There's no 'i' in team

4th June 2010 at 01:00
A British version of that peculiarly American phonemenon, the Spelling Bee, is taking off in a big way. Adi Bloom takes a front-row seat as pupils put personal ambition to one side and compete for the honour of their schools

Tanya Dosanjh has been reading the dictionary. Not all of it, she is quick to point out. It was late, she was lying in bed and somewhere around the Ns or the Ms she just couldn't keep her eyes open any longer. But, still, she hopes it will help.

Twelve-year-old Tanya is sitting in the foyer of Bexleyheath Cineworld, trying not to look nervous. She and her teammates from Croydon High School - a girls' grammar - are one of five groups of pupils competing in the south London heat of the annual national Spelling Bee.

The four girls gather in a circle around their teacher, each of them distractedly fiddling with a shoelace, a collar, their newly pinned name badges. "I'm still beating them all," one of the girls says. She adjusts her badge, bearing the hand-written word "Larissa".

Wendy Affleck, the group's English teacher, turns around to face her. "There is no `beating them all'," she chides. "We're on the same team, remember? There is no `I' in `team'."

Larissa pauses, momentarily chastened, then recovers. "There is if you spell it T-E-A-I-M," she says.

The competition, organised along the lines of the long-established US Spelling Bee, aims to determine which group of Year 7 pupils can accurately spell out loud the greatest number of words. Launched last year, the competition has attracted entrants from 1,000 schools, competing in more than 100 regional heats. The winners of the heats go on to the semi-finals, before, eventually, one team is named champion spellers: masters of the homophone and the silent consonant.

The cinema's doors swing open and four pupils from Norbury Manor Business and Enterprise College for Girls walk in. They pin on their name-badges and sit down next to the Croydon High group. Surreptitiously, Tanya glances over, checking out the competition. "I'm excited," she says, bouncing up and down on her knees. "But a bit nervous, too. I don't know how good we are compared with the others."

Croydon pupils have been memorising lists of words every week, practising with their teachers, their teammates, and on The Times Spelling Bee website. "I don't know how much the others have practised," she says. "It's a bit nerve-wracking, really."

In the Norbury Manor semi-circle, 12-year-old Emma Miller is feeling slightly relieved already.

"I was worried we wouldn't get here on time," she says. Her face is pale; she brushes a strand of dark hair behind her ear. "Or someone wouldn't be able to get here, or everything would go wrong. I was just a bit, `oh my gosh, oh my gosh, something is going to go wrong'. Now we're here, I feel a lot calmer.

"It's very rare that we get a chance to be in something like this. There aren't many competitions in English and the subjects that aren't physical. So that's exciting."

British awareness of the Spelling Bee as an institution tends to be limited to - and defined by - the US version. Most famously, the award- winning 2002 documentary Spellbound illuminated a world of monomaniacal preparation and immense parental pressure. This was spelling bee as intellectual beauty pageant, competitors' self-esteem hanging on a correctly placed consonant.

In Britain, however, there is no tradition of spelling competitions, nor of adults crystallising their ambitions for their offspring - or, in many cases, themselves - into the difference between "accommodation" and "accomodation". As a result, British teachers are left with no clear revision template: there is no precedent to dictate how much is too much.

"You can't help but get competitive," says Natalie Thompson, head of Year 7 at Norbury Manor. She watches as her pupils gather in a group and try, unconvincingly, to hold a normal conversation. "You do think: `Here's our competition, smile nice and sweetly.' But you also get a bit: `Ooh - that's a grammar school. Oh dear.' Then you start to wonder if you've done enough preparation."

Last year, she admits, she overworked her pupils, training them during lunchtimes, after school and, as the competition neared, during lesson time. But, in the glare of the spotlights, the pressure became overwhelming: nerves froze the team.

"It's a test of their spelling, but it's also a test of their wit and how well they handle pressure," she says. "I don't want them to feel so pressured that they come here and completely flake."

Eventually the organisers shepherd everyone into one of the cinemas, and each team ascends to an individual podium at the front. The game takes the form of two rounds: a spelling play-off and a quick-fire round. For the first round, three players from each school gather at team podiums. One by one, they are required to spell words out loud. Get one wrong and you are out of the game. After everyone has had a turn the process starts again, with incrementally more difficult words. A correctly spelled word is worth two points. The game continues until only one pupil is left.

At the Norbury Manor podium, Emma looks visibly nervous. Next to them, the team from Croydon's Shirley High School are quietly collected, as are pupils from neighbouring Coloma Convent Girls' School. The boys from Al- Khair Muslim School just look scared. Tanya, meanwhile, is the reserve for this round: in the audience, she leans forward in her seat, chin resting on her knuckles.

The round begins easily: Emma correctly spells the word "groan", relief spreading like sunshine across her face. At the Shirley podium, Abby, a tall blonde girl with horn-rimmed glasses, accurately identifies "naval" as the seafaring adjective; a confident-looking Al-Khair player delivers "lordly" without thinking twice.

