Perceived Difficulty – Words at Spelling Bees

Posted on Posted in 2011

We have had quite a few posts since we launched this site back in January of this year and we hope that the readers are enjoying them, while also learning a thing or two about spelling bees.  The blog team has attempted to convey positive messages to the spellers in all of the posts and we want to keep it that way.

Kavya mentioned the term “perceived difficulty” in an earlier post: 2011 Scripps Spelling Bee – Changes. I told her that we needed to elaborate on what perceived difficulty means in the context of spelling bees. Here, in this post, I will try to do that, and during the course I will make references to obscure words that are only asked at advances stages of national level competitions. Also, another point to note is that most of these words may only be found in the MW 3rd International Dictionary.

First let me provide my perspective regarding the length of spelling words. It is a common misconception that the longer the word, the tougher it is to spell. However, it seems as though advanced spellers tend to feel more comfortable when they are asked longer words which contain regular word stems or follow etymological patterns. You may have seen spellers spell words like humuhumunukunukuapuaa and pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis with ease. Although I have not seen these words being asked at spelling bees, I have seen the spellers spell these words in feature presentations that ESPN and ABC have produced. On the other hand, I don’t think they feel the same way about the shorter words – words which are only five or six letters long. Most tend to feel that there are fewer clues, if any, to work with when asked shorter words, so these are typically the kind of words that trump contestants more easily.

Now, let’s take a look at Kavya’s own experience at the National Bee – on how she was able to tackle some of the words she perceived to be difficult at the time. Kavya was able to conquer the spellings of words like mobilometer, allotriophagy, ergasia, etc, which she had never studied before. She also succeeded in spelling some abstract words, such as krummholz, diacoele, etc., which had not appeared in previous spelling bees, yet were familiar to Kavya. At the same time, her quest for the national championship in 2007 and 2008 ended with words that she had seen before. Cilice and ecrase were words that she had accurately spelled when she was quizzed at home, but she missed them on the big stage.

Varying circumstances certainly influence the ability of a speller to spell the word correctly at any given moment during the competition. Even if a word was spelled correctly before by the contender, a small chance always exists that the same individual can misspell it under different circumstances. As I mentioned before, that was certainly the case with Kavya. With this in mind, the level of perceived difficulty could indeed be different for spellers in various environments, particularly under exigent conditions.

If you have been around spelling bees, I am sure you have heard these following phrases at some point in the competition – “I knew all of the words except for the one I missed”, “… that was a difficult word”, and “.. that was such an easy word.” Well, how do you classify a spelling word as “difficult” or “easy”? Is there any science behind it? If you ask me, it is very subjective. The difficulty of words cannot be generalized across the entire spelling community because it is not simple enough to judge whether a spelling word is easy or difficult. Some words are difficult to spell for some spellers while the same words could be easy to spell for other spellers. What does that mean? While I try to elaborate on this topic, let me try to epitomize a few scenarios that I have come across during my brief experience watching spelling bees.

During a spelling bee, soon after the spelling of each word is revealed, the hindsight is 20/20, and most words may be perceived as easy by seasoned spellers. “Eremacausis”, a word derived from Greek elements,  victimized one of the best spellers of all time (in my opinion) and that word may seem relatively easier these days because most spellers who have followed spelling bees in the past few years may have become familiar with this word.

The word scrannel was asked during 2010 semi-final rounds, and the then two-time Canadian Champion Laura Newcombe was able to tackle that word. As easy as this word may “sound” or “look”, I recognize this word as a very difficult word for a speller if they have not previously seen and studied the word. Why do I say that?  That is because spellers at an advanced level look at various details about the word given to them. In this case, scrannel is an adjective and one would lean towards thinking that the word contains the adjective forming suffix “al”. Whereas “el” is a diminutive suffix that is contained in words like morsel. One may very well argue about this synopsis, which is exactly the point I am trying to make – perceived difficulty!! If looked at phonetically, the word probably seems much easier. But the usual mindset of spellers at advanced competitions is to delve deeper into various clues, rather than just formulating the spelling off of the phonetic clues provided.

