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Spell Well, not spelling hell [The Fiji Times, August 6, 2010]


The sponsors FMF, and Fiji TV have to be praised for the Spell Well competition they are running for primary schools.

Such competitions can be absolutely useful in countering the current rapid deterioration of standards of written and spoken English amongst our children.

Coming from all over Fiji, some from obviously poor rural backgrounds, these often multiracial groups of children are  graceful in their responses, both within the competition and afterwards when they are interviewed.

There are an amazing number of tiny tots deservedly achieving star status, previously reserved for athletes and sports persons.   While great hulks turn out to be gentle giants.

The only drawback has been the high proportion of obscure words which would have floored even University graduates or lecturers, let alone Fiji’s primary school kids.

The public have already commented that many of the words are way beyond anything primary kids can be expected to encounter either in the class-room or the books they are likely to read.

Often the Compere himself has struggled with the pronunciations, further misleading the kids, and sometimes his own judgment.

The fact that the majority of the kids have been unable to get even a half of the words right, suggests that the words are far too difficult.   Winners are often those lucky to get one or two easy words.

Many times, the kids make attempts which are phonetically excellent, but not the way the words are spelt in reality.

It would be all too easy to condemn the quiz masters or the judges or whoever chose the words.

But there are far more deep-seated forces at work which the Fiji public must worry about, if good standards in English and spelling are to be maintained.

The real big difficulty is that our children are not “seeing” the correct spelling of words with the words they are hearing either in the Spell Well competition or elsewhere.

If remedial action is not taken, our current rapid deterioration in English will continue.

The long-term decline of reading

The real pervasive disaster for Fiji is that the general population (children and adults) are not reading any more.  They are watching TV, videos, movies and playing computer games.

There was a time when most children and young people would read books quite regularly.  They would “see” what was the correct spelling of the words, whose meanings they would gather from the context in which they were used. Not any more.

Now they only hear words, most times badly pronounced by parents, friends, teachers and media people.

So when non-phonetic words are pronounced in the competition, our children have no idea of  the correct spelling.

The tragedy is that today there  are far more exciting children’s and adults’ authors and books than ever before.  There is no excuse for not reading.

The mobile mania

Mobile usage is a horror story when it comes to corroding standards of spelling and English grammar (the misuse of money for mobiles is another story).

Mobile texting is now a national craze amongst our young people.

To save time, most mobile users are taking short-cuts in spelling and grammar when texting.

And all kinds of text-messaging competitions are appearing on television: support for a national sevens team, or some music program.

Daily our children are now seeing all the wrong spelling of a huge range of words which they don’t know is wrong.  They have no idea what is the correct spelling.

This problem is only going to grow over time.

Already, one can see at USP the horrible deterioration in the spelling and grammar, not just of the students and graduates, but also of the younger lecturers.

What do our kids hear?

Another disaster is that the standards of spoken English are also deteriorating horribly.

School teachers do not have the correct pronunciations or the correct grammar.

Our radio announcers have developed great popularity by using jargon and accents which are misleading our young and old alike.

While Fiji TV does have some speakers of good English, there are also several news readers who mispronounce significant numbers of words on a daily basis, and have been doing so for years without correction.

Daily hearing wrongly pronounced words cannot but throw our children (and adults) in their association between how a word sounds and the spelling of that word as they recollect it on the page.

Do any of our radio or television stations have any person responsible to monitor the standards of spoken English?


Rewarding quiz masters and judges

It is good that Spell Well interviews the kids to ask them about their strategies.

But why does the program not interview the currently faceless quiz masters and judges?

Surely, parents and viewers would be just as interested in the judges’ explanations of their choice of words and their assessment of children’s performances.

And why is it that the television credits at the end of the program virtually fly off the screen without the public even seeing who are the persons behind the choice of words, or who are the judges?

The little information I have is that the sponsors give pathetic financial reward to those who do all the hard and substantial intellectual work behind the competitions such as IQ Active.

Surely they also should be provided with a financial incentive to do well?

Look at the huge sums of money provided by sponsors to rugby and soccer.

What can be done?

I suggest that the organizers of the Spell Well competition and potential sponsors consider the following:

(a)        Select quiz designers who are experts in the field (USP, FNU, NUF?), and who can    select words with a suitable range of difficulty (from easy to hard), that primary school      kids may be reasonably expected to encounter by the time they reach            Class 8.

(b)       Have different sections covering literature, science, social science, the great variety of     religions, and even common words from Fijian and Hindi vernaculars written in   English.

(c)        Have a Compere whose spoken English has the highest of standards and who also   knows the meanings and the spelling of the words being asked.

(d)       Ensure that news readers on television and radio have correct pronunciations in        English.

(e)        Ensure that all television and radio companies monitor and maintain the proper        standards in spoken English.

(f)        Demand that the Mobile companies provide generous sponsorship of the Spell Well             competition on television, in recompense for the huge damage that is being done      through the mobile texting mania.  And why don’t they run texting competitions in good English?

(g)       Have a similar Spell Well competition for secondary students.

(h)       Have an annual one-off competition for universities (now that we have three of them).

(i)        Ensure that the judges and those who design the competitions (Spell Well and IQ    Active) are given a fair financial reward commensurate with the critical work that they      do.  This should not be seen purely as a “voluntary welfare work”.


(i)        Ensure that there is a significant increase in tax-payers’ funds (any money in the kitty?)   to flood our primary and secondary schools with good exciting books through a        strengthened Library Services            Unit.


If Fiji does not act now, it will be too late for our primary and secondary children.


It is already too late for an entire generation who are now reaching and graduating from Fiji universities.


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