Then it is Norbury's turn again. "Emerge," the presenter says. Emma's teammate pauses briefly. "I-M" - she stops, then starts again - "I-M-E-R- E-G-E." She is the first person to be knocked out.

The other players spell their words correctly, and then it is back to Norbury again. "Wary," the presenter says. "W-E-A-R-Y," the player offers. This is nerves, rather than misspelling. There is a brief consultation with the on-site lexicographer, a bearded man with an uncanny resemblance to the Countdown wordsmith Richard Stilgoe. He does not allow the spelling, and Norbury loses its second team member. "Never mind," the presenter says brightly. "Hopefully we'll see you back after the break."

Emma is left standing alone at her podium. A strand of hair falls across her face: she brushes it back, then fiddles absently with the end.

The words rapidly grow more and more difficult. Several players are knocked out in succession: an Al-Khair pupil for "chilblain" ("C-H-I-L-L- B-L-A-N-E"), Abby for misspelling "deception". Emma's answers, meanwhile, grow increasingly tentative. Spelling "abdomen", she looks at the ceiling, each letter delivered with effort. When the presenter tells her she is still in the game, she beams with genuine surprise.

There are fewer players now: the words come quicker and faster. "Appendage," the presenter says. Emma asks for a definition. The presenter gives this, then repeats the word. Emma starts slowly: "A-P." She bites her lip and fiddles with her hair again. "A-P-E-N-D-I-G-E."

By round five, there are only five players left: two from Coloma and all three members of the Croydon High team. Sophie, a small Coloma pupil with a blonde ponytail, spells "temperature" smoothly and fluently, without pausing for thought. Her teammate, however, is given "pernicious". The word is unarguably apt. "P-E-R-N-I-T-I-O-U-S," she guesses.

They fall thick and heavy after that: Croydon offers "anathomer", "ordatious" and "discrepency". Sophie, for the first time looking uncertain, delivers the erroneous "ironius". This, however, leaves the competition without a winner, so all four players are given a reprieve. The audience is still now, its breath collectively shallow.

Larissa, her self-possession crumbling, is given the word "nonchalant". "N-O-N-C-H," she begins. She glances at the ceiling, then back down at the podium. "O-L-A-N-T." Sophie receives possibly the hardest word of the competition: "apropos". "A-P-R-O" - her voice is barely audible in the silence - "er, E?"

Now there are only two players left: Holly and Aruchana, both from Croydon High. Holly looks studiedly at the podium; Aruchana licks her upper lip. "Testimonial," the presenter says. Holly looks relieved: she is familiar with the word and speaks with confidence. "T-E-S-T-E-M-O-N-I-A-L." Then "prosecution," from the presenter. "P-R-O-S-E-C-U-T-I-O-N," Aruchana answers, and it is over.

Holly smiles sweetly and genuinely at Aruchana, who looks appropriately enigmatic. It is a victory - but at the expense of her teammate.

The Croydon girls have a clear lead: they have 36 points, while Coloma have 22, Al-Khair and Shirley both have 12 and Norbury Manor 10. "I knew you knew it," a tall, blonde, horn-rimmed-spectacled woman says to Abby as the teams are lured from the cinema with the promise of free popcorn. "It's the nerves, that's all."

The Spelling Bee has been condemned as a pointless US import, contributing nothing to the learning process aside from additional stress. Memorising lists of words represents a return to rote-learning traditionalism, critics say; learning to spell is not the same as increasing vocabulary. Others, at the National Association for the Teaching of English, have pointed out that their subject should be about communication rather than words without meanings. "You can have technical perfection and still not have anything to say," a spokesman says.

But Ms Affleck disagrees. "Spelling is an essential part of communication," she says. "I like to show them public signs and street names that have been spelled wrong. It's so important that we don't send them out into the world to perpetuate that.

"But it's about confidence as well: confidence that you can communicate and can be understood effectively. Most people acknowledge that spelling is something that has to be done. At least this competition makes it fun."

She watches as her pupils bounce up and down jubilantly, scattering popcorn across the foyer floor, before catching themselves in their pre- emptiveness and sobering up. Tanya will be playing in the next round, stepping in for Aruchana.

"That was always the plan," Tanya says. "But Aruchana ended up winning the round, so it feels a bit strange. There's more pressure." She lowers her voice. "But my nerves have got a lot less now I know how good the other teams are."

As Ms Thompson ushers her Norbury team back into the cinema, she is relentlessly upbeat. Nothing is decided yet, she insists. Everything could change in the next round. "I just want to keep their spirits up," she whispers. "I don't want them to get disappointed."

Under pressure, individual pupils can feel single-handedly responsible for the success or failure of their team. As she finds her seat, Emma is still attempting to unwind after her solo effort at the podium. "I could feel my heart," she says. "It just kept getting louder whenever someone from our team left. But every time I got a word right I just wanted to smile because I felt one step closer to not getting -" she stops herself - "to winning".

"I want to do my school proud, give the school a good reputation. I don't want to be known as someone who let the school down."

