Hope is spelled W-O-W!

by Tanweer Mohamed
Event: Sanlam WOW Spelfees
Photos: Rikus Terblanche en Christiaan Schoeman

The air ripples with anticipation and bewilderment. For many of these young children from across the country the Stellenbosch scene is a novelty. 

The generator churns for the coffee machines to power the parents and teachers who pepper their young competitors with the last bits of encouragement and preparation.

On 7 October 2023 the SANLAM WOW Spelfees finals took place at Stellenbosch University. The Spelfees is the largest spelling festival in the country and is hosted in all nine provinces.

Approximately 500 children from schools across the country competed in this year’s finals. They travelled to Stellenbosch, accompanied with the support of their families and teachers.

The Spelfees was akin to watching a sport match unfold. The young competitors, ranging from Grades 1 to 10, morphed into athletes when called upon to spell. If you paid close attention and listened to the breathy silences between the letters of the words the learners spelled, one could sense not only some unsurprising nervousness and a reliance on memory, but also at times an emanation of power, stamina and endurance. A prime example of this level of intensity was that the Grade 10 Afrikaans competitors went 15 rounds without a single elimination.

The competition concluded with a prize giving conducted by Fiona van Kerwel and Victoria Hani in the Endler Hall of the Konservatorium. These big provincial winners in this year’s finals were the Northern Cape and Eastern Cape. Both provinces boasted an extensive number of competitors and supporters which was evident in the jubilatory celebrations during the prize giving.

The impact of the Spelfees

The continuation of this spelling competition can only aid in the development of South Africa’s literacy levels. This development is imperative after the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) results indicated that 81% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa cannot read for meaning in any language.

In addition to developing literacy skills, the Spelfees exposed young children to the University of Stellenbosch. Dr Jantjie Xaba called on the young competitors to leave as Spelfees competitors, but to return to the campus one day to become doctors and professors. 

Long may the Spelfees introduce young children to new worlds.