Monday, April 3, 2006



The word "bee" has long been used to describe a busy gathering of people who come together for a special purpose, such as quilting, spinning, logging, or raising a barn. "Spelling bee" is an American term that came into use by the 1870s.

The National Spelling Bee was launched by the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal newspaper in 1925. With competitions, cash prizes, and a trip to the nation's capital, the Bee hoped to stimulate "general interest among pupils in a dull subject." The Scripps Howard News Service took it over in 1941. Since its inception, the Bee has grown from a mere 9 contestants to almost 300. Originally an all-American affair, the contest now includes entrants from New Zealand, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Canada.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is open to students under the age of 16 and in Grade 8 or under. There is no minimum age. In 2005, two nine-year-olds were among the 273 invited to Washington for the finals. Each contestant is sponsored, usually by a newspaper in their home city. Each sponsoring paper organizes a spelling bee in its community with the co-operation of local school boards. The winner from each contest gets to go to Washington for the finals.

The process to arrive at a final word list begins almost a year before the annual competition.
A three-person "word panel" puts together several word lists. A series of meetings then follows. Words that are not in the official dictionary are cut, as are words that are judged to be too difficult or too easy, or those that have too many letters or syllables. Eventually, the panel comes up with a rated list of about 950 words that will be used in the final competition. To help contestants study, the National Spelling Bee provides lists of the 23,000-odd words that have been used in previous bees, along with definitions, language of origin, and an example of their use in a sentence. This study aid is 794 pages long.

The finals are conducted over two days and feature a series of gruelling rounds that eventually turn into sudden death elimination contests. Round One requires the contestants to write out the spelling of 25 words and are given points depending on how many they get right. In Round Two, the words are chosen from the bee's official study guide, called The Paideia, as well as the 250 words that appear in two sections of the Sponsor Bee Guides. While these words are often ridiculously difficult, the contestants consider this round to be the easiest because they can study the words and memorize their spellings. In Round Three and subsequent rounds, the words are chosen from among the 470,000 or so in Webster's Third New International Dictionary. If a contestant makes a mistake at this point, there's no second chance. They must leave the stage. The rounds continue until there's only one left standing. Contestants are allowed, even encouraged, to ask questions of the person asking them to spell a certain word. Contestants can ask the questioner to say the word again, use it in a sentence, give a definition, or provide the word's language of origin (French? Latin? Greek?). Obviously "How is the word spelled?" or "Is there a 'c' in that word?" are questions that are not permitted.

Once a contestant starts to spell a word, they can go back and start from the beginning and retrace their spelling. But they cannot change letters they've already said. For example, the moment one has started to spell coiffure with a "k" instead of with a "c" no recovery is possible.

Anyone who makes it to the finals gets a prize pack that includes a commemorative watch, a T-shirt that says "Spelling Ace" a dictionary on a CD-ROM, a $100 US savings bond, and a cash prize of $50 or $75 depending on how many points they accumulated through the first two rounds. Those who make it to the third or subsequent rounds can also look forward to escalating cash prizes: $300 for being eliminated in Round Five; $600 in Round Eight.

After that, awards are handed out by final placings; third place, for instance, is worth $3,500, second is worth $6,000. The winner gets $28,000 US in cash, savings bonds and scholarships along with live coverage on cable TV networks, a brief mention on national newscasts, pictures and stories in the local paper. The winner's school gets a plaque.

Keke Palmer: Akeelah Anderson, an exceptionally bright 11-year-old girl
Sahara Garey: her best friend Georgia
Angela Bassett: Tanya, Akeelan’s single mom employed as a nurse
Curtis Armstong: Mr. Welch, principal of South L.A.'s Crenshaw Middle School
Laurence Fishburne: his friend Dr. Joshua Larabee, a former English professor
J.R. Villarreal: Javier, an experienced spelling bee competitor
Sean Michael Afable: Dylan, last year’s winner of second place
Tzi Ma: his father

This “feel-good” type of movie has lessons to be learned (or recalled) as the under-dog faces real challenges in pursuit of her dream. It’s entertaining, sometimes moving and the positive messages it sends are an added bonus. Good family fare despite the odd off-colour word.

for some language (couple of mild swear words)

Since 3” X 5” index cards are made of heavy stock, their weight is significant. 5,000 of them would weigh about 40 pounds, far too much for a 11-year-old girl to easily pick up and carry off without help.

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