Considering the success of the annual United States National Spelling Bee, our appetite for reality television shows, and the passion with which people debate language and/or fret about the youth, it is surprising that The Great Australian Spelling Bee is only now coming to television. Airing from today (Monday, August 3) on Network Ten, it appears to have all the ingredients for ratings success: cute kids, big words, and the possibility for audiences to realise how good — or hopeless — we may be at spelling. The covert messages that the show will send about language and intelligence are, however, a little less innocuous.

The show will be hosted by Chrissie Swan, a primary school spelling champ, and Grant Denyer, “someone who can’t spell to save himself“, so it will undoubtedly frame the competition as a friendly and fun challenge for the kids who appear. It even bills itself as putting “Australia’s brightest young people … through their paces as they inspire and surprise us”. The up-and-coming word nerds might tug at our heartstrings, but labelling them “Australia’s brightest” is a misleading way to approach literacy and success.

While education-funding debates rage and schools try to prepare students for a 21st-century world, spelling bees masquerade as educational, both on television and off. A not-for-profit organisation called Spellmasters Australia runs regular spelling competitions and claims that participation helps to improve students’ comprehension and communication skills. Yet there’s no evidence this is more than a mere correlation, rather than actually attributable to participation in spelling bees themselves. There are aspects of the preparation for spelling bees that have proven to be helpful, such as understanding the etymology of words, but spelling bees themselves are only tests of recall, the lowest form of understanding.

Mark Fennessy is the CEO of the production company behind The Great Australian Spelling Bee, and he claims: “By super-sizing spelling … we’ll present the universal art of problem solving on the grandest of scales.” But spelling bees are not problem solving opportunities. Success at these competitions depends on rote learning, memory techniques and ultimately luck. Our modern spoken language has around 44 sounds, which our alphabet of just 26 letters works overtime to represent. In fact, there are roughly 205 different ways to represent those 44 sounds, which is why luck is so much a part of success at spelling. If you’ve never seen the word written down, there are countless ways it could be spelt, and you have no way of coming to the answer other than guessing. Success at spelling bees or other vocabulary-based competitions has so little to do with communicative competency that a New Zealander, Nigel Richards, recently won the French Scrabble championships despite the fact that he does not actually speak French. Richards relied on a translator to thank the audience, as his win was purely due to having memorised a list of words in the previous weeks.

While spelling is a part of communication that teachers consider to some degree when assessing students’ literacy, the emphasis is on overall comprehension, coherence, creativity with language, and the abilities needed to analyse, interpret and construct a range of text types. These are all skills that they will need to apply in the world beyond schooling — a world in which we all use autocorrect and spell check. Spelling competitions present a single type of skill and elevate it disproportionately. Success in communication is not dependent on accurately spelling (often obscure) words, and an errant letter within a word is not a reflection of the sum of anyone’s intelligence.

Language is a powerful tool because of the range of ideas and emotions we can express with it. The importance of meaning in language is what makes a malapropism so grating or a pun so divisive, and it’s what will probably make this competition so disappointing. We can’t forget that literacy is also about understanding the different contexts in which language is used. The classification of The Great Australian Spelling Bee merely as “light entertainment” in the TV guide should give us all a clue about its educational value.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.