In May 2019, I was waiting in line for the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee when a reporter approached me. He wanted to talk with me about the students I had coached and about the spelling bee in general. At one point in our conversation, he wondered aloud why some rounds had shorter words mixed in with longer ones. It seemed unfair to him because he assumed the longer ones would be harder. Of course, he was right that the word list was not perfectly even in terms of difficulty, but word length had nothing to do with it.
If you’ve watched the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals, I’m sure you’ve noticed the prevalence of long German words (among others) in the late finals--sprachgefühl and scherenschnitte and what have you. Obviously, it’d be wrong to label these words as downright easy, but at the same time, harder words exist. It’s long been a theory in the spelling bee community that the word panel chooses words more for how hard they’ll look on television as opposed to how difficult they’ll actually be for spellers. While these two categories do have some overlap, they’re not always the same thing. Long German words, for example, can sometimes be difficult, but for many spellers, they tend to be on the easier side in terms of words that will be used in the national finals. Why is that?
Language patterns. Most spellers have dedicated a significant portion of their study time to gaining a deep understanding of how specific languages of origin work, how certain sounds will be spelled in words from those languages, etc. Spellers know that German words are especially common at the national bee, so knowledge of German is highly prioritized. Thus, many spellers will know words like gesellschaft and auslaut (both winning words in the past three years!) off the tops of their heads.
So if the German words are often on the easier side for spellers, what are some examples of words that are actually hard?
Polish cities, anyone? (Actually, a lot of spellers are familiar with Polish cities because they’re a running joke in the spelling community as being the types of words Scripps should use in place of the German words. But if that wasn’t the case, then yes, they’d be really difficult.)
Let’s take a look at marram, the word that tripped up the otherwise infallible 2017 Scripps runner-up Rohan Rajeev. It’s a noun meaning a type of grass, and it’s of Scandinavian origin. Its sole pronunciation is \’marəm\. That’s all the information you get on that word. Unlike sprachgefühl, which actually follows some pretty consistent German patterns throughout the word, there’s not a lot of information to inform your spelling of marram if you don’t have it memorized. Scandinavian is a pretty generic answer to the language of origin question--it’s not even a language; rather, it refers to several languages spoken in a region of Northern Europe. You can’t follow patterns with marram anywhere near as easily as you can with sprachgefühl. It becomes clear pretty quickly that sometimes, the short words that aren’t from German can be a lot more difficult than the long German words, even though it might seem counterintuitive.
Don’t even get me started on trademarks or imitative words or, God forbid, words of unknown origin.
The Spell It! regional bee list, which has been in use for over a decade, was recently discontinued and replaced by Words of the Champions, a 4,000-word study guide that will now be used in regional bees and, though it remains to be seen for sure, perhaps the national bee. As someone whose early experiences in the bee were very much defined and shaped by the Spell It! list, I’m writing this (albeit sappy) post as a farewell to the list that opened the door to the bee world for me.
To Spell It!--
When my brother and I first printed you out to study for our very first state bee, we were 12 and 10 years old respectively. We really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, just that we had qualified for the state bee and that we wanted to do decently well. As we spent hours poring over your pages, we discovered so much--the seemingly impossible complexities of German that turned out to be more consistent than they appeared, the way Greek and Latin roots click together to construct meanings, the gorgeous absurdities of French.
Of course, neither of us won the state bee that year, but you laid the foundation for what was next. Spell It! unlocked a love that I didn’t know I had for words and language and learning. From then on, every word I learned was a treasure, an exquisite story to explore. Once I started with Spell It!, I never stopped. Words took me around the world both figuratively and literally--spelling bees would take me to stages as far from home as DC and Beijing. And of course it’s easy to credit all the more advanced and complex words and lists and concepts for getting me that far, but ultimately, Spell It!, it all started with you.
