Competitions are intense battles fought between participants who come prepared with all the required skills and some more, to prove themselves better than all the rest. But sometimes it is not always the best one who wins, or let us say that the one who is able to perform the best on that given day and time emerges as the winner. This only reinforces the belief that taking part in a competition or race is what is important, not winning or losing because each one who enters an arena is a champion for making the effort to undergo the preparations and face others.
Spelling Bees are no different, all those who start by becoming a part of their school Spelling Bee team deserve as much appreciation as those who finally get selected to represent their school. Taking the first step is the hardest, believing that one can do it is more difficult than believing that one can fail.
It is this difficulty to believe that everyone can be a spelling champion that leads few students and fewer schools to take part in Spelling Bee competitions. Yes, it means remembering the spellings of thousands of words, their roots, meanings, usage, etc.
It also means countless hours of learning and practice, with the help of parents and teachers. But it there is a method to this, just as there are formulas to solve any maths problem. If one can learn all the maths, science and other formulas, equations and methods, anyone can learn how to ace spellings and take part in Spelling Bees.
This is why we will look at what is required to become a Spelling Bee participant and champion.
Be a reader
To be a successful speller, you need to love language and reading. Only those who have an interest in words would be able to go though the drill of learning thousands of spellings and making a dictionary their best friend.
Reading — books, magazine, newspapers, blogs and anything — expands one’s vocabulary. This helps in learning new words and their usage. But this reading should be made a fruitful exercise by making sure to look up the meaning of difficult words, noting down interesting ones and the trickiest spellings in a spelling notebook, and finally using them in both writing and speech.
Know your roots
English has evolved over the centuries by taking in influences from many other languages, particularly Greek, Latin and French. These words become what we call ‘root words’, the most basic form of a word. They are a word or word part that form the basis of new words through the addition of prefixes and suffixes. Learning just one root word can help you understand several words in English. So, by learning just the main root words and etymology (the origin of words), you can expand your English vocabulary to include hundreds of new words and master their spellings too.
Once you learn roots and language patterns, you won’t need to memorize many words, and spelling will become enjoyable.
Learn basic spelling strategies and rules
English spellings follow certain rules, and there are also many exceptions to the rules. Study these rules very well before trying to memorise any words. Knowing the rules and, most importantly, their exceptions or cases when spellings do not follow a certain rule, will make it easy to learn spellings. Make a list of the words in common usage that do not follow the rules, or are the exceptions, then learn them as this list will be shorter than the list of words that do follow the rules and you will know that all the others will be spelt in a certain way.
In many cases it is seen that in Spelling Bee competitions, it is these words that are exceptions to the rules that come up at crucial moments to make a child move to the next round or face eliminations.
Learn your spelling learning style
You must know that different learning styles work for different people in studies in general. In the same way, there are different styles in which people learn spellings. I need to write down a spelling and see it when confused about a spelling, and when there is nothing to write down on, I pretend to write the word into my hand.
Test yourself to see what is your style — do you trace it with your finger, say it to yourself, close your eyes and visualise it in your mind, etc?
Once you have figured it out, start using that more extensively to learn and answer faster when practicing and testing yourself. This will also help you at the time of the big competition due to memory association, but just make sure that what you do is within the rules of the competition. For instance, do not train by speaking aloud the word to yourself when trying to remember a spelling because this will lead to disqualification if you do it aloud on the stage.
Also be discreet in speaking to yourself, do it silently, or by tracing the spelling on your hand or in the air, so that others do not get a hint from it as in some Spelling Bee rounds when a contestant can’t answer a word, it is passed on to the others to answer.
Practise in public
You may have worked very hard and would be knowing thousands of spellings but if you have stage fright or become nervous having the spotlights and hundreds of eyes on you, then you will not perform well in a Bee.
Spelling Bee champs are not just smart spellers, they are good performers and can handle tricky spellings without getting nervous in front of people. At the end of the day, it is not those who learnt the most words that emerge as winners, but those who were able to perform best in the completion.
So practise your performance.
Utilise the resources
There are so many websites, videos, apps, online games and activities available now that expert help is at everyone’s fingertips. Use these, and look up the interviews of past Spelling Bee champions and participants and read about their learning habit and tips. The insight you will get from the real-life experiences of the participants will be more helpful than a trainer’s tips.
Work hard and practice
There is no substitute for hard work. In anything.
Every successful speller and those with a large vocabulary bank never stop learning new words each day, they practice the whole year. I remember reading about a past Scripps National Spelling Bee champion that he even carried the dictionary with him on family vacations. So make the dictionary an accessory that completes every outfit of yours.
Another Spelling Bee champion, Snigdha Nandipati, from US, studied with 30,000 flashcards of the trickiest words! Yeah, she and her parents made these for her — and it was only one part of the strategy she followed to learn her spellings.
I can see that all the tips I have discussed here are not so easy and all require hard work, which seems a little senseless to some in this age of autocorrect. It may dissuade many from taking part in a Spelling Bee competition. Those who think this way are missing out on the thrill such an experience brings and the knowledge they gain by all this learning.
Remember, the knowledge you gain remains yours forever so never be afraid to learn.
Published in Dawn, Young World, March 7th, 2020