The Great Australian Spelling Bee to highlight smarts of the nation’s brightest kids

The Great Australian Spelling Bee, where the competitors are aged between eight and 13. Photo: SuppliedCan you spell, off the top of your head, words such as soliloquy, imperturbable and oscilloscope?

It’s a challenge for many adults to cope without spellcheck, but this is the standard of words facing competitors on Ten’s The Great Australian Spelling Bee – all of whom are aged just eight to 13.

“I can’t spell to save my life,” admits host Grant Denyer. “I didn’t realise how bad I was until I saw these eight year olds run rings around me.”

Spelling bees have long been popular in the US; the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee has been airing since 1994 and pulls in millions of viewers for each final. And now production company Shine, makers of MasterChef Australia, The Voice,The Bachelor and more, have turned their polished reality-contest lens on young Aussie spellers, putting the spotlight on smarts for once, rather than the stage or sports.

The show is tagged ‘little kids, big words’. As a prime example, twins Harpith and Harpita, 8, say their favourite word is – deep breath – floccinaucinihilipilification, one of the longest words in the English language, which means estimating something as worthless.

The pair couldn’t be further from the definition of their favourite word, they’re among the 52 children drawn from a pool of 3000 nationwide who made it through to the televised rounds and highlight not only the incredible intelligence of Aussie kids, but the personalities too.

Another contestant, the bubbly Grace, 8 (who appears on our cover), from Illawara says her favourite word is happy. “Because when I hear it, it reminds me to be happy,” she says. “It’s not like it happens to me for every word. If I hear excited, I don’t necessarily feel excited, but when I hear the word happy, I feel happy,” she says, giggling.

Already a veteran of the sport – last year she won the junior category in the NSW Premier’s Spelling Bee –  she says she has a “natural interest” in spelling. “It’s like my heart saying, you know spelling is your thing – go on and love it.”

But is it possible to take spelling bees in Australia from school halls filled with anxious parents to a nationwide TV audience as one of Ten’s biggest bids for family entertainment this year?

Denyer says it has the same appeal as Family Feud in being something that families can watch together. “You couldn’t have told me four months ago that spelling would be captivating, but it bloody well is,” he says.

“We’ve really found the competitive element in spelling and really maximised that kind of TV commentary of a sporting contest, and then right alongside that is the compassionate side of who they are. So we’ve got what they’re capable of doing as well as who they are.

“You put both of those two ingredients and then bang! It’s intense but it’s emotional and I didn’t expect that.”

For contestant Harrison, 12, from Melbourne – favourite word “lexophile”-  it’s his first spelling bee although he’s won district extension maths contests. He likes spelling because he says he’s “a very literal person” and hopes the show encourages kids to go in for spelling bees as it will make them look fun.

“A lot of people say spelling bees cause a lot of stress for kids, but so does homework,” he says. “If you want to cancel spelling bees you might as well cancel homework and everything stressful.

“If kids aren’t exposed to a stressful environment then they’re not going to be able to develop into an adult that’s used to a stressful environment and the workplace. I think it’s really important for them but it’s also a really fun place. It’s a really good show.”

Denyer admits managing highly competitive contestants who are also children is a challenge. “It’s a really intense environment. These are kids that have been in the top of their classes their whole lives so they’ve never really failed at anything. So as a host it’s a really delicate position to be in where you’re trying to help them achieve and, when it doesn’t go well, you also need to help them land back on their feet softly.”

Co-host Chrissie Swan’s role is to calm the nerves of the kids and anxious families backstage. “I’m there to be a bit of the naughty aunty, the friend backstage, the hugger, the cheerer, the support team, the mascot, all that sort of stuff,” she says. “We’ve had an absolute ball, the kids and I, because let’s face it we are the same mental age.”

“I’m proud of it,” she says of the show,” because it’s about intelligence and these kids have never been the star before. Often they’re the forgotten kids because they’re not winning races and all that sort of business. I’m really happy for them that they get the spotlight shone on them and I’m really happy for kids at home that they see that being clever is really cool.”

Designed to be a contest that families can play together at home, too, Shine brought in educational experts, the Office of the Children’s Guardian and Macquarie Dictionary to develop the show. Proceedings are overseen by the authoritative figure of Chris Edmund, a former head of acting at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, who gives spellers their words and advises if they have answered correctly.

Denyer says the GASB format takes spelling bees beyond the US-style sports coverage and towards the reality side of things and is being watched closely by networks around the world to see how it will fare.

“The show just feels right,” says Denyer. “It’s made meticulously well, it’s a beautiful looking production, but more importantly its heart is in the right place.”

The Great Australian Spelling Bee, Ten, Monday and Tuesday, 7.30pm

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