It started with spelling-based basketball games in my driveway with my brother. One shot for every word. (Spell It!, of course, was our source.) It started with the wonder that ignited within me the first time I saw the word Weissnichtwo in the German challenge words. It started with Googling pictures of all the Spell It! Dog words, from schipperke to borzoi. It started with hours spent in the car with my dad outside my elementary school on early mornings, going over Spell It! over and over again. So, Spell It!, in many ways, you were just the beginning. But I really wouldn’t call you "just" anything. You served as the gateway to something that was ultimately life-transforming, and for that I am grateful.
a lifelong Spell It! kid
The Scripps National Spelling Bee came to a close Thursday night in National Harbor, Maryland. The champion? Rishik Gandhasri from California. Oh, I forgot to mention Rohan Raja, Sohum Sukhatankar, and Abhijay Kodali (all from Texas). But that’s only half--Erin Howard from Alabama, Christopher Serrao and Shruthika Padhy from New Jersey, and Saketh Sundar from Maryland? All champions as well!
In the 17th round of the bee, shortly before midnight, Dr. Bailly had an announcement to make. “We are now entering uncharted territory,” he said, before going on to announce that after three more rounds, the Bee would be out of challenging words and that anyone who could make it through the next three rounds would be declared a co-champion. Naturally, all eight remaining spellers made it through and won. They dubbed themselves “octochamps.” The atmosphere in the ballroom was so full of excitement--the audience of over 1000 was breathlessly euphoric as not one, not two, but EIGHT champions were crowned. The Scripps rules provide for up to three co-champions, so eight seems unthinkable, and yet, this octet of talented spellers managed to make it happen. Scripps had no other choice. Everyone knew that they were witnessing history in the making. It was a wonderful surprise to see eight kids win the bee this year, but what does this mean for the future?
Many agree that Scripps could have used harder words. With the advent of SpellPundit, which includes just about every word someone might need to know for a spelling bee, some believe that the bee might be permanently broken--the argument here is that too many kids know every possible word, and nothing can be done to “fix” the bee. While I do believe that the word list could have been improved, I do not think the bee is “dead” or irretrievable in any way. Each year, Scripps changes the rules based on what they think is best based on previous bees, and this year’s bee will just be another event to consider. Will we see some serious rule changes? Probably. Is the bee gone forever? Absolutely not.
So what can be done? Some have suggested shortening the time limit or not allowing spellers to ask for information. That, however, seems to take away what is at the core of the bee--celebration of deep understanding of words and etymology and language. The words, though, could have been more difficult. While Scripps threw some incredibly difficult words at the spellers and they each absolutely deserved their championship, the dictionary has not been exhausted. Difficult as it is to believe, there are words hiding deep in the shadows of Merriam-Webster Unabridged that are even more esoteric, even more mind-boggling, and even more intimidating than the incredibly challenging words conquered by the Octochamps. The word difficulty also seemed to progress inconsistently, and it would probably be in Scripps’ best interest to standardize that, although I understand fully that it is easier said than done.
In any case, each of the Octochamps worked unbelievably hard for what they have accomplished, and they deserve nothing but kudos for their efforts and achievements. I’d like to offer a hearty Octongratulations (sorry, it had to be done) to all eight of them!
Happy May! Summer is just around the corner, and the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee is just eight days away (not that I'm counting). In just over a week, spellers from all around the country and all around the world will take the stage in National Harbor, Maryland to take on the dictionary and see the payoff of all their hard work. So, what do you need to know about this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee?
This year's Scripps National Spelling Bee is the largest ever. 567 spellers will take the stage in the preliminary rounds. That's 48 more than 2018's 519 spellers. This ongoing expansion is largely a result of the bee's RSVBee program, and it could very well make the bee even more competitive than ever.
The tiebreaker test that finalists had to take in the previous two years is no longer a part of the competition. The tiebreaker test was a step taken by Scripps to decrease the likelihood of co-champions. While the scores never actually had to be used in the two years where it was administered, the removal of the test means a reversion to the pre-2017 rules, where co-champions could be declared without attempting to break the tie with a test score.
The preliminaries test is taking place on Monday instead of Tuesday. Presumably since the bee has more spellers than ever, Scripps is taking this step to make more time for Round 2 on Tuesday--especially since Round 3 will kick off on Tuesday evening after Round 2 before concluding on Wednesday.
