I have watched parts of the Scripps National Spelling Bee for the last two years. While I admire the young people who compete, I see many problems with the format and assumptions behind this contest.
First, the words assigned to the contestants vary in difficulty, so it is hard to determine who is really the best speller. I think that the competition would be more equitable if everyone had to spell the same words.
Each contestant has a different background, so some words will be easier for each one. For example, I know Spanish and Hebrew, so if I were asked to spell a word derived from these languages, I would not have much trouble. However, if someone demanded that I spell a word derived from Swahili or Russian, I would have a hard time.
I also question the emphasis on spelling in this competition. Because most people now write on computers with Spellcheck features, why do we need to memorize the letters of recondite words?
Many of the contestants have private tutors to prepare for spelling competitions. This excludes students whose families do not have the resources to fund tutoring. Also, students with dyslexia and other learning differences will not do well in spelling bees.
I’m a linguist, and I taught college English for several decades. Certainly young people should learn some basic word roots, prefixes, and suffixes (linguists call these morphemes). However, memorizing hundreds of morphemes to spell the seldom used words in the National Spelling Bee does not seem to me to be a very good way to develop one’s mind. I think that students would benefit more from reading good books, doing creative and analytic writing, and engaging in research or experiments in a field that interests them.