverse County Spelling Bee. Spellers who do well here, will have a shot to go to the national competition which airs on ESPN. 


Sophia Rhein is a sixth-grade speller from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Middle School. She's been preparing for the bee by studying a lot of different words and their roots. But she admits, tonight, she’s nervous.

“Some of the French words gave me a tough time,” she explains. “One of them was, ‘bureaucracy.’ That was pretty hard for me.”

Spelling competitions like these have been going on for over 30 years in northern Michigan. And for over the past 20 years, the Scripps National Spelling Bee has been broadcast on prime time television.

“It is like another sort of reality TV show,” says Nathaniel Swain, a speech language pathologist from Australia who’s researched spelling bees.

He says the Scripps National Spelling Bee isn’t unlike The Voice, The Bachelor, or Survivor. Viewers get hooked on learning about the contestants and seeing them perform under pressure.

“It’s because it’s really well produced now as a fantastic sort of reality TV format, that I think it’s maintained it’s popularity and is still avidly watched, especially in America,” says Swain.

Another reason the bee resonates with many Americans goes back to the late 1800’s. That’s when Americans began wanting their own unique version of English. One of the ways to have a distinct form was to spell words differently. So, spelling became part of people’s American identity.

“Spelling had a specific place in people’s understanding of who they are as English speakers, but more importantly, American English speakers,” Swain explains.

The Grand Traverse Regional Spelling Bee takes place this Sunday, at the State Theatre in Traverse City. The bee starts at 11:00am, and is free and open to the public.