A few more bits of advice specifically for spellers:
Breathe. I know this particular piece of advice is given over and over, and I know that it probably seems trite at this point. However, it truly is important to breathe consciously throughout the competition. When I was competing, I felt extremely stressed at times, even to the point where I was hyperventilating. It's so important to try to control that as much as you can, as difficult as it might be. Additionally, set aside a few minutes for yourself each day of Bee Week to just focus on breathing deeply and clearing your head. It can really make a world of difference.
Sleep. Another trite piece of advice, but something I often failed to do when I was a speller! It might seem tempting to stay up all night cramming words for the competition, but cramming late at night will not help you. You won't retain very much of what you're trying to learn, and you'll be exhausted the next day, when you need to be at your best. Give yourself permission to go to bed and get some rest. I promise you'll be better off because of it.
However, of course, you should study some while you're at the bee. Make sure you have lists of your most difficult words with you so that you can review them. Both of the years that I competed at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, words that I reviewed during Bee Week ended up being used in the bee. Don't overdo it, but make sure you're doing what you need to do in your free time.
Go to Bee events. You don't have to go to all of them if you don't want to, but three years later, the most important part of my participation in the spelling bee has been the memories I got to make and the friends I got to meet through the spelling bee--in fact, some of those people are still my best friends today. Going to Bee Week events (especially the Farewell Party--it really is worth staying up late), as well as exchanging Beekeepers (spelling bee autograph books), is the best way to meet people and really have an unforgettable experience.
The most important piece of advice I have for you, however, is to relish the experience and don't worry too much about your placement. The experience of Bee Week is just as important as the competition itself. You've done so much hard work, and now all you can ask of yourself is that you try your best. Your hard work will likely pay off very well, but even if you don't meet your own expectations, it doesn't mean you failed--luck is a huge factor in spelling bees. Memories of the bee and lessons learned will last so much longer than any placement or prize that you could receive.
So spellers, this is your moment. Everything you've done to prepare for this will be worth it. Get on that stage and dazzle the world with your talent. You are prepared, you are passionate, and you are unstoppable. May the odds BEE ever in your favor!
Do you know what purpuroxanthin means? If you've read the title, you probably know it has something to do with colors--namely the complementary colors purple and yellow. Purpuroxanthin is a reddish yellow crystalline compound obtained from the reduction of purpurin, which is another chemical compound. Xanthos is the Greek word for yellow, which has a clear connection to the word--a reddish yellow crystalline compound. The connection to purpura, the Latin word for purple, however, is a bit more vague. Purpurin itself is not a purple compound--according to Merriam-Webster, it's actually orange or red. It's somewhat unclear as to why purpurin was named for the color purple, but it was, and purpura came to be a significant part of purpuroxanthin.
This post, of course, wouldn't be complete without mentioning a second important root used for the color yellow. The Greek word chrysos is technically the word for gold, but it is often used for the color yellow as well. Picture, for example, a chrysanthemum--although they're not always yellow, they frequently are, and they were named for this characteristic. Most frequently, though, it is used to mean gold, which is reflected in the word "chrysalis"--chrysalides were originally named for the chrysalis of the common crow butterfly, which is known for its brilliant gold-colored chrysalis.
Let me know what colors and roots you'd like to see me discuss next!
Do you know what an erythrocyte is? What does it mean if something is rubefacient? What color is a rhodoplast? Hint: all the answers have to do with the color red.
This series of blog posts will focus on roots that are used for specific colors, one color at a time--starting with red today!
Rubeus is the Latin word for red. The name for the gemstone ruby comes directly from this word. Additionally, we have English words like "rubious" (which, unsurprisingly, simply means "red") and "rubefacient," which means causing redness (especially of the skin). Fun fact for Harry Potter fans: Rubeus Hagrid's name was intentionally selected to connect to the color red. (More on this in a future post.)
The next root has both Latin and Greek origins. Rhod-, which initially comes from the Greek rhodon meaning rose but also passed through Latin on its way to English, is a common root that also means "red." Rhodochrosite? That's a mineral known for its rose red color. Rhodoplast, is, of course, also red--it's a red chromatophore found in red algae.
