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:
Hey everyone! It's been a while since I've written here because I've been busy with a lot of things, but I'm back now and look forward to writing much more frequently in the near future!
Among spellers, German is usually something that’s loved or hated, without much in between. Personally, German is one of my favorite languages of origin. I struggled with it when I first started learning German, but I grew to love it over the years--the guttural sounds and the consonant clusters make it uniquely beautiful. One of my personal favorite German words has always been “schnurkeramik,” a word for a type of Neolithic pottery decorated with imprints of string. This word, which first drew me to it simply because it was fun to say, is made up of the German words schnur meaning “string” and keramik meaning “ceramics.” Literally, that translates to “string ceramics,” which, after all, is pretty much what it is. I was thinking about this word the other day, and I decided to dig around on Merriam-Webster Unabridged to find a couple more German pottery words that were just as intriguing.
One of the first words I came across was “bandkeramik,” which shares the word keramik with “schnurkeramik.” “Bandkeramik” is defined as “a European Neolithic pottery with banded decoration.” In addition to keramik, this word is also derived from the German word band (originally the Old High German bant), which simply means “band.” The literal translation is “band ceramics,” which, again, is exactly the definition. The letter D in this word is pronounced as a \t\ sound, which demonstrates a phenomenon that’s rather common in German-derived words.
Another German pottery word that I love is “urfirnis”--like the other words I’ve talked about, it just has a fun sound. This isn’t actually a type of pottery, but it still relates to pottery--it’s a black or red paint that was used on some prehistoric Greek pottery. Ur in German means “primitive” or “original,” referencing the fact that this paint was used in ancient times. Firnis means varnish, but it comes from the Middle High German vernis, which in turn came from the French vernis, also meaning “varnish.” The French word “vernissage,” which is defined as “a day before the opening of an exhibition of paintings reserved for the painters to varnish or put on finishing touches,” is also derived from the French vernis. I love that two words like “urfirnis” and “vernissage,” which don’t look similar to each other at all, can be closely related. It’s truly one of the best things about words--they’re all deeply connected, whether it’s visible on the surface or not.
There are, of course, many aspects of preparation for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. One must focus not only on memorization, but on roots, language patterns, vocabulary, and other topics. Mastering the English language is not an easy task. However, there’s an element of psychological preparation that cannot be ignored. When you’re studying, it’s much easier to spell words correctly than it is when you’re onstage with an audience, bright lights, and tons of pressure. As a result, it’s best to try to make up for this difference ahead of time by mentally preparing yourself for the national spelling bee outside of just learning about words, and the ideal time to do that is while someone is quizzing you on words that you’re learning for the bee. Here are some of the best ways to do that while you’re learning words.
Timed quizzing. Have the person who’s quizzing you set a timer for two minutes each time they give you a word. Remember that you can’t ask questions once you have 30 or fewer seconds left. This helps because it’s the same way time limits work onstage (at Scripps, that is), and getting used to having a limited amount of time will help you once it actually counts.
Stand up while someone quizzes you. This might sound unnecessary or over-the-top, but it helps to feel at least a little bit like you’re standing at a microphone and talking to the pronouncer. This is as close you can get to being onstage if you can’t actually be onstage.
Ask questions. All the questions. Every time. If you spell fast without asking questions while you’re practicing, you can’t expect yourself to switch into a different mindset when you get onstage. If you ask all your questions while you’re practicing, then it’ll be easier to remember to do so once you get onstage.
Find a bell. This will also help you make your practice as realistic as possible. Getting used to the presence and use of the bell will help you on the day of the bee because you won’t be stressed out by the bell; instead, you’ll be accustomed to it. Practicing with a bell helps you eliminate one factor that often causes more stress for spellers during bees.
Again, being prepared for the pressure of being onstage at the bee is just as important as being prepared for the words themselves. You can use these tips--or any other ideas you have--to do that, whether you're getting ready for a classroom bee or the national bee. Not only do these help you be ready for the bee--they also make studying more fun!
The North America Spelling Champion Challenge (NASCC) is an annual spelling camp and bee organized by the Spelling Bee of China (SPBCN). A number of Chinese and American spellers participate. It's more than just a competition--combined with the camp, the event facilitates cultural exchanges as well as learning about spelling and the English language. The inaugural NASCC was held in California just three years ago in 2015. Since then, it has grown by leaps and bounds every single year. In 2016, several Scripps finalists competed at the NASCC for the first time; this was also the year that I won the NASCC. In 2017, there were more spellers than ever, as well as more Scripps finalists competing than the previous year. Due to all of this growth, two NASCCs were held for the first time in 2018--one in Towson, Maryland, and one in Riverside, California the week immediately following the Towson NASCC. Both were excellent events and competitions, and I had the privilege of being present as a volunteer at the Riverside NASCC. It was a very busy week, but in the best way--it was incredibly inspiring and fun for at least a dozen reasons, and I believe that many of the spellers and others present at the event feel the same way.
