Northwestern Professor Presents Research on Spelling Bees

Author: Charlene Dundek

On March 29th, Professor Shalini Shankar of Northwestern University presented a talk titled The Semiotics of Spelling Bees: Sound, Temporality, Language, and Materiality. Shankar presented her research on spelling bees and discussed how the increasingly popular event has turned into a mass-mediated, sport-like spectacle. Her talk also examined the relationship between the competing speller and the judge. This dialogic relationship is important for a speller to be able to translate sounds into letters and words in the competitive environment. Shankar has spent the last 16 months conducting field research, which included access to ESPN during the live broadcast, time with Merriam-Webster, and over 45 interviews with spellers, parents, producers, and directors.

The National Spelling Bee, according to Shankar, is increasingly becoming an intense “brain sport” for children who are devoted to developing a spelling career. Originally broadcast exclusively on radio, ESPN took over the Bee in 1994 and has developed it into the mass spectacle that it is today. The broadcast incorporates the live competition, color commentary, and short bios of the spellers. Recently, South Asian Americans have dominated the competition. Every Bee winner since 2007 has been a South Asian American.

Shalini Shankar Presentation

Shankar’s talk focused specifically on how spellers experience the different senses on a live-broadcast, corporate-funded stage complete with commentary and lighting effects. In the Bee, the competing spellers have two minutes to hear the word, process the sounds they hear, and translate those sounds into letters and a full word. Crisp pronunciation is essential for the competition and for the speller to be able to break down the sounds into words. A clear manner of pronouncing can make the differences between “utter,” “udder,” and “butter” audible, and spellers have to sift through the sounds they hear from the judge and turn those sounds into letters to correctly spell the word. Some spellers make the words material by spelling out the word on their palm or by typing on an invisible keyboard.  

These actions and every sensory experience of the spellers is on display for the live TV broadcast. The TV broadcasters make the events as dramatic as possible to make it appealing to the viewer at home. The ongoing description from professional sports commentators also aims to make the repetitiveness of the program more TV-ready and to situate the viewer in the mind of the speller.

11 million schoolchildren compete annually in this brain sport. Shankar’s talk looked at how these children process sound in a competitive, commercialized environment. The research will be published in a book title Spellebrity: Inside the Selfie Generation’s World of Competitive Spelling, which is scheduled to come out soon.

For more information on Prof. Shalini Shankar, please visit here.