The Greek combining form erythr- is a final root that also means "red." It's used especially in scientific and medical contexts--an erythrocyte is a red blood cell. Erythrodermia is unusual excessive redness of skin. There are other examples, too, though: my personal favorite is the word "erythrophobia" which can be the fear of blushing or of the color red itself.
What's your favorite color? Find a root for it, or look for a cool word that describes a certain shade of that color--there are a lot out there!
Often, when I’m talking to someone outside of the spelling bee community and I tell them that I’m a spelling coach, their first question is often the same: “How do you even teach someone to be a good speller?”
It’s a good question, and it’s one that I’m sure I’d have if I was less involved with spelling. It often seems like being good at spelling is a simple process of rote memorization--how could you possibly “coach” someone to become a great speller?
Language patterns. Spelling, despite what some people think, isn’t all memorization. A huge part of being successful in spelling bees is a solid understanding of how words coming from different languages are spelled. Some common examples of this are the tendency of Spanish words to spell the \h\ sound with the letter J, or of German words to spell the \sh\ sound as “sch.” One of the most common things I do as a coach is provide structured pattern lessons for every language of origin that comes up in the Bee. A strong foundation in patterns is an important precedent for developing a more intuitive feel for a language, and that’s a key part of what I help with.
Roots. Like language patterns, roots are essential to being able to put together words. Especially when a word is Latin or Greek, it’s easy to put together even words you haven’t seen before if you have a solid foundation of root knowledge. That's what I do with my students--I help them learn roots so that we can work on putting together words based on the definition. I have several methods of teaching and learning roots that I use with my students to help build that fundamental knowledge base that enables a speller to put together thousands and thousands of words.
Mock bees. To put these skills with roots and language patterns into practice, I often hold mock spelling bees with my students. I have them stand up as if they were onstage if the meeting is in person, but if the session is over Skype, I still try to make it as realistic as possible. I put them on a two-minute timer (the official Scripps time limit) and have them ask all the questions, just as if they were onstage. I also use a bell when I can. I intentionally select words that can be put together using roots and language patterns so that students can practice using the skills they’re developing in those areas.
Study strategy. Even though roots and language patterns and other areas of knowledge are tremendously important to being a good speller, there is a lot of memorization in the end. I help with this too--I help students make their individualized study plan that utilizes various tools to help them learn the words that they need to learn. Of course, I can’t do all the work--part of being a successful coach is having dedicated students who put in the hard work. Teaching what needs to be taught is the first part, but it’s really the student that puts in the work and makes it happen. I get to see my students do that every day, and I love watching them grow and succeed!
If you ever find yourself competing at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, or even placing high at your regional spelling bee, there's a good chance you're going to be interviewed. For many kids, it's their first experience being interviewed--that was certainly the case. My first interview was the day I won my first regional spelling bee in March 2015. It was for an article that would later be published in the Denver Post, but since then, I've had dozens of bee-related interviews of all kinds. I'm still far from being a perfect interviewee, but as I have a lot of experience being interviewed about the bee, I hope that some of this advice is helpful to those who are competing at very high levels and are wondering what being interviewed about the bee is like.
There are certain questions you'll be asked multiple times. Be prepared for them. What's your favorite word? What's the hardest word you've ever had to spell? How do you prepare? How do you feel about the word you missed? How do you feel about moving onto the finals? How do you feel about winning this bee? These are questions that nearly every interview asks. If you anticipate being interviewed, have an answer down cold for each of these questions. It's tremendously helpful, as interviews can be stressful--it's best to know what kinds of things you want to say ahead of time.
Be careful about the length of your answers. Don't make your answer too long--keep it concise and say what you need to say, and don't ramble. Dragging out the interview isn't beneficial for anyone. That being said, you want to be interesting--don't give one word answers either. Work on finding a good middle ground between long and short answers.
Think carefully about the impression your answers are giving off. One question I was asked in 2016 was "how do you feel about coming back to the bee for a second time?" I didn't know what to say immediately, and I ended up focusing my entire answer on seeing old friends again. While this was a great part of that week, I worried afterwards that I had given an answer that made me sound like I wasn't very serious about spelling, and only in it for the social aspect, which wasn't true at all. Decide ahead of time what kind of impression you want to make, and tailor your answers to fit that impression.
