Secrets of champion spellers revealed

As the excitement over this year’s National Spelling Bee builds, a look at what orthographic advice the best contestants have for the rest of us.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Snigdha Nandipati, 14, of San Diego, concentrates while spelling in the last round to win the National Spelling Bee with the word 'guetapens' in Oxon Hill, Md. in 2012.

It may be all over but the shouting by the time you see this, dear reader. Or not.

The National Spelling Bee is on for May 24-29. “The onstage rounds of competition take place May 27 and 28, 2015, in the Maryland Ballroom within the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland,” according to the bee’s website.

One of the young local heroes planning to make the trip to National Harbor, just outside the nation’s capital, is Kelvin Winney of Chinle, Ariz. He’s a 10-year-old fifth-grader with a Tintin haircut – the kind with a little swirl on top, as on a soft-serve ice cream cone. On March 12, he won the Navajo Nation bee, and thus a trip to Washington, on the winning word virtuosa. He’s the youngest winner ever, and this isn’t his first time out.

“I don’t know what it is with me and spelling,” he told the Arizona Republic. It just comes to him naturally, the paper added, much like math, his actual favorite subject. He and his family raised more than $10,000 so that they can all make the trip to Washington.

What can spelling champions teach the larger public?

The big takeaway for me from my own experience in spelling bees (grade champion in seventh grade, district champion the following year) is that spelling in a spelling bee isn’t just about knowing how to spell the words. It’s about being able to spell them aloud, one letter after another, without benefit of pencil and paper to try out possibilities to see which looks right. It would be a very different contest if participants wrote out their answers.

It’s important to be able to say the names of the letters correctly, too – it sometimes happens that one visualizes “j” and says “g,” or the other way around. And it’s important to take one’s time.

I found that visualizing the words was essential. Young Kelvin is a visualizer, too: “I just imagined a word in my head and just try and see it, just try and make it out.”

So is Megan Lavergne, age 12, winner of a regional bee in Louisiana’s Cajun country. 

“When she is spelling, Lavergne said she tries to say the word slowly in her head, then envision what the word looks like,” her local paper, The Advertiser, wrote.

“I can also ask for the language of origin,” she told the paper. “Some different languages have spellings of words that kind of match up. A lot of German words will have an ‘ei’ in them. I look for little clues like that.”

Lingua Franca, a language blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education, recently identified two “winners” in a list of commonly misspelled words: loose, as a misspelling of lose and definately for definitely. Lead, as an incorrect spelling of the past tense of lead (should be “led”) was a runner-up.

We might suggest that spelling bee performances have as much to do with the ordinary business of getting words right in everyday life as walking down the street has to do with ballet. But that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy the ballet.

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