An Interview with Jeanne Clements: National Spelling Bee

May 30, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico


  1. Jeanne, first of all, tell us about what you are currently doing and a bit about your background and

Our education sensation, Verbal Education, is up and running on the web! We are all about words – what they mean, how they are spelled, how they are pronounced, and how they are properly used. Our subscribers can learn a high level word in seconds, and remember it for life. Because of our proprietary methods, we are advancing the English language and raising SAT and ACT scores at the same time. I’m very excited by our progress. As a classroom teacher I could reach hundreds of students, but through the magic of technology, I can now reach thousands.

2) How did you get involved in spelling?

As an English teacher, I’ve always placed a high priority on spelling, but it became even more of a high-takes skill when I prepared juniors to take the SAT. Students are required to write an essay on the test and they must use complex words (the SAT calls it verbal sophistication) to earn a high score. If they misspell or misuse the words, they lose points, so I felt pressure to adequately prepare them. Finding ways for them to learn the words, remember the definitions, spell them correctly, and use them properly in sentences, was a prodigious (SAT word) challenge.

3) Now, tell us about this new vocabulary part of the spelling bee- and who dreamed this up? Or should my vocabulary word be who THOUGHT this up?

My first reaction to the addition of vocabulary was, “About time!” I think the Scripps Spelling Bee may be responding to the changing landscape of education. Vocabulary has taken center stage in the national academic spotlight as the new common core standards are being implemented. At the Federal Program Administrators Conference on May 29th that I attended in Atlantic City, a seminar on the new learning standards led with the fact that “Vocabulary will be more important than ever.” Another speaker admitted that, “Our biggest weakness is vocabulary.” The attendees were also informed that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the nation’s report card, is now including a separate section on vocabulary. From all corners of the educational world, comes a cry for improved vocabulary education which includes not just spelling, but also definition knowledge, correct pronunciation, and proper usage. At Verbal Education we address all four facets of vocabulary acquisition and I’m happy that Scripps has added the second component to their competition.

4) How will this be administered?

Scripps is administering a large part of the spelling and vocabulary portion of the contest online. Again, this may be a response to schools across the country preparing for the next generation of standardized tests which will be administered on computers and electronic tablets. Verbal Education is also leading the effort of digital learning by delivering a new brand of vocabulary instruction online. Students are being required to adapt to technology-enhanced instruction and testing at a rapid pace.

5) Where will the words come from? Who will choose them?

Scripps releases lists of words which are supposed to be ones that students will encounter in advanced academic life, but I strongly disagree with this assessment. After perusing a list of released words, I found some to be Tier Two Words (academic words) which are words encountered repeatedly in complex texts, and some to be Tier Three Words (domain-specific words) which would only be encountered in specific and specialized fields of study. Frankly, I never understood the value of students learning to memorize the spelling of words that they will probably never use or even encounter in their lifetimes (words like panglossian or langlauf). The ability to memorize the spelling of hundreds of words is admirable, but its academic value is questionable.

6) Is vocabulary directly or indirectly taught in the schools?

Vocabulary knowledge was once acquired intuitively as a by-product of reading, but as reading declines so does vocabulary acquisition. Now, structured vocabulary lessons are required in most schools. Sadly, these lessons usually consist of giving students lists of words to memorize or worksheets to fill out. Memorization doesn’t work because the knowledge never reaches long-term memory. It makes it into short-term memory for a brief stay and then dissipates. Worksheets contain irrelevant sentences that are easily completed with a fill-in-the-blanks format from a bank of words but they too are just as easily forgotten.

This is why there is a crisis in education today; educators are realizing that vocabulary instruction has to change and most teachers have never learned how to really teach vocabulary.

7) How important is parental use of words, terms, in the home?

Students who come from homes where high level language is used, or advantaged homes, begin their schooling with four times more vocabulary words than students who come from disadvantaged homes.

The more high level words the parents know and use, the bigger the vocabularies of their children will be. Starting school with a broad knowledge-base of words makes it easier for children to learn to read and this gives them a huge head start in their education. I urge all parents to use high level language at home and continually increase their own vocabularies. If parents watch TV with their smart phone or computer in hand and hear a word they don’t know, they can look it up on and then use it when talking to their children. We have lots of free tips and help for parents on our website too.

8) What have I neglected to ask?

Should we have a National Vocabulary Bee? YES!!!!

I am hoping that we will be able to sponsor just such a contest for high school students. This kind of competition would increase SAT and ACT scores, spark a new interest in language, and deliver a desperately needed shot of adrenaline in the proverbial arm of our beloved language. After all, we almost always say it with words; we might as well use the best ones.

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