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How to Win a Spelling Bee

• October 11, 2010 • 4:55 PM

Solitary study of word spellings and origins is a better predictor of performance at the National Spelling Bee than either being quizzed by others or engaging in leisure reading.

Spelling bees have become a surprisingly popular spectator sport, televised live and celebrated in books, films and a Broadway musical. Our fascination with this phenomenon is multifaceted, but it’s based in wonder at how those kids could possibly learn all those words.

New research provides a clear answer: Because they studied. A lot. By themselves.

That’s the conclusion of a team of scholars led by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth. Its study, just published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, is part of Duckworth’s ongoing examination of the concept of “grit,” which she defines as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”

That sense of commitment, Duckworth argues, gives one the fortitude to engage in the years of hard work necessary to master most any discipline. Her study of participants in the 2006 Scripps National Spelling Bee provides evidence in support of her thesis, and the age-old adages it reflects.

The study featured 190 of the 274 finalists. They filled out questionnaires that addressed, among other variables, how much time they spent studying alone, as opposed to working with a partner who pronounced the words for them (or a computer program that did the same).

They also reported how much leisure reading they engaged in. Their “grit” was measured by having them rate the degree to which phrases such as “setbacks don’t discourage me” described their attitude.

The researchers compared the participants’ answers to their achievement, as measured by the round they advanced to before dropping out.

“Deliberate practice — operationally defined in the current investigation as the solitary study of word spellings and origins — was a better predictor of National Spelling Bee performance than either being quizzed by others or engaging in leisure reading,” they report. The kids rated solo study as “more effortful and less enjoyable than the alternative preparation activities,” but it was also the most effective technique.

Those who scored higher on the “grittiness” scale “engaged in deliberate practice more so than their less-gritty counterparts,” and were more likely to win. The ability to focus on a long-term goal, and the strong desire to achieve it, helped them push themselves through the long slog of solitary studying.

“With each year of additional preparation, spellers devoted an increasing proportion of their preparation time to deliberate practice,” the researchers add. In other words, the kids started out using a variety of techniques before zeroing in on the least enjoyable but most productive method of learning.

The lesson for future spelling-bee champions is clear: Concentrate on solo practice from the beginning. The larger lesson for educators, the researchers argue, is that less-motivated students, “who are dispositionally less inclined to sustain long periods of deliberate practice, might benefit from learning self-regulatory strategies, including goal-setting and planning techniques.”

Two caveats come to mind. First, an inner passion to win a spelling bee, or achieve any other long-term goal, can be nurtured but not imposed. Convincing students to work hard may be a matter of helping them discover that passion and then connecting the dots.

Second, there are dangers is applying the spelling bee model too literally. Success in life — and most professional activities — requires creativity and emotional intelligence, which are not learned by rote memorization. However, a solid grounding in the fundamentals of any discipline can provide a sense of assurance that allows for taking risks, making discoveries and engaging in fruitful collaborations.

So our elite spellers provide confirmation that mastering a skill is a matter of hard, often-tedious work, and a passionate drive to achieve a long-term goal inspires people to stick with it. When Joseph Campbell — a tireless, meticulous writer and scholar — suggested the recipe for a rewarding life is to “follow your bliss,” he never implied it’d be easy.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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