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Defying societal habits, spelling regains its dignity

By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / January 9, 2012
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Henry Ochoa, a fourth-grader at Charles Sumner Elementary School in Roslindale, plays football and basketball, and loves to watch television. But when the commercials come on, he really has fun.

He practices spelling.

“D-r-e-a-d-f-u-l. A-b-o-a-r-d,’’ Henry demonstrates, working off the fourth-grade study list he persuaded his teacher to give him before the other students got it.

“Lots of people kind of don’t like spelling,’’ he said. “But they don’t know what it’s about.’’

Henry is by no means the strongest speller in the school - he trips on “kidney’’ and “continent’’ - but he may be the most enthusiastic. The school’s spelling bee is in February, and he’s been practicing for months. What’s surprising, though, is that he’s not unusual. Spelling, which suffered a precipitous drop in status during the last few years, has become popular again.

“All of a sudden spelling is hot,’’ said Richard Gentry, a Florida reading and spelling consultant and author of “The Science of Spelling.’’ “Researchers want to understand how we learn it, teachers want to know how best to teach it, and kids want to know how to . . . win competitions.’’

It’s a surprising development at this low point in orthographic history. Those once-ubiquitous elementary school textbooks known as “spellers’’ have been as scarce, in recent years, as double vowels. E-mail programs and smartphones fix our spelling mistakes, and texters ignore them altogether.

“With the Internet and texting and LOL and all that nonsense, they don’t even bother spelling the word anymore. They don’t have to,’’ said Bill Downing, principal of the Ditson Elementary School in Billerica. The way he sees it, proper spelling, which used to be a mark of social standing, has become a “lost art.’’

But maybe not. One sign is that spelling textbooks, ejected from classrooms some 20 years ago to make way for more creative methods of studying words, are becoming popular again.

The Watertown public schools didn’t have a spelling curriculum in place until last year, according to Mena Ciarlone, Watertown’s new elementary curriculum coordinator. But the school system has just put into place an ambitious “Spelling Connections’’ program for third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders with a more rigorous emphasis on spelling in the context of word origins.

“I’m trying to empower our students, and one way is to build their knowledge of spelling and word origins so they can be problem solvers when they encounter new words,’’ Ciarlone said.

Fortunately for teachers, there’s been a growing cachet around spelling, thanks to spelling-themed movies such as 2006’s “Akeelah and the Bee’’ and 2002’s “Spellbound’’; the Broadway musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’’; and the fact that the fiercely competitive Scripps National Spelling Bee - the holy grail of ambitious spellers - is broadcast live on ESPN.

Spelling is becoming popular outside the classroom, too.

“We hear about more and more schools at the elementary- and middle-school level forming after-school spelling clubs,’’ said the director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Paige Kimble. She’s also noticed a surge of interest in the bee’s e-mail newsletter for teachers, featuring words of the week and teaching tips. Subscriptions have jumped 125 percent in a year, she said.

One reason people are paying more attention to bad spelling could be that the Internet has made them more aware of it.

“People never knew how to spell,’’ said Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist and professor at University of California Berkeley. “They kept it a secret unless you saw their shopping lists or Christmas letter. You didn’t see the comments they wrote on other people’s blogs. You didn’t see their own blogs. I think a lot of what is perceived as the decline of spelling is just that we see a lot more spelling by a much wider range of people than we used to.’’

An increased interest in bees is welcome news to many parents, especially those with children who aren’t athletic and who want them to compete in other ways.

“We get panic calls all year long’’ from parents looking for schools or clubs that sponsor spelling bees,’’ said Lisa Morrissey, who runs the South Shore Regional Spelling Bee Program. “We’ve even had parents willing to move towns to be in a town where they could participate in a bee.’’

One mother she’s heard from is Susannah Adams of Scituate, who has three children, including a first-grade boy. Adams said she is “a little frustrated’’ that his school does not have a spelling bee.

“I feel like kids his age are starting to find what their niche is outside of school,’’ she said. “He doesn’t fit that sports kind of mold, so I thought maybe a spelling bee could be different. Academics is one of his strengths, versus trying to find him a soccer team or a baseball team. I think it’s great that spelling bees are becoming so popular and are not as nerdy as they used to be.’’

In many cases, spelling clubs are initiated by grown-ups who have a nostalgic passion for spelling. Henry Ochoa might never be spelling during commercials were it not for Trina Heinisch, a social worker at his school who in 2010 founded the school’s annual spelling bee. The school now competes at Boston’s Citywide Spelling Bee, scheduled for March.

“I have such fond memories of spelling bees,’’ said Heinisch, including the sting of being eliminated from a bee after stumbling on “fruit.’’ (She reversed the vowels.) “And I began to wonder how I could give our kids the same opportunity.’’

In October, she put up a poster outside her office with photos of last year’s champions, and a weekly countdown until school spelling bee day. As soon as it went up, “I begged her to give me the spelling words,’’ said Henry.

“He persevered,’’ said Heinisch, turning to Henry. “Do you know what that means?’’

“Don’t give up,’’ he said, and tried to spell it. It came out “p-e-r-s-i-v-e-r.’’

“Super close,’’ said Heinisch.

Her enthusiasm for spelling is matched by that of Michael Moore of Billerica, who started the Billerica Spelling Bee, which since 2010 has drawn 600 students in grades 3 through 8. Inspired by watching the Scripps National Spelling Bee on TV, the father of three partnered with Billerica Partners for Education, an educational nonprofit organization.

Moore blogs about the bee and maintains a Billerica Spelling Bee website as well as a Facebook page with momentum-building postings such as: “Are you getting ready for the Bee by studying during school vacation?’’

“I’m a decent speller, but I work at Microsoft in marketing,’’ he said, noting the irony that Microsoft Word helped popularize the computer spelling check. Nonetheless, his goal is to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, and develop correct English.

He also holds occasional spelling bee workshops at the town library, such as the one that drew nearly 40 children just a few days before Christmas.

“It’s fun to get up on stage and show people I can spell,’’ said Ariana Schmidt, a 12-year-old at the event.

Emma Tilley, 13, described competitive spelling as a “good intellectual challenge, especially if you get a word you don’t know.’’

According to 12-year-old Max May, the time spent learning how to spell properly is time well spent.

“Basically, if you play baseball or something you can get somewhere in life,’’ said Max, who was wearing a baseball jacket. “But if you work in a restaurant or something like that, you’ll need to know how to spell.’’

Linda Matchan can be reached at l_matchan@globe.com.

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