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Spelling Bee – adventures in orthography

18 December 2008

One to One Literacy Society

It wasn’t an “eidetic” moment — certainly no one was about to sound a “tocsin” — but the crowd gathered at the new Trade and Convention Centre on a hot summer morning was “chary” about being called “dumbbell” or, even worse, “odic” “philhellenists”.

This was the 4th annual One to One Corporate Spelling Bee Challenge. The room was filled with tables of lawyers and teachers and members of the business community interested in literacy.

Promoted as a friendly competition that “pits some of the most competitive companies and professions against one another to fight for the claim of superior intelligence”, the spelling bee was designed as a fun activity that would raise money for the One to One Literacy Society – a non-profit organization that supplies volunteer, in-school tutors for young children who need extra help with reading.

Overseeing the etymological cage match was Norm Grohman, former weatherperson (and a former volunteer tutor himself with One to One Literacy).

Grohman skillfully handled the crowd, and two hours flew by. With each successive round, the words grew harder, the stakes greater, and the rivalry stronger. Participating teams had their mettle tested with deceptively simple words like “muumuu” and “millennium,”

The Davis Illiterates team were anxious to regain their winning form of 2007. But the Spellbinders at table 14 had a fire in their belly. This was no “sarsaparilla”-swilling group of amateurs.

The final tally in this logomachic logjam — The Davis Illiterates pulled it off — a stunning 11 out of 15 to take home the Cup, and bragging rights. (Their victory lap around the Centre was interrupted by the need to get back to work at Davis & Co, one of Vancouver’s top law firms.)

The team at the bottom went home with a dictionary, a promise of vengeance, and a pledge to practice for next year.

Mike Whitfield is a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital. He attended the fund-raiser out of personal and professional interest. “Early literacy is tremendously important,” he says. “Early literacy correlates with success in school, with not dropping out as a teenager, with school completion, with the ability to go onto secondary education, with lifetime earnings. Early literacy actually predicts lifetime earnings – isn’t that amazing?”

According to Whitfield, if you can move literacy and numeracy levels upwards in the community, then you have fewer people who fall out of the bottom, and who require expensive individual remedial treatment later on.

“It’s especially important for kids whose first language is not English. This program provides these kids with an early basis for reading and early language development.”

Morag Whitfield is a volunteer with One to One Literacy who works with Grade 2 students at a Vancouver elementary school (and she also happens to be Mike’s wife). Together, they make a powerful case for literacy and One-to-One.

“The One-to-One literacy program gives kids the confidence to try to read, to take risks,” she says. “Because kids at school see that their peers can read. And if they can’t do the same, then they tend not to try.”

“I think getting the kids in Grade 2 is perfect, because then they’ve got Grade 3 to practice, before going on to Grade 4. The children have to be literate by Grade 4. If you don’t have these skills by then, it’s going to be far more difficult. Because in Grade 4 you read textbooks for information. You have to be able to read and write faster.”

“It’s amazing to watch the kids, the progress they make in just a few months … and it’s amazing how little money it takes to support this program.”

The Spelling Bee raised $21,000 for the One to One Literacy Society. This money goes into their endowment fund, which is held at Vancouver Foundation, and funds the operations of this small, volunteer organization that helps hundreds of children throughout the Lower Mainland become better readers.

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