How do you prepare for a spelling bee??

Posted on Posted in 2011

This is the one question that we have been asked on a number of occasions. One of the readers recently posted a comment with this very question.

I am sure that some readers are fairly new to spelling bees and some are more experienced. In this blog, I will try to respond to readers who have some degree of exposure to spelling bees. I would like to start by responding with a query of my own. How did you develop an interest in spelling bees? In other words, why do you want to participate in spelling bees?  Is it because – a) you have just won a local spelling bee that triggered your interest, b) you have a passion for spelling, c) you have been persuaded by the fact that it leads to enhancement of your vocabulary, d) you think spelling bees are cool, e) you want to be on TV, or perhaps some other reason. Preparing for spelling bees and becoming proficient at it needs commitment, and the level of commitment will be an indicator on how far you can sustain and that is why I began with the question. Fundamentally, just like anything else, be it sports, academics or just life in general, if you really want to excel, you need to possess three qualities – Desire, Discipline, and Dedication. I don’t think anyone will argue that these three Ds serve as the foundation to success. One should develop a strong DESIRE to participate in spelling bees. This is the first quality you need to have before moving forward in this path. Subsequently, you need to develop DISCIPLINE and be able to DEDICATE a portion of your precious time for the preparation activities.

Study Resources – What is the the official source from where the words are chosen for the spelling bees? I strongly advise anyone who is interested in spelling bees to obtain a copy of MW 3rd and refer to this dictionary and this dictionary only. This is the dictionary that has been proclaimed as the official dictionary by Scripps. Words that are asked at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and any affiliated spelling bees, are chosen from this dictionary. As I noted in a previous blog, become familiar with pronunciations listed in this dictionary. You can either buy a hard copy of this dictionary (a 4 ½ inch thick codex) or you could buy a CD ROM.  Nowadays, most spellers use the CD ROM because it includes many features designed to help users look up words more quickly and assist in specialized searches. The CD ROM allows you to search for words based on several criteria, such as etymology, function (the part of speech), word patterns, etc.

After you have obtained a copy of the official dictionary, you may ask, “Where do I start?” Since MW 3rd has over 470,000 listings, it is understandably a humongous task to review all the words in the dictionary. But it is certainly not an impossible task and if you employ the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy. To ease the approach, one will need to review the words in smaller groups or lists – but keep in mind that this whole process is a function of time.

  1. Scripps publishes a word list every year ( which should serve as a good starting point. Since 2007, this list that Scripps publishes has been named Spell It. This list contains several sections with smaller lists that are broken down by word origin and also includes tips on etymological patterns. After some reading, it should give you a good feel of how words are formulated in English when they are borrowed from a certain language.
  2. Once you become familiar with these words and the way Spell It is organized, visit your local bookstore and pick up a copy of “How to Spell like a Champion”, a fantastic book authored by the Scripps Director and other past champions. It is a worthwhile investment of ten dollars. The first time you look at this book, especially with lack of context, it could be a little overwhelming, but you have to take one step at a time and scrupulously review the book.  Just like Spell It, this book has individual chapters listing the word patterns for words originating from various foreign languages. A thorough reading of these sections will reveal how the different letter combinations make different sounds when the word originates from a specific foreign language. For example, ‘au’ in words from German make the /OW/ sounds while the same letter combination makes the /OH/ sound in words originating from French. There is a lot more to learn in this book including information on word stems and inspirational details on past champions, all in all, it is a very interesting read.
  3. Subsequently, you could create your own lists. These lists could be based on a theme (such as food words, different breeds of dogs and so on), the words could be grouped by language, or they could follow a certain spelling pattern, etc.  Since YOU would be the one going through this exercise of compiling lists, the words will tend to stick in your mind better.

Indeed, this process is time consuming, just like preparation for any other event (sports or academics) in which you want to excel. I don’t know of any other alternative methods; self-driven work is the most fruitful way of achieving your goals. A word of caution!!! Do not expect everything to click overnight. You need to set your goal, stay committed, use good study techniques, and, most importantly enjoy your knowledge acquisition process.

Critics condemn spelling bees, remarking that the bees are all about rote memorization and that there is little benefit to the kids, beyond spelling itself. I would like to differ. There are better techniques, besides “memorization”, that can be used while preparing for spelling bees. If you adopt these techniques correctly, you will realize that there is a lot more to it than just ‘spelling’. Since a majority of the words in English are believed to originate from Greek and Latin, having a good understanding of Greek and Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes is a beneficial skill to attain during preparation. Not only does this technique allow you to enhance your vocabulary, but it also makes the preparation process much more enjoyable. This technique allows you to formulate and split words with your knowledge of word stems and affixes.  Rote memorization, on the other hand, would quickly become boring and tedious. I do not think it is even possible to memorize all of the words that are in MW 3rd dictionary.

Here is my perspective backed by a small example justifying why I differ with what critics have to say about benefiting from spelling bees. I can vouch for Kavya, who has benefited from preparing for spelling bees. She is still enjoying and she will certainly continue to reap the benefits from her spelling bee experience in many different ways. We evidenced one such example when Kavya had just begun applying the right techniques in her preparation. When Kavya was in fourth grade, she participated in her school geography bee. On the written test, she came across a question about identifying the country that was the home to marsupial animals (or something along those lines).  Having known the root word for marsupial, which is marsupius in Latin meaning pouch, she was able to promptly answer that question. Realizing the animal mentioned was a kangaroo, she correctly answered Australia. She came home extremely excited about the fact that she was able to apply her spelling bee knowledge elsewhere.  There are many more examples that I could cite, but I will save those examples for later blogs! 🙂

Did you know?

When words end with the /ər/ sound, the typical choices are ‘er’, ‘or’ and ‘ar’.  Did you know that there are also some words in the dictionary that end with ‘ur’?  These are words that originate in Latin, and have been known to show up at the national competition. One such example is ‘partitur’, which surfaced in the final rounds of the 2007 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Nate Gartke, one of the champion spellers from Canada who went on to become the runner up that year, nailed it!!  You could find other words ending with ‘ur’ in MW 3rd CD ROM by using this search technique –Type in *ur in the word field and click the search button. You should see all other words that end with ‘ur’ show up as results.

HOORAY!!! You have just created your own list that you can start reviewing.

I encourage readers to share similar study techniques in this forum and to help fellow readers.

Mirle Shivashankar

2 thoughts on “How do you prepare for a spelling bee??

  1. Hi Mr.Shivashankar!
    wonderful,interesting information from you.Kavya is a kind of trend setter for our kids.My daughter loves her way of analysing the word before answering.Thank you for posting such a valuable information.

  2. Congratulations Kavya for winning! This is a great resource I have stumbled upon. I have 3 more years of eligibility for spelling bees. I hope to make it to the nationals sometime! Thank you for your blog!

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