How to build a spelling bee champion

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is an object of curiosity and bemusement. Many of the millions who will tune in to ESPN’s blanket coverage of this week’s competition outside Washington DC marvel at the pre-teen competitors’ sangfroid but may find themselves wondering: Isn’t spelling just a robotic exercise in learning by rote? Who would waste their time memorizing words nobody ever uses? And what’s the point in the age of spell-check?

This skepticism about spelling’s relevance is widespread. When I decided to compete in the Bee in 2007, my father asked why I didn’t spend my time on something more practical, like science fairs or the National Geography Bee. It’s true that some spellers simply drill long lists of random words, and others set themselves the arduous task of working through the dictionary page by page. If that were all that spelling was, then critics of the Bee – including advocates of orthographical reform who picket it annually – would have a point. As a tutor for about 20 competitors in this year’s bee, the refrains are familiar.

But the rote-memorization accusation doesn’t hold up. It’s impossible to memorize all 400,000-plus entries in the dictionary, and that’s not what the best spellers, the ones who make it to Thursday night’s nationally televised finals, try to do. The best spellers are analytical thinkers, language lovers who have mastered basic principles of linguistics. They learn hundreds of Greek and Latin word roots and master the phonetic rules of each major language that has contributed to the English lexicon, including Latin, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, and Japanese.

Spelling is a science – spellers are “word detectives,” gathering clues as they home in on their suspects’ identities. Each piece of information a speller can ask for provides valuable context which helps them figure out the word. The etymological origin tells a speller which set of phonetic rules to apply. You would interpret the string of sounds you’re hearing differently if you knew the word came from Spanish instead of Italian. As an example, the nasalized sound that one hears at the beginning of the word gnocchi is spelled gn in Italian, n in Spanish, nh in Portuguese, and gn in French.

Applying each rule requires keen judgment. Words are like mini-ecosystems; each sound depends on the next. In many languages, there are multiple possible spellings for a given sound. Which spelling you use depends on the specific sequence of sounds. For instance, in Italian, the hard g sound is spelled in front of the vowels ao, and u, but it’s spelled gh in front of the letters e and i, which explains why the musical term largo is spelled with a g, but larghetto is spelled with gh. A word’s definition contains keywords that hint that the word contains particular roots, about which the speller can then query the pronouncer.

Receiving confirmation that those roots are present turns many seemingly intimidating words into a cakewalk. A word’s part of speech is often crucial. For instance, the endings –us and –ous sound the same, but –ous is used exclusively for adjectives, while –us is used for nouns. In French-derived words, plural nouns end in x or s, but these letters are usually silent. The only way to know that they are present is to know that a word is plural. Alternate pronunciations are also useful: they limit the number of possible spellings, since the correct spelling has to work for all pronunciations of the word. Practice for the Bee involves honing a speller’s ability to apply this process. Part of what makes the Bee such compelling television is that you watch spellers use this process under a strict two-minute limit.

As a tutor, what makes the Bee so fulfilling is that it represents the culmination of dozens of hours of study spent practicing these skills with my students (in addition to the hundreds of additional hours they put in outside of our sessions). I drill my protégés on roots, common suffixes, and phonetic rules, and we apply them to thousands of example words. We sharpen their pattern detection abilities and sense of intuition: they categorize words and learn how to recognize exceptions. We discuss strategies for specific types of words (e.g., geographical words, scientific genus names), and we discuss how to tackle the preliminary test’s vocabulary questions. In addition to our weekly hour-long sessions, many of my tutees participate in off-season spelling bees like the North South Foundation bee and the South Asian Spelling Bee.

At a certain point, despite the undeniable thrill of competition, spelling bee prep transcends the narrow goal of claiming the vaunted loving-cup trophy. Spellers learn to conduct themselves gracefully under pressure, and they learn humility in the face of luck’s inevitable interventions. They appreciate the value of hard work, but they also come to recognize that even merit and preparedness have their limits. In a world as riven by division as ours, such a lesson is well worth learning.

Scott Remer