You don't have to answer questions you're uncomfortable with. I've had my share of questions I didn't want to answer--there were a variety of bee-related situations that I wasn't comfortable commenting on publicly. If you get a question like this, know that it's completely okay to decline to answer the question. Make sure you're polite about it, though--and if you're in a live TV situation, it might be better to give a vague answer than to decline entirely. If you're having a profile filmed by ESPN to be shown on TV during the bee, and they ask you to say something or do something that you aren't comfortable doing, I would give you the same advice--you don't have to do it. Politely declining is always a valid option.
Above all, be yourself. The most important advice to follow in any interview situation is to be comfortable with yourself. Don't try too hard to seem like somebody you're not--audiences will love genuineness and honesty more than a persona that feels fake. This advice is quite generic, but it's really important--just go with what you feel is right for you to say and do, and you'll be(e) great!
If you're pronouncing for a school or local bee this year and you've never done it before, you might be unsure of what to do. The first part of this post addressed how a pronouncer should prepare for a bee. This installment, the second and final of this series, will address what's important for a pronouncer (especially a new one) to remember once they're at the bee. So, without further ado, part two!
Remember that pronouncers are not judges. You do not have the authority to be a part of settling any kind of dispute. There should be an odd number of judges so that any dispute will ultimately end with a majority opinion, but you do not get to be a part of that decision, because the pronouncer is not a judge.
Don't be afraid to tell kids to talk louder. This is something I've struggled with personally as a pronouncer. It's not uncommon for a student to spell rather quietly or not speak directly enough into the microphone. Instead of straining to hear what the student is saying, ask all participants politely to enunciate clearly and speak directly into the microphone. It will save you and the judges a lot of trouble. If you can, ask the judges to hold a practice round before the actual bee to ensure that everyone is talking clearly enough.
Be prepared for criticism. At every single bee I've attended, there's been at least one appeal where the primary grounds used to argue the appeal was some flaw in the pronunciation of the word. Be open to the fact that you may have made a mistake. However, it is also important to keep in mind that many people are very invested in these bees and are, therefore, highly emotional about them. If someone is being very aggressive or emotional about an appeal concerning your pronunciation, stay calm. Wait for the judges to address their concerns, and have good sportsmanship regardless of the outcome (yes, sportsmanship is important for officials too, not just spellers).
Do you have any other questions about how to be the best you can be as a spelling bee pronouncer? Let me know and I'd be happy to address them!
This, as many things are, is best introduced with a story.
For my sixth-grade area bee, where the top two spellers were sent to the regional bee, I learned every word on the School Spelling Bee Study List, as I knew that it contained the words that were going to be used for much of the bee. I knew every word on that list backward and forwards, and could drill through all 450 words with my dad in a matter of minutes. The bee did, in fact, use those words, but despite my mastery of the list, it was a word from that list that almost brought my demise. The word verdure was my word in a round where there were three spellers left, but instead of the correct \vərjər\ pronunciation, I was given the pronunciation \ver-¦zher\--as if the word was bergere, except it began with the letter V. I didn’t connect this at all with verdure because the pronunciation was so different from the one listed in Merriam-Webster that I had learned. The closest word I could think of that was on the study list was bourgeois. Needless to say, I was wrong. I would have been eliminated if I had not appealed on the grounds of mispronunciation, and although I was reinstated, it would have saved me (and several others in the same bee who found themselves in similar situations) a lot of trouble and stress.
Almost five years later, I’ve pronounced for a dozen or so local bees, and since I have experience both as a speller and as a pronouncer, I wanted to offer some of my advice to those who are going to be pronouncing a school or local bee for the first time this season. A competent pronouncer is the most important part of any bee--the bee simply cannot be well-run without one.
Let’s start with the pronouncer’s role, as outlined by the Scripps National Spelling Bee itself: The pronouncer strives to pronounce words according to the diacritical markings in Scripps National Spelling Bee word lists. This is your primary duty, and it is absolutely essential to the smooth running of the bee. However, it might be harder than it looks. It’s definitely not a good idea to go into the bee without having prepared yourself for pronouncing words correctly ahead of time. Here’s what you need to do: