Our first spelling bee experience…

Posted on Posted in 2011

As numerous kids across the nation are preparing and participating in their local bees, one may wonder how these kids prepare for the bees, or how they developed an interest in spelling. Well, spelling may come naturally to some of the kids, and with a lot of reading, they tend to increase their vocabulary and, consequently, spelling. Others may invigorate interest in spelling in their early childhood and develop good techniques to improve their spelling abilities.

Back in December of 2002, we had little knowledge about spelling bees and what it takes to participate in one. Our family friends, the Pastapur family, informed us about a spelling bee competition conducted by a non-profit organization, called North South Foundation (NSF). NSF has several regional centers throughout the country and holds educational contests annually. Contestants need to register with the organization to participate in the regional contests that are typically held in early spring. The regional scores are normalized across all of the centers to identify the top performers, who are subsequently “invited” to contest at a national event, which is held towards the end of summer.

Thus, our spelling journey began in January 2003, when Kavya was a 6-year-old second grader. Although Kavya was the one who participated in the bees, it was more of a family event. Spelling has definitely coalesced us together as a family. As NSF had just started a regional center in Kansas that past year, we registered Kavya for the NSF regional spelling bee. Once we registered, we were provided with a list of 1,000 words, which Kavya would need to study for the contest. If she became completely thorough with this list, she would be guaranteed 16 points, which was over half of the maximum points possible to score at the regional competition. Little did we know about the correct techniques necessary for preparation, and Kavya set to work ‘memorizing’ those 1,000 words. (Yes, that is how we began, but it did not take us very long to realize that memorization of spelling isn’t beneficial in any sense). On top of that, she asked me to quiz her from time to time, which I don’t think was the smartest idea. We did not have the notion of looking up the words in the dictionary. Therefore, not only was I inaccurate in stressing on the right syllables, but my pronunciations were not even close on many of the words. Though limited in awareness and experience, this is how Kavya prepared for her first ever spelling bee.

The week of the bee approached very quickly. On a Saturday morning in April of that year, we all woke up early and headed over to the contest venue. We were all excited due to Kavya’s enthusiasm, and were reassured by the fact that she felt comfortable with the published list, which she had meticulously studied. Upon arriving, we noticed that there were only about 15-20 kids in attendance for the Junior Regional Bee, all between the ages of 6 and 9. Those days, the NSF contests were categorized into two groups based on age.

The kids were quickly organized as the proctors systematically seated the kids at the rows of tables facing the stage. Phase I was about to begin. This written phase consisted of a test of 10 listed words, and 15 words out-of-list words. The first ten words were a breeze for Kavya, and we could see her quickly writing them down. She gradually lost confidence as the words continued, and perplexed, she wrote down whatever came to her mind first. At the end of the first phase, we sensed that she was feeling relieved that the difficult part of the bee was over. For her, the difficult part of the bee was the second half of the written test, which consisted of words from outside the published list.

The second phase of the bee involved six rounds, in which all participants had to spell words on stage. This phase was a non-elimination phase, just like the first phase, and all of the participants were required to spell six words, all of which were chosen from the published list. They would each receive one point for every word spelled correctly. When this phase of the bee started, we watched Kavya on stage with anticipation. The first few rounds flew by, and Kavya was up on stage again. This time, she was asked to spell /pə’rabələ/. The pronouncer pronounced it /’pərəbələ/. Because that phase only consisted of words from the published list of 1,000 words, Kavya knew it had to be a word she had studied and tried to recall the word. However, she could not recognize /’pərəbələ/. She kept asking the pronouncer to repeat the pronunciation, but she still could not recall studying that word at all, despite the several exchanges between her and the pronouncer. By this time, most of the parents, including us, had realized the situation, and some parents were smiling understandingly. I distinctly remember having reviewed the word with Kavya, but I had pronounced the word as /’parə’bōlə/ – because that is how I had pronounced it growing up. The incorrect pronunciation led to a misspelling on the stage for Kavya. She did not qualify for the national contest that year, but evidently, that did not stop Kavya from taking a positive approach to the whole experience, and she insisted on continuing her participation in spelling bees.

This was a learning experience for all of us. After this event, Kavya was sure to check up each and every word in the dictionary, not only to make sure she was saying them correctly, but also to understand the meaning and usage of the words. I, for one, never pronounced even the simplest words for her to spell, unless I was looking at the diacritical markings in the dictionary.

I will continue to log more details and provide insight on how Kavya learned through participation at the spelling bees, and how she gradually transformed her preparation technique during the journey. I hope you are enjoying your preparation for the spelling bees, without thinking about the outcome of the competition. Make sure you know how to read the diacritical markings in the dictionary and remember to review the pronunciations and look over the entry– it is as important for orthography as it is for learning the meaning and usage of the word.

Did you know?
Are you familiar with both of the pronunciations provided in the MW3 (Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Third International Dictionary)* for the word ‘monocle’? Both pronunciations, particularly the second one, on this word could be misleading if you are spelling based on phonics. Being knowledgeable with the definition and roots of the word is important in order to spell this word correctly.

Can you find other words that have the Latin stem ‘oculus’ meaning ‘eye’ that is contained in ‘monocle’?

*Note: MW3 is the Spelling Bee’s only official resource

– Mirle Shivashankar

4 thoughts on “Our first spelling bee experience…

  1. When Kavya was preparing for the school bee, then later the regional and national bees, what time did Kavya wake up on the weekends? Did Kavya win the school bees every single time? When it comes to spelling, how does the whole quizzing thing tie in? Did you quiz everyday or just weekends? How did you study in general? Did you have a separate technique like saying the word loudly and dissecting it? Did you study with your dad? I hope you respond soon! 🙂

  2. First Experience.

    I tip my hat to the Shivashankars for starting this blog; it’s most definitely a credible and helpful resource from a very inspirational family!

    I suppose before I jump into my own first experience, it’d be good to introduce myself–I’m Josephine Kao, and I competed at the Scripps National Spelling Bee for 4 consecutive years (2006-2009), the same years as Kavya. I fell in love with the bee for a number of reasons, but that’s another story. Onto my first experience!

    It occurred in the fourth grade, when I knew almost nothing about the spelling bee except that there was a bell and it would ring if you didn’t spell right. My mother knew I enjoyed learning vocabulary, so she casually suggested the notion of competing in a bee. We collected some resources and ordered some old word lists. I set about memorizing those words (by the way, I agree that memorizing is the wrong way to go-something that most ‘long-term’ spellers learn along the way). It seemed as if I knew a lot of ‘big’ words and could spell them correctly..yet when it came to the school spelling bee, I found that they were using an extremely basic list. Perhaps it was my nerves or perhaps it was my lack of seriousness, but whatever it was, in the small quiet library, I spelled ‘stitch’ wrong. I was disappointed. I knew words like ‘gotterdammerung’, and yet I could not spell s-t-i-t-c-h. A humbling experience that galvanized my love for spelling and competition- I wanted to be ready for the next year!

  3. Thank you so much for the wonderful tips in this blog! My daughter (7) and my son (5) participated in local NSF bee this past weekend. I grew so excited to read that that is where and exactly how your journey started as well. I wish I had read your blog earlier. Then we wouldn’t have had to learn from our own mistakes, but we did grow wiser over this past weekend. We started with our 1000 words word list and I have stumbled them many a times with my non-American pronunciation of the words. My daughter tasted her first ever setback in life when she didn’t make it as a winner of that bee. She was initially disappointed as she thought she had put in huge efforts into memorizing the word list but she later came back with increased determination to continue on her journey of spelling bee when she realized that there is no shortcut to winning bee.
    She is an avid reader with her natural and intuitive ability to spell words by remembering the way they looked when she read them in books. That is another reason she tends to remember words that she would have read than those she memorized. As for my son, he is in it because it excites him to do ‘spellings’ sessions with his friends and family. It is so true that bee binds the family together and that winning is just one part of it and there are lot of other benefits that the participants and others get when training for it.
    Thank you for pointing me to resources like MW3. Wondering if they have the audio on how to pronounce each word like the online version.
    Kudos on continuing to support and help others achieve their dreams as well.

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