Tackling Words at the National Spelling Bee

Posted on Posted in 2017

I am sure you were able to catch a glimpse of the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee Finals, either on TV or in person. Bee Week is a celebration of all the spellers who qualify to compete at the National Spelling Bee. Those who get to spell in these bright lights have earned their spot to be there, and there is no doubt that these children are the best of the best spellers in the country.  Let’s give a big shout out to all the 291 competitors that qualified for the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee!!

After the preliminary rounds, which were held on Tuesday and Wednesday, the top 40 spellers were given the nod to spell during the finals of the Bee on Thursday.  This opportunity is the pinnacle of achievements in the spelling world. Even for these top spellers who earn the opportunity to spell during the Finals, the national stage can become a bit intimidating. When you hear words that you need to spell under those conditions, the challenge is to know how to leverage all the hard work that you have put in until that moment and spell your word with confidence.

For the past 2 years, there have been two parts to Thursday’s finals event — the morning finals and the evening finals.  If you watched both these sessions, you may recognize two words — panettone, which was asked during the morning finals, and panniculitis, which was the very first word asked during the evening finals. Just for a few moments, imagine yourself being on that stage. If you are given one of these words to spell, would you be thinking of doubling the ‘n’? What would make it easier for you to recall or formulate these spellings under pressure? Let’s take a closer look at these two words.

The beginning of these words have a similar sound, leading one to think that they may have the same first 3 letters. In the absence of thorough root word knowledge, the confusion kicks in about the letter ‘n’. This situation can be even more daunting than usual when you are facing the cameras. How do you spell this word? How do you overcome the trouble spots? The answer is a good knowledge of Latin and Greek roots.

What are root words? As defined by vocabulary.com, a root word “holds the most basic meaning of any word,” and is found in every single language. The most common root words, also known as word stems, one may see while studying words often derive from Greek or Latin. This is because Greek and Latin derived words make up approximately 60% of the English language.

You may have seen a handful of spellers at this big competition ask root word questions. Are these spellers doing this to show off their knowledge at a spelling bee? Do they want to waste time on stage? Not hardly. An in depth knowledge of roots is very beneficial. We ask root words to derive the word that is being asked to spell. We learn root words to gain a deeper meaning of where the word originates from. My sister and I both utilized root word questions many times to help deliver the correct spelling of each word.  Not only would this vital question confirm my spelling of the word, but the knowledge I have gained through this process has helped me and my sister far beyond the spelling bee, in our classes at school, and our everyday knowledge.

From the outset, when you hear the two Latin derived words panettone and  panniculitis,  you may think that they both contain the same root word. However, panettone comes from the Latin root “panis” meaning “bread” whereas panniculitis comes from the Latin root “pannus” meaning “cloth“.  Panettone is a small holiday bread (yummy!) and also contains the diminutive suffix ‘etto’.  Panniculitis is an inflammation of the subcutaneous layer of the abdominal fat , and contains a diminutive suffix and ‘itis‘ meaning ‘inflammation’. Rather than memorizing the sequence of letters these words are presented in, this is a much more ingenious method to resolve any spelling dilemma – in this case, the doubling of the ‘n’.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is one of the very few competitions where you can receive an answer to a root word related question; the only other national competition is the NSF National Spelling Bee Finals. There is no other Bee, to my knowledge, that divulges root word information. Doing so requires a lot of preparation and prior knowledge on roots and etymology.

Learning root words must be done correctly. If you take the same two words, panettone and panniculitis – this time, only knowing what the roots meant but not the spelling of the roots – asking the root word question will not help you with your ultimate goal. You must be thorough with the way you study root words and learn how to ask the questions in the right way in order to benefit the most. It is also crucial to avoid being misled by any answers provided to your root word questions, which can be risky. Remember, in the end, it is always the speller’s responsibility to get their word right.

Knowing roots gave me a much deeper understanding of words and a hugely beneficial method to tackling words I had never seen before. Studying using roots made my 10 years of spelling not only much more knowledgeable, but also so much more fun! Spelling is everywhere! Have you walked into ‘Panera Bread’ to eat your favorite sandwich and ever wondered where the word ‘Panera’ came from? What about the word ‘companion’? Both of these words have the same Latin root as panettone!

It is so fascinating to learn and understand words like this, and in my opinion, no amount of lists or rote memorization can ever trump the knowledge you take away from this method of studying.

Happy studying!!

Note:  Mark your calendars — NSF National Spelling Bee is going be held in Houston on August 12th.  The finals will stream live on Yupp TV.  For more information please visit http://www.northsouth.org/public/uscontests/finals/nationalfinals.aspx.




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