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Spelling makes a comeback

To be properly learned, teachers say, spelling must be properly taught.

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Spelling is her weakness, says seventh-grader Abigail Dunn. But she likes the way Mrs. Guerra teaches. Her favorite is the "doubling rule." (If you have a one-syllable word ending with a consonant immediately after a short vowel, double that final consonant when adding a suffix that begins with a vowel. For instance, pin + ing = pinning.)

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"I remember it most of the time," Abigail says. But her general view could be a motto for anyone who's ever wondered whether i came before e: "Spelling is hard."

Americans love a spelling bee, but does it help kids to learn?

There's just something compelling about a spelling bee. On Broadway, the quirks of adolescence are celebrated in the musical "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." Two movies due out later this year also revolve around bees - fictional follow-ups to the 2002 documentary "Spellbound."

Even adults are lining up to test their spelling skills for local fund-raisers.

It's a cherished form of American competition, the battle to see who will be the last one standing after everyone else falls to the bizarreness of the English language.

That's why the idea of canceling the spelling bee didn't go over so well in Lincoln, R.I. Parents were up in arms after district officials decided there were other priorities. A few months ago, with some new officials in place, the local bee was reinstated just in time for students to participate in a statewide competition.

None of this popularity necessarily means that the nation's spelling is getting any better. Educators can see a lot of benefits to spelling bees, but say they are no replacement for what happens in the classroom.

"It's not an instructional activity, but it's great for motivation," says Richard Gentry, a spelling-instruction consultant and author. "It beefs up the notion that having word- specific knowledge is important."

The Lincoln school district is still exploring possibilities for a uniform spelling curriculum, says superintendent John Tindall-Gibson. Spelling is getting more attention, he says, as the public becomes more aware of "writing as a piece in the literacy issue."

Rebekah Guerra, a middle-school English teacher in Brookline, Mass., has decided not to have spelling bees in her classroom. "We are trying to create a culture in which the kids buy into the process of learning, and when it's the same person who always wins or gets an A, the other kids begin to think, 'Oh, it's just them,' " she says.

But Mrs. Guerra doesn't entirely discount bees. Anything that gets kids to exercise memory is helpful, she says, because it offers a contrast to the soundbite culture.

Paige Kimble, director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee and herself the champion in 1981, sees a link between spelling bees and education. "Spelling-bee success almost always traces back to strong reading support in the home and at schools," she says.

The competition highlights broader qualities, such as poise and persistence, that young people can apply in all areas of life, regardless of their spelling skills.

A young man fainted during the live finals last year, probably because of the bright lights on stage, Ms. Kimble says.

But before officials had a chance to figure out what to do, he stood up, stumbled back to the microphone, and spelled perfectly his given word: "alopecoid." He went on to win second place.