Coaching a Spelling Bee Champion

Naturally, coaching a Spelling Bee Champion means lots of spelling practice sessions, but it also means learning how the "bees" are run and what the rules are. First, a little background information to set the scene and then we will get into the nuts and bolts of proper preparation.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee has grown from the nine students who participated in the first National Spelling Bee in 1925 to an estimated 11 million in 2012. Students first compete at the local and regional levels and then, the champions are sent to the finals held near Washington, D.C. The program is open to students attending public, private, parochial, charter, virtual, and home schools. Home schoolers should check with their local school district to see if they can participate in the school's program. If not, see if the local home schoolers association is participating. If these options are not available, home schoolers can register to participate individually by paying a fee ($89 at the time of this writing). Register through the Scripps National Spelling Bee website.

The Bee's official dictionary is Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, © 2002. Practice word lists for the spelling bee may be found at Merriam-Webster's website.

Who qualifies? Here are the basic requirements for aspiring participants. Deadlines vary slightly from year to year so you will want to check the National Spelling Bee's website for current information.

  • The speller must not have won a Scripps National Spelling Bee championship.
  • The speller must attend a school that officially enrolled with the Scripps National Spelling Bee for the competition year.
  • The speller must not have passed beyond the eighth grade on or before February 1 of the competition year.
  • The speller must not have repeated any grade for the purpose of extending spelling bee eligibility.
  • The speller-or the speller's parent, legal guardian, or school official acting on the speller's behalf-must not have declared to another entity an academic classification higher than eighth grade for any purpose, including high school graduation equivalency or proficiency examinations and/or examinations such as the PSAT, SAT, or ACT.
  • The speller must not have earned the legal equivalent of a high school diploma.
  • The speller must not have completed nor ever been enrolled in more than six high school-level courses or two college-level courses on or before April 30 of the competition year.
  • The speller must not bypass or circumvent normal school activity to study for spelling bees. The Scripps National Spelling Bee defines normal school activity as adherence to at least four courses of study other than language arts, spelling, Latin, Greek, vocabulary, and etymology for at least four hours per weekday for 34 of the 38 weeks during the competition school year.
  • The speller must not have reached his/her 15th birthday on or before August 31 of the year prior to the competition year (i.e. 2011 for the bee held in May, 2012).
  • The speller must have won a final local spelling bee on or after February 1 of the competition year.
  • The speller must not have been disqualified at any level of a sponsor's spelling bee program between June 2011 and April 2012. Further, if the speller becomes disqualified at any level of a sponsor's spelling bee program before April 2012, the speller will be disqualified from competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee and may not seek advancement in the Bee program through another sponsor and/or enrollment in another school.
  • The speller must submit a completed Champion Bio Profile, a Certification of Eligibility Form, a signed Appearance Consent and Release Form, and a photo to the Scripps National Spelling Bee upon qualifying for the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee in the Washington, D.C. area.

Know the spelling season. Between mid-August and mid-October of the competition school year, schools must enroll in order to participate. During the fall and winter, schools conduct spelling bee programs at the classroom, grade, and/or school level, and send their spelling champions to the next level of competition as designated by their local spelling bee sponsors.

In September, check to see if your school is enrolled by entering the school's zip code at the Scripps National Spelling Bee website. If your school is not enrolled, talk to your child's teacher to encourage the school to participate. Home school associations or groups can enroll or individual home schooling families can enroll as well. The five requests a speller can make. Spellers are allowed to make specific requests during the bee to give them the best opportunity to decipher what the spelling of the word might be. Here are the requests and what the speller may be able to determine from knowing the answer.

1. Please say the word again. There are 40 phonemes (sounds) in the English language. In order to spell a word correctly, a speller needs to clearly hear the sounds in a particular word. Repeating the pronunciation of the word allows the speller to hear each sound uttered in the word. The speller is then going to decode those sounds into letter combinations representing the sounds. This would be relatively straight forward if English had an alphabet system that had a letter for each sound or a consistent method of combining the 26 letters it does have to represent the extra 14 phonemes that are not directly represented by a letter. Nevertheless, there are many words that are spelled exactly as they sound and hearing the word correctly pronounced enables the speller to spell these words correctly.

