Knowing What It Means – (Josephine)

Posted on Posted in 2011

Since bee season is well underway and there are several Scripps bound spellers out there, I’m sure many of you are trying to maximize the effectiveness of your studying at this point!

Having been a speller before, I have tried various ‘methods’ and ‘tricks’ and ‘plans’ for studying. I’ve found that certain things have worked better for me than others, but regardless of one’s methodology, discipline and focus are vital to good preparation. Oftentimes, different study methods work for different people. However, there is one universal thing that every speller should aim to achieve while studying words, and that is an understanding or knowledge of what the words mean. I cannot stress this enough! There are a plethora of reasons why this is so significant, here are just a few:

  1. Making the effort to understand the definitions of words will increase your ability to correctly guess the spelling of words you don’t know. Sure, you may find orthography interesting, but equally interesting is semantics. It is crucial that you look for more than just the letters but the Greek and Latin roots that contribute to definitions, and clues that will aid your memory. It’s inevitable, at some point or another each speller will receive a word that they are unfamiliar with. At the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee, I was given the word eremophyte, one that I had not remembered studying before. When I asked for the definition, which was “a desert plant”, I immediately put the pieces together in my head. Confirming that it was derived from Greek, I asked if it contained the Greek root “eremos” meaning desert, as well as the Greek root “phytos”, meaning plant. I was able to correctly spell a word that I was not 100% sure about, by linking the definition to its etymology. Even if a word’s definition does not directly relate to its etymology, it can be a useful for mnemonic devices or simply something to associate a word with. I am sure that Kavya and several other spellers have had similar experiences in which their  knowledge of definitions saved them from the bell!
  2. You’ll thank me later. What I mean by this is that a comprehension of more definitions will help you in your future (and no, I won’t take all the credit)! Few people get such an opportunity to compete in such a well recognized event while increasing the scope of their vocabulary. It has been nearly three years since my last time competing at Scripps, and on a regular basis I find instances in which my word knowledge helps me.  Whether it is the SAT vocabulary, essay writing, speech and debate, or even a teacher or peer with a question about a word’s meaning, I can safely say that my approach to studying for the bee has helped me in innumerable ways. Amongst all the prizes and recognition that I have ever received from spelling bees, I would say that one of the most valuable things (there’s another thing, but I’ll save that for a later post) I walked away with was the enhanced sense of eloquence coupled with a deeper understanding of the rich English language.
  3. ‘Rote memorization’ of the spelling of words is as ineffective as it is useless. Yes, that sentence may have been strongly worded (pardon the bad pun), but its true. It is useless because if you spend all your time learning how to spell hundreds of words but never learning what they mean, then you have essentially gained very little knowledge, let alone actual orthographical skills. Let me get this straight: it is impossible to memorize all 476,000 words in Merriam Webster’s Third, and even if you cut that number down to a third it is highly improbable and way too risky. Now rote memorization is not inherently bad, but the truth is that it leaves out too many factors. What if you blank out and forget? What if you confuse one word with another? What if the word has a homonym but you never took the time to sort out the definitions? How are you going to memorize so many words in such a short period of time? These are just a few of the possible things that could go wrong.

Considering all this, I am not saying that you should go forth and memorize all the definitions that exist out there. What I am saying is that you should make the effort to understand the etymology, or ways that words could possibly be used. This will help you not only in the bee, but in the future when you might need it. Love the English language! Take a journey to explore its exceptions, roots, and stories. If you take this journey, I can guarantee you it will be a fun one, full of precious discoveries.

Josephine

2 thoughts on “Knowing What It Means – (Josephine)

  1. What a great resource! My son Dyaln Bird will be in the National Bee this year. I have been helping him through his school and regional bees but I’m afraid I’m at an impasse now. He is so short on time as this isn’t the only National Competition he has made it to thus far. The dictionary seems overwhelming without a start point and we have about every list there is to study from. Where would be the best place to begin? He studies Latin and Japanese and is Home Schooled. I would so appreciate your input sir. Thank you for your time and congratulations on the amazing job with your daughter!

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