The quick-fire round is straightforward: every team has two minutes in which to spell as many words as possible. Each has a choice between easy, medium or difficult words, worth one, two or three points respectively. "We went for medium," Ms Thompson says, as the lights dim. "That seemed best." Wrong words carry no penalties, nor do passes.

The order of play has been decided at random: Croydon High is first up. Tanya takes her place on the stage alongside her teammates, and fixes the presenter with a look of intense concentration. They, too, have opted for medium words. On the screen behind them, a clock begins to tick, and the presenter opens fire with a relentless volley of words: "medicinal.remembrance.rectitude".

The pace, the pressure and the lights all take their toll. "I-M-P-A-S-S," Tanya spells. "I-F-U-S-I-V-E." She gulps nervously. "M-A-N-D-I-B-L-E." The buzzer sounds, as Holly is midway through spelling "artichoke". Calmly, the pressure off, she finishes up: "-O-K-E." Tanya's jaw is clenched as she looks over at Holly, but her eyes shine in the cinema lights.

In total, the team attempted 22 words, 16 correctly, giving them an additional 32 points. "I think they have been eating words for breakfast," the presenter says, as the girls leave the stage.

Al-Khair is next; they have chosen easy words. Again, speed and nerves breed errors: "C-I-C-L," one boy volunteers, when asked to spell "sidle". Occasionally, they catch themselves: "E-N-V-I. no, Y." When one player offers "K-E-I-N", his teammate audibly draws in his breath. They spell 14 words correctly, 12 incorrectly: an additional 14 points.

Shirley and Coloma both select medium-level words. The results are an unexpected illustration of pupils' broader education: Abby hesitates over "hesitation", but delivers "calypso" quickly and accurately.

Sophie, a foot shorter than her Coloma teammates, is also the most poised of the three. She delivers "annuity" without faltering, but stumbles over "esplanade" - "E-S-P-L-A-N-I-D-E" - and `botulism' - "B-O-C-H-L-O-S-M." The Shirley spellers score 18 additional points, Coloma 24.

Finally, Norbury Manor takes the stage. At her podium, Emma bounces up and down. "You've seen how it's played," the presenter tells them. "You must be experts by now." Emma freezes on her toes.

As the words start, her gaze becomes focused, her expression one of deep concentration. `S-O-C-I-A-B-L-E," she spells. "B-E-D-L-U-M"; "A-C-C-I-R- E". The letters come out slowly, deliberately, carefully. "M-O-N-U-M-E-N- T-A-L." The buzzer sounds: the team has attempted 17 words in total, but only five were correct. "Well done, well done for hanging in there," the presenter says. Emma knows exactly what this means: she looks at the ground, pushes her fringe out of her face, scratches her head.

Croydon High has 68 points: this makes them one of the highest-scoring teams in the regional heats. Coloma, in second place, are 22 points behind. Hanging her victory medal round her neck, Tanya glows visibly. She turns to Holly: "I can't believe we've won!" Her voice is a high-pitched squeal, the final word almost inaudible.

"I wasn't at all expecting it. The lights were shining on us, and you feel quite hot, and it's quite nerve-wracking, actually." Then a pause, her thoughts darting about like celebratory fireworks. "Oh, it'll be so good to come back to school. Everyone will be asking, and we'll be able to say we won, and I'll go home and text all my friends, and they can all come to the semi-finals." She stops briefly for breath.

"I'm quite worried about how good they'll be in the semi-finals. I think they'll be really good compared to" - she lowers her voice again - "some people here. But I'm looking forward to the challenge, having to keep up the practice."

Over in the corner, Norbury Manor pupils take longer to pack up their belongings: their movements are heavy and slow. "Nowadays, kids have a spellcheck on their computer," Ms Thompson says. "You don't actually have to know how to spell a word. But it gets the brain working. Taking part in a competition, working as a team: this brings all those elements together."

Emma sits motionless in her cinema chair, her legs stretched out in front of her. Her eyes are dull; when she speaks, her voice is expressionless. "I'm a bit disappointed we didn't do any better," she says. "But I'm not going to be a sore loser. They deserved to win. I guess the best team won." Glumness infuses every word, all the more heart-rending for her efforts to ignore it.

"I'll tell people we had fun, that anyone who gets the chance should do it. I learnt words that I didn't even know were words. I learnt to spell a bit more. So I've learnt a lot." And, with effort, she picks up her bag and leaves.

The team from Croydon High have since made it through to the grand final, which will be held in central London on June 24

Spelling Bee

The first national UK spelling championship was launched last year, with entries from more than 750 schools. This year, 1,380 schools applied to take part in the competition, sponsored jointly by The Times (no connection to The TES) and Microsoft. However, for logistical reasons, only the first 1,000 applicants were able to participate.

Teams of four Year 7 pupils per school - three players and one reserve - compete in 100 regional heats. The winning teams then progress to the ten semi-finals, with the semi-final winners competing in the grand final on June 24.

Last year's victors won the chance to interview former Schools Secretary Ed Balls, writing up the interview for an edition of The Young Times. This year's prize has not yet been announced.

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