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!