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Spelling bee bug bites CLASS faculty

English, Communication and Classical Studies professors donate expertise to 2014 Houston Media Spelling Bee

Chlorophorous is not a word used in everyday conversation.

But it – and hundreds of other hard-to-spell, multisyllabic words of various linguistic origins – had to roll off Dr. Richard Armstrong’s tongue as though they are part of his daily vernacular when he served as the “official pronouncer” for the 2014 Houston Public Media Spelling Bee.

The third largest spelling bee in the country, the Houston regional contest this spring had 55 top spellers, ranging in age from 8 to 14. Each listened extra carefully to every word spoken by Dr. Armstrong, associate professor of classical studies.

Two other CLASS faculty members took part in the 2014 spelling bee – Dr. Lauren Zentz, assistant professor of English, and Dr. Lan Ni, associate professor of communications, served as judges during the competition.

“This was a great way for all of us to connect with the community,” said Dr. Armstrong. “People are really into it!”

The spelling is broadcast annually on KUHT, the public television station managed by Houston Public Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit owned by the University of Houston.

 “Last year I provided commentary throughout the spelling bee – discussing the difficulty and challenges in spelling certain words,” Dr. Armstrong said. “I was there for the entire process and had the opportunity to see what the pronouncer did.”

So, when KUHT approached him this year about becoming the official pronouncer for the 2014 spelling bee, he seized the opportunity.

With the pronouncer in place, KUHT turned to CLASS to find judges for the event.

“KUHT contacted the English department to find out if there was a faculty member with expertise in linguistics, who could serve as a judge for the spelling bee,” said Dr. Zentz. “The department referred them to me.”

Not only is Dr. Zentz an applied linguist, she is also a spelling bee competitor. She didn’t compete in spelling bees as a young child, but she began participating in adult spelling bees while living in Tucson and working on her Ph.D. in Language, Reading and Culture at the University of Arizona.

“A local librarian organizes a regular spelling bee in a bar in Tucson – the winner receives free pizza,” Dr. Zentz said. “I won the first three spelling bees I attended – to this day I go back and participate in that spelling bee when I am in town.”

Serving as judge for the 2014 Houston regional spelling bee was Dr. Ni’s first, live experience at a spelling bee. Previously, she had just watched them on television.

“I was working with KUHF on a project with one of my graduate level seminars,” said Dr. Ni. “The station was looking for a communications expert to serve as a judge and asked if I would participate.”

All three were provided a binder with 500+ words. They rehearsed the proper pronunciations just prior to the live event. The actual spelling bee took several hours, and neither the participants nor the judges were allowed to take breaks.

“These spelling bees can be four of five hours long – that takes a lot of stamina,” Dr. Armstrong said. “As pronouncer, I had to pace myself and be sure to treat every participant the same. You can’t over-pronounce the words – they have to come across sounding natural.”

As judges, Dr. Zentz and Dr. Ni had to ensure Dr. Armstrong pronounced the words correctly, and determine whether the competitor dictated the correct spelling. Dr. Zentz also had the job of ringing the bell to indicate an incorrect spelling.

Dr. Armstrong, Dr. Zentz, and Dr. Ni all agree that the young participants showed grace under pressure – often thanking the panel after they had misspelled a word. As college faculty, they each said participating in a spelling bee is a beneficial experience for young students.

“They are learning study tools, and they are learning the root words of multiple languages in addition to the history of the English language,” said Dr. Zentz.

“These are words these kids will eventually encounter in college level reading,” said Dr. Armstrong. “Plus it shows them it is cool to be nerdy. It’s a safe place for smart kids to experience high-pressure competition. They learn to manage their expectations and emotions...all on live TV.”

At the end of the 2014 competition, the Houston had co-champions - 13-year-old Shobha Dasari and 12-year-old Syamantak Payra. As winners, they received an all-expenses paid trip to the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. May 27 – 29. They are among 281 spellers competing for the champion title and a grand prize of more than $40,000 in cash and prizes.

As for the CLASS professors, if asked to return for the 2015 regional spelling bee, all three said clearly and emphatically yes.

- By Monica Byars