2. May I have the definition, please? English is littered with homonyms (words spelled and pronounced alike) and homophones (words pronounced alike but differing in spelling, derivation, and meaning). Just think of the complications introduced by words like dear (meaning beloved), dear (meaning costly), and deer (meaning the four-legged animal). By requesting a definition, the speller identifies which word must be spelled. There is also another factor which knowing the definition may unlock. The definition may help identify the origin of the word. Roughly 70% of English words appeared first in another language. Pairing this knowledge with the next allowed request can help spellers enormously.

3. May I have the language of origin, please? About 30% of all English words come from Latin. Concentrating first on learning Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes gives a great deal of insight into how words are spelled. The next most important language of origin to explore is Greek. Many of the words used in science and philosophy come to us from Greek. After these two huge contributors to the English language come French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Turkish, Persian, and Sanskrit, in rapidly declining levels of adoption.

When a word is adopted from another language, its spelling is done according to rules which allow our alphabet to represent the sounds in the other language. The process is transliteration. Knowing where the word came from helps the speller know which rules were used in the transliteration process. Of course, the speller must know what those rules are, but the fact that there are rules to apply, gives the speller a better chance of spelling the word correctly. Put that together with the definition and a speller can be pretty confident they are on the right track. For example, knowing the word pneumonia was originally Greek and is a disease of the lungs provides the speller with important clues to the correct spelling. Words from Greek are most likely to have the /pn/ to represent the /n/ sound in the beginning of the word. Also the definition points to something related to air (lungs). Now for another question.

4. Does this word contain the (language of origin) combining form of "(root word)", meaning (definition)? Example: Does this word contain the Latin combining form of "ante", meaning "before"? Knowing the root word (or base word) can be very helpful in correctly spelling a larger, more complicated word. This question also clears up any possible confusion between roots that sound similar but are spelled differently. In this example, asking if the combining form is "ante" as opposed to "anti" will mean the difference between a correctly spelled word and a near miss. Naturally, using this method means one must learn root words. Spellers can approach learning root words, prefixes, and suffixes in a prioritized way by remembering the contribution level of each language.

5. Would you please use the word in a sentence? Hearing how a word is used in a sentence tells the speller the part of speech the word is - is it a noun, a verb, an adverb? It is an opportunity to hear the word pronounced again and may reveal the word's meaning or if the word is pluralized. Think about the confusing word pair of than and then. Hearing the sentence: "Gas costs more this year than it did last year" confirms to the speller that the word needed is the conjunction than as opposed to the adverb then.

Practice methods and tools. Here are several other suggested steps to practicing for a spelling bee.

  • Play word games including Scrabble and word searches to reinforce spelling in a fun and interesting way.
  • Work through vocabulary/spelling workbooks.
  • Learn Latin and Greek roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Understanding these two prime contributors to the English language will help tremendously.
  • Have your student jot down new words as she runs across them on index cards and use them as prompter cards for the "pronouncer" (coach).
  • Post five or ten words on the refrigerator each day. Have your student look these words up in the dictionary, write the word, its definition, language of origin, and a sentence using the word. The processes of looking words up, writing them down and learning more about the word all add up to knowing the word thoroughly.
  • Have practice "bees". This helps the student get comfortable with the process and help cement the spelling of particular words in her mind.
  • Have your student learn the 100 study words for her grade level. Ask her teacher or school spelling bee coordinator for the study words.
  • Ask the teacher for the study words for all other grade levels. Study words are available for grades 1-8.
  • Get a head start on district, county, city, regional or state competition. Learn the words in Spell It!, a tool from Merriam-Webster.
  • Expand your student's spelling skill set by playing the fun word games at Merriam-Webster's Word Central.

Your child will strengthen his spelling skills, expand his vocabulary, understand more about the English language, and become more confident by participating in spelling bees. The more practice and knowledge you and your student have about how the process works, the better prepared your child can be for the coming competition. Let the spelling commence!

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