Scrabbling to be number one

Pupils learn, compete with word game

April 11, 2006|By LIZ F. KAY | LIZ F. KAY,SUN REPORTER

The cafeteria of Our Lady of Victory School in Arbutus was home to a different kind of bingo during a recent visit.

Children gathered around Scrabble boards instead of cards and ink blotters. Teacher Sharon Mosher spoke into a wireless microphone when they spelled words such as goblets or tsunami.

And teams that used seven letters in one turn - known as a "bingo" - earned a 50-point bonus.

"Our first bingo of the day is reaping," she proclaimed. "You reap what you sow."

For about six years, Mosher has sown a healthy crop of fans of the game. About 130 children from grades five through eight attend the parochial school's weekly Scrabble club. And 12 members will vie for honors in Boston this month at the National School Scrabble competition.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Maryland section Tuesday misspelled the name of the adviser of the Scrabble club at Our Lady of Victory School in Arbutus. Her name is Sharon Moser.
The Sun regrets the error.

Our Lady of Victory's club is among the largest nationwide and so far is sending the biggest contingent to the national competition, said Tara Rogers, director of communications and educational programs for the National Scrabble Association.

More than 1 million students play Scrabble at 20,000 schools, after-school programs or libraries, she said. Ninety-eight teams from 24 states have registered, including six from Our Lady of Victory. Silver Spring's Easton Middle School also has a team signed up.

Students have the chance to win other awards beyond the $5,000 first prize, including highest score for an individual turn and highest-scoring bingo.

Mosher, a language arts and Spanish teacher at Our Lady of Victory, started with fewer than 20 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. Last year she allowed fifth-graders to join. Now another Our Lady of Victory teacher advises a club for about 40 third- and fourth-graders.

"Here, it's just the thing to do," eighth-grader Michael Mahon said after the meeting.

Most teams used sheets containing two- and three-letter words that are considered legitimate for use in the game, such as aa, a term for lava, and za, which is slang for pizza.

Children preparing for Boston eschew the sheet and use chess clocks to keep within the 22 minutes allowed per team for the tournament.

Parent helpers served as word judges for the club, checking dictionaries when children challenge a word. Unlike adult competitions, Mosher said, the children's contests allow no epithets or slurs.

At one table, fifth-graders Emily Burgess and Shanelle Grier put down D-O-O-N. "You know, like sand dune," Emily said. "That's D-U-N-E," said their opponent, fifth-grader Joshua Alonsozana. Emily took back the letters. The team later scored 33 points with writer.

Josh, who will play in Boston, said he enjoys the game because "Scrabble helps you learn a little bit more by expanding your knowing of words."

Education consultants for the National Scrabble Association surveyed teachers, who noted improved spelling, vocabulary and dictionary skills, Rogers said.

"A lot of them like to look up the words and find out what they mean," Mosher said.

It can work both ways. Sometimes "I'll find a word that's cool and count up the letters," said Michael Mahon. Last week he played the word gammers, a British term for elderly women. He said he found it while searching the dictionary for another word during reading class, he said.

The game also tests students' arithmetic and spatial relationship abilities as they calculate scores and find places to build words, Rogers and Mosher said. They also consider probability when figuring out which tiles remain.

"The less time it takes to count, you lose less time," said eighth-grader Shane Meredith.

In addition, playing as partners teaches cooperation and teamwork, Rogers said. Mosher said children also have to learn to be good winners and losers. If behavior gets out of hand, they are asked to leave the club.

They should learn to admire their rivals' accomplishment, Mosher said. "When you are beaten by a large number of points, you can look at your game and value and appreciate your opponents' good play," she said.

That's how she began to enjoy the game. Mosher signed up for a tournament in Baltimore in 1982. She was matched with an expert-level player for her first game, and she recalls that he scored 650 points.

"Wow, someone can score this many points in a Scrabble game," she remembers thinking. "From that moment I was hooked."

The teacher worked with mentors - including her opponent from that first game - and eventually reached expert level, she said. Now she gets her Scrabble fix by playing games online while grading papers.

After the pupils played their game, eighth-grader and championship player Howard Eubanks carried his board around to show other players his three bingos: goblets, tsunami and awaiters.

Seventh-grader Jamie Hutcheson, the only girl competing in Boston, said she has been playing Scrabble with her cousins since she was 5 years old. Now, she said, she beats them.

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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