I recently attended my 4th regional spelling bee – the one in which the winner travels to Washington, DC to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Some thoughts on reading came to me this year as I watched the students compete, spelling everything from raj to Baedeker. It occurred to me how much reading and cultural factors affect a student’s chances to succeed. Of course, each student receives a study guide, but few have a chance to remember the many thousands of unusual words on the list. The official list, contains words of Latin, Arabic, Asian, French, Slavic, Japanese, Greek, Old English, New World, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch origin, as well as eponyms (words named after individuals).
I watched as an Asian speller rushed through tatami without the slightest hesitation, while a young Caucasian girl struggled with the word sombrero. An urban boy was stumped by forsythia, while another Asian speller easily spelled raj. My own daughter had no need to study bezoar (she knew it from the Harry Potter books) and ersatz (thanks, Lemony Snicket), but was stumped by sorghum, a grain originally from Africa. While we may be good cooks and often use molasses, our molasses is known only by its brand name rather than its source. If only she were a fan of historical fiction! ;-)
My point is, in spelling and reading, as in life, we are all limited by our cultural context; the more we can do to expand it, the wiser we will be.