The week began with an opening ceremony in which a number of spellers showcased their talents (besides, of course, spelling). There were also speeches from organizers about what to expect throughout the coming week. For the spellers, the next four days were filled with spelling classes alternating with other fun group activities. I had the opportunity to help out in a number of spelling classes, as well as to help demonstrate the rules of the new team competition to the teams who were going to participate. More on that soon. On Friday, a closing ceremony took place for the camp, with more performances from spellers, as well as speeches from last year’s champion, Shourav Dasari, and Kieran McKinney, one of the participants at this year’s Riverside NASCC who also competed in the 2017 and 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
After that, it was time for the competition to begin. The individual competition, which was the main focus of the weekend, was amazing to watch. The championship finals, featuring the final 11 spellers, narrowed the field down to 2 after just three rounds. The final two spellers were California’s Aisha Randhawa and Colorado’s Cameron Keith, both three-time Scripps National Spelling Bee participants who have also both made the finals there multiple times. They then dueled for 18 more rounds before Cameron eventually won on the word “listel.” Aisha came very close to winning at one point, but she misspelled “hysteriagenics,” her anticipated championship word. Both Cameron and Aisha were thoroughly impressive to watch and I congratulate them both sincerely.
Spelling bee history was also made this last weekend in Riverside. SPBCN has held team competitions before, but never outside of China. This weekend, that changed. A team competition consists of a series of spelling games played by teams of 5 students. Whichever team has more points at the end of the series of games wins the competition. There were two divisions for this team competition--primary and middle school. The primary school competition started with two American and one Chinese team, and the final was between the two American school teams--a team from Lake Mathews Elementary School in Riverside, which emerged victorious, and a team from Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, also in Riverside. The middle school competition began with two Chinese teams and two American teams, and the final two teams were from the Suzhou Foreign Language School and Riverside STEM Academy (the former a school in China, the latter a school in the US). Riverside STEM Academy won the middle school division. I had the chance to judge the primary school team competition, and it was a great honor to be a part of such an important moment in bee history!
This last week was so wonderful in so many ways for everyone involved with the Riverside NASCC. It was a completely unmatched experience, and I imagine and hope that all of the spellers and other people who were involved feel the same way as I do.
A few days ago, Ben Nuckols, the Associated Press reporter who covers the Scripps National Spelling Bee every year, wrote an article about the toll Bee Week takes on spellers. I thought it was definitely a new perspective to see in the media, and interesting enough that I wanted to weigh in on how I feel about Bee Week and its effects on the spellers throughout the week.
The basic premise of the article is that Bee Week disrupts the typical routines of spellers--their sleeping, eating, and other habits are all significantly altered. This is absolutely true. Between stress and the slight time change, I always struggled to fall asleep at a reasonable hour during Bee Week. It resulted in a certain level of exhaustion throughout the week, although I was usually able to overcome my lack of energy while I was onstage (although late into the night finals after 10 pm, I started feeling more tired, which may have contributed to me missing a word). It is not true, however, that everyone can remain mostly unaffected by lack of sleep, and tiredness can absolutely be a factor in lowering the level of a speller’s onstage performance.
Another issue presented by Bee Week, in my experience at least, is that spellers often eat very little or nothing at all on competition days. The day is already busy, and most spellers have intense nerves to the point where they start to feel sick or lose their appetite. Some spellers don't eat before they compete for a number of reasons. This is definitely not good for onstage performance, or for the speller's health in general. It could exacerbate feelings of tiredness, or lead to lightheadedness, neither of which are ideal.
The stress from Bee Week can disrupt spellers' habits and normal schedules and routines. It can be extremely tiring, and it often takes time to rest and recover after Bee Week ends. However, the positives generally outweigh the negatives, and it's still one of the best weeks of the year. It’s even better if you remember to get enough sleep and eat adequately, even if you’re nervous. Good luck to everyone competing this week
The last year has flown by, and the 91st annual Scripps National Spelling Bee is only two weeks away! If it's your first time competing, you might not entirely know what to expect, so here are my top five pieces of advice for Bee Week (in no particular order):
The main change at this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee is the introduction of an innovative new program called RSVBee, a "second chance" for competent spellers who either didn't win their regional bees or didn't have a sponsor for their regional bee. It will undeniably change the way the bee runs. Due to RSVBee, there are 519 spellers attending the Scripps National Spelling Bee--almost double the numbers of spellers in recent Scripps bees. The RSVBee Effect, as some have dubbed it, will likely show itself in a number of ways throughout the bee, mostly logistically but also competition-wise.
Firstly, the schedule of the bee itself has changed. Instead of the preliminaries test on Tuesday followed by rounds 2 and 3 on Wednesday, the test and round 2 will take place on Tuesday, leaving Wednesday just reserved for round 3. Spellers will be divided into five groups for the onstage preliminary rounds instead of two. Many past spellers reported that Rounds 2 and 3 felt long in previous years--they will likely feel even longer this year.
In addition, the Thursday night finals have a ticket policy for the first time in years. Each speller receives three tickets, and anyone else who wants to watch will have to stand in line in order to obtain a limited number of first come, first serve general admission tickets.
Perhaps the most interesting (although this is more of speculation than fact, unlike the previously mentioned effects) impact of RSVBee will be a higher cut line for the semifinals. Previously, the best prepared speller in a regional bee sometimes lost and, therefore, could not go to nationals. This phenomenon has largely been eliminated, as many of the most competent spellers in the nation who did not win their regionals are going to nationals anyway. This means that there will be a higher concentration of top tier spellers, which likely means that there will be a greater number of high scores on the Preliminaries Test. However, since only 50 spellers will be named semifinalists (just as before), the minimum score required to be a semifinalist will likely be higher than it has been in the past.
How do you think RSVBee will change the outcome of the Scripps National Spelling Bee this year? Will the cutoff score be higher than usual? What are your thoughts on the RSVBee program in general?