On the same note regarding adjective words, let’s rewind back to the year 1999. The word “terrene” denied April DeGideo, one of the best spellers of that time, an opportunity to lift the trophy in 1999. Not only is this word an adjective, but it is also a homonym, meaning ‘of or relating to this world or life’. The word is derived from the Latin stem terra which means ‘earth.’ Once the speller discovers that the word is an adjective, the best choice for the speller would be to add the adjective suffix “ine” and spell it as terrine. In this case, however, that would be the spelling of the homonym. As I said before, sometimes if spellers do not put much thought to the word clues, they may be able to spell some words correctly. But a typical speller who competes at the national level may analyze the information provided and spell it in a more “scientific” way rather than just using phonetic clues.

Rajiv Tarigopula was another top notch speller in the recent years. His spelling career came to an end with a word of German origin – heiligenschein. Again, in retrospection, this word follows etymological patterns for words of German origin. However, having to spell an unfamiliar word in front of the cameras and be able to recall those language patterns under those circumstances is by no means an easy task.

Another classic example that I would like to relate to is the waterloo word for Tia Thomas in 2008. Tia was asked to spell “opificer”, a word originating from Latin and defined as ‘a worker.’ While I cannot speak for other spellers, I have to be honest in saying that Kavya, who had prepared fairly well in 2008, had not studied that word. Would Kavya have spelled it correctly if she was asked to spell that word? No one knows that, not even Kavya, and I don’t think that is even appropriate to make that comparison. In hindsight, yes it may have some common roots — opificer has the word stems opus meaning ‘work’ and facere meaning ‘to do’ in Latin (this Latin stem,by far, may have the most derivatives in English). But would a young teen be able to recall and associate word stems under the pressing circumstances? Imagine yourself facing the crowd, the cameras, and the bright lights, and factor in the reality of being on national television. You also have to realize that these kids are exhausted; it is not just their spelling skills that are put to test, but also their endurance. When Tia was asked this word, it was almost 10 PM. Just to remind you, the kids had started that day at around 9 AM that morning!!

[On another note, obscure words are a completely different case when it comes to spelling.  Such words may not follow any patterns or contain common word stems, appearing to be intricate and bizarre at first glance, but those are the words which usually end up sticking in the speller’s mind, tending to become easier after a few reviews. When I say obscure words, I am referring to words such as szczecin, which is pronounced /’shchetsēn/ and is derived from a Polish geographical name.]

I can cite many more examples of words that seem relatively easier in the hindsight but I hope I have been able to articulate the message about perceived difficulty.  I would like to hear from the readers on their perspective about difficulty of words in spelling bees.

Again, it is extremely important to understand that spelling bees are not just about spelling skills. A speller’s endurance and focus play vital parts in these competitions. One other thing to extract from this post is that spellers are not going to be judged on a word that was asked of another contestant (with the exception of written phases of spelling bees). Spellers still remaining in the competition have rightly earned their spot so we should always show our appreciation to all of the fellow contestants and cheer them on.

Mirle Shivashankar

7 thoughts on “Perceived Difficulty – Words at Spelling Bees

  1. I am going to be in the National Spelling Bee this year, and all these posts are very interesting to read. Thank you for starting the blog! Kavya is a big inspiration to me in my spelling career.

    On the subject of difficult words, I actually tend to do okay with long words if I break them down and focus to make sure I haven’t left out a syllable. Words that might have double letters, however, are really frustrating to me, as are words with schwas and words from French. No matter how short these words are, they’re hard to spell!

    I think everyone has their different spots where they mess up, whether it’s a certain language or a certain sound or a certain spelling.

    Again, very interesting post. Keep them up!

    1. I am glad you find these posts interesting. Continue to visit the blog and keep sharing your thoughts \ experience with other readers.

      Good luck at the National Spelling Bee!!!

  2. Very interesting and informative post.

    I wanted to write to you all earlier, thanks so much for starting this blog!

    Best Wishes to Kavya and Vanya!


  3. I did meet Tia in the summer of last year, and she gave me a lot of great spelling tips. She told me that she was disappointed that she did not win. Her brother almost made it to nationals, but he misspelled deleterious. I have almost made it to nationals several times, but this year, something prevented me from making it. I hope Vanya wins like you one day! Since 2006, you have been a great inspiration to me. Good luck to all the spellers this year!

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