For these competitors, words R their thing

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Renee Camille can't believe her eyes. As one of the judges at the National School Scrabble Championship, Ms. Camille has just witnessed a team who scored two 100-point plays with the words "jointer" and "staking."

It's the equivalent of a hole in one in golf or a grand slam in baseball.

Dressed in a referee shirt, Camille starts frantically looking for a photographer to capture this perfect moment. After pacing up and down the aisles between the 53 tables, she finally tracks one down.

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"Look how cool they are about it," she says, looking proudly over at the students. "I don't think they understand how 'wow' that was."

Eighth-graders Eric Valentine and Lucian Battaglia of McMinnville, Ore., were among the more than 200 fifth- through eighth-graders who competed in the second annual National School Scrabble Championship event last weekend in Boston. Students from across the country not only competed in a qualifying tournament in their states, but ran bake sales and car washes to raise money for travel expenses. They memorized pages of four-letter and three-letter words and learned how to strategize: finding "hot spots" on the board, learning how to dump vowels and consonants, finding "bingos" (words that use all seven tiles in a player's tray), and finding slots for Q, J, X, and Z - the highest-scoring letters.

Students came from public and private schools, recreation centers, libraries, and youth organizations, and wore personalized visors, boat hats, and other colorful headgear to promote team spirit. One even wore his lucky Krispy Kreme hat. Others made their own T-Shirts, including one that said, "Got Scrabble? Scrabble Makes Stronger Minds."

During the six 44-minute rounds, the ballroom was exceptionally quiet except for the shaking of the wooden tiles in a purple velvet bag and students raising their hands and calling out "challenge." Signs that said "Please turn off cellphones" were ubiquitous.

"The best part is that they're playing a game and they don't even realize that they're learning," says Cindy McCaffery, director of the School SCRABBLE Program. "Everyone thinks it's a game of words, but it's also a game of math, spatial relationships, and board vision."

The students might have had their eyes on the prize of $5,000, but some teachers are increasingly looking at Scrabble as a way to get kids excited about words, vocabulary, and other subjects like math and writing. Whether they're facing a slash in the school budget or working with students who'd rather daydream than study vocabulary, teachers find the 70-year-old game has put a new spin on learning in some classrooms.

"It's a real confidence booster," says Ms. McCaffery. "There's a strong player and not so strong player. The two of them will even out. If there is a shy player and a not so shy player, that's also a great help. It's a big self-esteem component of the game."

When Grace Ann Ancona's budget was cut, it forced her to get creative. At the Grain Valley Middle School outside Kansas City, Mo., where she teaches gifted children, she used the last $50 in her budget to buy a Scrabble School kit. The games were the only new things she added to the curriculum this year. Dr. Ancona's school sent nine kids to the event.

"I discovered that I could use Scrabble as a way to transition to some down time and at the same time build their vocabulary," says Ancona. "I used the game to build confidence, build their vocabulary by using the dictionary, strategies, communication, writing. And then, the kids got on the Internet, clicked onto Scrabble, and found the adult national championship."

With a little more digging, she clicked the school Scrabble championship for kids. "And that's when we got hooked on it."

Through her research, Ancona has found that students are more willing to consult a dictionary for word meanings in and out of game settings. Scrabble, she discovered, also involves using problem skills and deductive reasoning.

Or put more simply, building a good vocabulary is a way to outsmart your peers. "I like the thrill of playing a weird word that you know the other team doesn't know. Playing scrabble started out as a joke," says eighth-grader Stewart Vaughn of Cordova, Tenn., and "then it turned into a cool thing to do."

Stewart and his teammate love to study words, but the prize money helped motivate them even more.

"We heard about Boston and how you could win $5,000, so we started memorizing like crazy," says Richard Thompson, also of Cordova, Tenn., who says he memorized 1,000 alphagrams.

For parent Lisa Scahill, Scrabble helped her son, Zach, stay focused on his schoolwork. He attends the Family Literacy Center in Providence, R.I.

"It makes him feel like he's accomplishing something, because his grades aren't as high as he wants them to be," says Ms. Scahill. "He really likes exploring the words. They don't have to know the definition, but he likes to look them up and try to find out what they are - especially the weird words."

One of the buzzwords right now in schools is "cooperative learning," says John Williams, executive director of the National Scrabble Association. "Students who have trouble working with kids are taken out of the classroom.

"Then they get involved with Scrabble and are then introduced back into the mainstream, working with each other in classes like geography."

And for those who think Scrabble is just for geeks, Mr. Williams has the perfect answer. "We believe you can be cool and smart at the same time."

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