Language Arts

How Spelling Bees Can Improve Literacy Skills in the Classroom

How Spelling Bees Can Improve Literacy Skills in the Classroom

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, March/April 2023 Issue

By Fiona Tapp

You could be forgiven for thinking that spelling bees may not be as important in an age of instant spell checks and predictive text, but the competitions are so much more than simply memorizing a list of words.

The young wordsmiths who take part in these exciting events study root words and etymology to spell in front of an audience, quickly and competently. Participating in spelling bees, and the practice required to compete, not only helps children develop spelling skills and reading comprehension, but can bolster their confidence and communication skills as well.

The longest-running and most famous spelling competition in the world is the Scripps National Spelling Bee, held annually in Washington, DC, since 1925. Students in Grades 1–8 compete at regional events all across America to earn their place on the stage.

At the national competition, qualifying spellers each take their turn to spell from a previously shared list of up to 600 words and a variety of unseen words known as “off list” options. Participants can ask for the word to be repeated, used in a sentence, for the definition, the language of origin, or for alternate pronunciations. If they spell the word correctly, they move on to the next round, but if they hear a bell ring, they’re out.

The process continues in heats until one winner remains. And with a grand prize of a whopping $50,000, it’s no wonder that the competition is fierce among the hundreds of participants!

The 2022 champion was 14-year-old Harini Logan, who won with the word “moorhen,” a waterbird resembling a cross between a duck and a chicken. She successfully spelled 22 words in 90 seconds during the event’s first-ever lightning-round tiebreaker. After her triumph, she went on a coast-to-coast victory tour, which even included a private tour of the White House.

The Virtues of Spelling Bees

Canadian champs have a somewhat humbler experience at the Spelling Bee of Canada (SBOC) national competition, but there are still prizes to be won. Founded in 1987 by Julie Spence, SBOC has supported over 70,000 children to take part in the annual event, including Canadian two-time spelling bee champion Jaden Zhang. He has also competed three times at Scripps, tying for 42nd place out of 516 spellers.

Zhang, who speaks English, French, and Mandarin, is now 16 years old and a high school student based in Ottawa. He was sponsored by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada to attend the Scripps championship when he was in Grade 5, and has won other competitions across Canada.

Recently he’s been working with Canada Super Spelling Bee, where he has also discovered a passion for coaching other spelling bee students. “When you see the mind of the students as it click[s] for them, [when] they realize that it’s just puzzle pieces, that’s the moment I really love about teaching,” he says.

Zhang has scored some of the cash prizes on offer but says, unlike one winner who apparently purchased a dog with his winnings, he prefers to funnel the money back into future competitions. Although, he does treat his family to a meal at a restaurant to celebrate his wins.

As for those winning words, some can be rather obscure, like his spelling of the Hawaiian word “pahoehoe,” a type of lava flow. However, Zhang says an incorrect spelling of “inopportune” as a fifth grader still haunts him to this day.


His proficiency in spelling helps him in his everyday life and academics. During one lesson in biology class, “we learned about necrotizing fasciitis,” he says. “By using my experience at spelling bees, I was able to actually decipher what it meant because I knew ‘necro’ means death or dying, ‘fasci’ means [tissue], and ‘itis’ means inflammation. So it helped me literally know the word before it was even taught to me. And that’s really cool!”

Donna Paul, a Toronto-based elementary Montessori teacher with 15 years of experience, extols the virtues of spelling competitions as a classroom tool to improve students’ reading skills. “Spelling bees help students break down large words into manageable chunks,” she explains, “and in doing so, they learn to read with greater comprehension.”

Paul—who is also an online tutor, self-published author, and blogger—describes herself as a “spelling bee enthusiast” and actually started her own annual spelling bee competition back in 2008. She preps students for the contest ahead of time by giving them a list of words to study.

The list also includes a definition, a syllable breakdown, and a history of each word. But students aren’t merely committing these words to memory, it’s more like they’re conducting a word study; not every word will come up in competition, so each word list further expands the students’ vocabularies.

The Social Aspect

Zhang says spelling bees are a great place to make new friends, source coaches, and just have fun. At the Scripps competition, participants’ names are featured in a “Beekeepers” book, a type of directory that also includes their photo and a short bio. It’s become a tradition to get participants to sign their entries, like a yearbook, and to collect as many signatures as possible. The organizers also arranged a book club and an ice cream social for spellers to enjoy.

In the same way, Paul has expanded her competition to become more than just a spelling recitation—it’s now a highly anticipated school event.

“In the first year of hosting the spelling bee, I had the sixth graders lead the charge,” she explains. “They organized everything from selecting the date and location of the spelling bee to working with me to create a list of words to use. They made posters to advertise the event around the school and one sixth grader [even] crocheted a grapefruit-sized bee for the winner of the competition to take home. This bee became the coveted prize many students worked very hard to win.”

Paul recommends that other educators incorporate spelling bees into their teaching repertoire, whether they run a small-scale in-school spelling bee or sign up for a national competition like those organized by SBOC.

“Participating in a spelling bee can be a valuable experience for elementary students and is a great way to support students’ reading and writing development,” she says.

How to Start Your Own School Spelling Bee

  1. Compile a word list: Experienced spelling bee participants like Zhang receive lists of hundreds of potential words before a competition. For newbies, however, start with a smaller list of perhaps 50 words that also contain rhyming family words or those that share a root word.

  2. Make it school-wide: Get different grades involved if you can; seeing older kids tackle tricky words can inspire students in younger grades.

  3. Do it right: The correct way to announce each word is to say it clearly, then use it in a sentence, then repeat the word again. For example, “Skating. I like to go ice skating in the winter. Skating.”

  4. Arrange a prize: It can simply be stickers, extra recess, or a class pizza party, but a reward makes the effort so much sweeter.

  5. Get everyone involved: If some kids are too shy or self-conscious to spell orally, let them write their answers, or give them other important jobs like reading off the word list, keeping score, or timing others. Make sure you publicize the event with posters or on your school’s social media pages and let parents know how they can help.

The Spelling Bee of Canada’s 35th annual competition was held on June 12, 2022, and screened on CBC Sports. To find out more about the competition details for 2023 and how your students can get involved, check the SBOC website for updates.

Fiona Tapp is a former teacher and school administrator of 13 years. She writes about education, parenting, and travel for a variety of publications including National Geographic, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Sunday Times, and many more.