Students are showing shapes of what they are spelling
18 October 2018

Reinventing the spelling bee

​​When a hippopotamus sits on a fence, is it time to get a new fence? At St Cath’s the answer to this riddle is of course ‘Yes!’ We break down barriers to spelling here at school, no fences, no pressure, just clear understanding and logical thinking.​​​​​

It is simple. Any student can become a phenomenal speller if they are given the tools they need to reach their potential.  At St Catherine's students unpack words like a rich tapestry of threads. By understanding the word's origin and history, students unravel clues about meaning. Identifying the sounds and syllables allows them to hear how many vowel phonemes need to be written down. Playing with prefixes and suffixes after identifying a base word collectively contributes to a deeper understanding and comprehension of word building skills and vocabulary.

Take the word 'hippopotamus.' This word has Greek roots with 'hippos' meaning 'horse' and 'potamos' meaning river. The image of a river horse enables us to identify clearly the characteristics and habitat of the mammal.

In mathematics, students are exposed to subject-specific vocabulary like 'polygon.' 'Polys' is a Greek prefix meaning 'much or many' and 'gonia' means corners. So if students understand the makeup of the word polygon, they can identify that it means a shape with many corners. Knowing the origin of words can help in choosing the correct spelling choices.

By breaking words into meaningful units, we are allowing students to 'chunk' information making the learning process easier. How many students struggle with the word Wednesday? The only difficult part is the trigraph (three letters making one sound). In Wednesday the /n/ sound is made with the three letters 'dne.' That's it. I recently pointed this out to one of my Year 4 students and saw that light bulb switch on. She said that that was the only part she had ever struggled with. By identifying the 'tricky' portion of a word, as opposed to expecting her to relearn the word in its entirety, she gets credit for what she does know.

John Hattie's meta-analysis of thousands of research papers notes that high expectations from a teacher and a teacher's belief that they can have a positive impact on a child's learning are two of the most significant factors in a child's academic improvement. The most significant influence is the feedback provided by a teacher with the intention to take the student beyond their own perceived performance ability. That is, pushing them to become better than they think they are.

By focusing on spelling as words in isolation needing to be tested we are missing out on teaching students the intricacies of the English in the way they learn best. We need to analyse errors in the context of student writing to find out exactly where they are going wrong. This can then inform our teaching and make our instruction intentional and worthwhile.

Simple errors can be unpacked using the four cornerstones of English. This strengthens our approach to spelling in the junior school.


With this research in mind, there was no way to justify a traditional or TV style 'spelling bee' at St Catherine's. Professor Misty Adoniou from the University of Canberra has said spelling bees "place words in some sort of party game" where "words do nothing and mean nothing as they sit by themselves in Iong lists – randomly selected and disconnected from context." She identifies that "having students bark letters back at a judge reinforces the misconception that good spelling is the freakish talent of a lucky few, and robs us all of an opportunity to improve our own spelling." These concerns led us to reinvent and reimagine traditional notions. Invigorated by divergent thinking and linguistics, the inaugural Spelling 'Bee-lieve in yourself' Bee emerged.  

The focus was on students' word knowledge, their ability to analyse errors and their understanding of THRASS terminology in a live-gaming environment. Inspired by Karadag's research (2015) which suggests that "games are a powerful source of motivation for learning" we found that this structure helped initiate learning conversations and content in a spontaneous, flexible and explorative manner. Who knew a spelling bee could be such fun?

Every student in the junior school had an opportunity to play 'Kahoot!' with spelling, vocabulary and THRASS questions set by their teachers. The Bee had three rounds: a class bee, a stage bee and finally, a school bee over a two-week period.


The Stage winners took part in a school 'Bee-lieve in yourself' assembly, hosted by a range of Kindergarten to Year 6 students. The finalists sat in gaming chairs with competitors using school iPods and iPads. Students logged into the devices and were quizzed in a 'live' gaming environment. Student engagement was effectively enhanced through the use of highly organised yet flexible and creative game-based learning.

After the quizzes are completed online in the early stages of the Bee, teachers can download a thorough report which shows each student's answer to every question, including the percentage of correct and incorrect answers. This informs teaching and programming, contributing to more personalised, targeted learning.


Our aim is not to teach students to regurgitate words in isolation and without any attention to meaning. In a recent televised spelling bee, a six-year-old rose to fame for being able to spell an incredibly tricky word for which he had no understanding of t​he meaning. In the clip, the boy is given the word and he asks, "definition please?" He spells it correctly, using his understanding of how words are made up, but would he be able to use it in a sentence?


Coincidentally, earlier in the year when studying the novel Nim's Island by Wendy Orr, this word organically came up in Miss Meijer's Year 4 classroom.


The word was pulled apart, analysed, visually represented and sounded out using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Students understood the meaning of the word and how it connected to the main character in the novel, who falls down a volcano when it erupts and could quite possibly get Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. Did this word pop up in their writing? Absolutely!


We are in a fortunate position as teachers to BE the change in our classrooms, to BE the change in our school so our students can 'Bee-lieve' in themselves as spellers.


Mrs Katharyn Cullen
Year 4 teacher | Spelling specialist



Cole, B., Mooney, M., & Power, A. (2017). Imagination, creativity and intellectual quality. In G. Munns, W. Sawyer & B. Cole (Eds.), Exemplary teachers of students in poverty (pp. 123-135). New York: Routledge.

Frossard, F., Barajas, M. and Trifonova, A. (2012). A Learner-Centred Game-Design Approach. Impacts on teachers' creativity. In: Digital Education Review, 21, 13-22.  Retrieved from

Karadag, R. (2015). Pre-service Teachers' Perceptions on Game Based Learning Scenarios in Primary Reading and Writing Instruction Courses. Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice15(1), 185-200.