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Practical Homeschooling® :

How to "Bee" a Spelling Winner

By Naomi Nattress
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #13, 1996.

National Spelling Bee finalist Naomi Nattress tells us her secrets of spelling success.
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Naomi Nattress

The most significant ingredients you need in order to spell effectively are diligence, memory, concentration, and a coach. Diligence means that you study every day - rain or shine. Even when you miss every word that you're asked to spell, you don't give up. It is hard, but the more you practice the easier it becomes.

A good memory is a definite asset. Without one, it will be harder to memorize all those tricky words!

Next, it is important to be able to concentrate when in front of people and when under pressure. Like most attributes. this takes time and practice, but reciting poems or playing an instrument at your church can help you learn how to think straight before an audience. I either look over other people's heads or at the floor. Also, speaking loudly and clearly will help you to feel more confident and will ensure that the judges hear you correctly.

Your coach can be a parent, sibling, or close friend. It has to be someone you can work with every day and who will support and encourage you when things get tough. This coach should go over the Paideia words with you orally, and it is vital that you and the coach are adept at using a pronunciation guide.

No one will get very far if they don't use the Paideia, which contains 3,300 beginning, intermediate, and advanced words for use in school, county, and state bees. If you take the time to memorize one year's Paideia, this makes it much easier on you, for the next year they only add 600 new words.

Maine is one of the states where the state bee is the key to the National Spelling Bee. However, in many states you only go through school and regional bees. The papers who sponsor the spelling bees in their area will send the Paideia to all the schools within those limits. You will receive the Paideia in January with only a few months to study before your first competition.

On the other hand, a private business by the name of The Spelling Sisters can get it to you in early November with an easy-to-use format. The Spelling Sisters' tool is divided into Novice, Junior Varsity, and Varsity sections. Every word contains a pronunciation and definition, which saves the coach many hours of dictionary work. No speller who aspires to excel should be without this product, which goes by the name of Valerie's Spelling Bee Supplement. The Spelling Sisters' number is 1-800- 725-2627 and the supplement is $16.

When you miss a word, write it down. Keep going until you have at least five errors - then call it a day and periodically study the paper. The next day your coach will go over the words you misspelled and will find some new ones!

For those of you who want to participate in a county bee, here are a few suggestions: Homeschooled spellers in Maine, who want to set up a bee, can call their county governor for permission to have a homeschooler represent their group at the county bee - the more homeschoolers in your bee, the better. Be sure to use Paideia for your homeschool bee. (The Portland Papers will tell you who the governor is for your county. Their number is 1-800-442-6036.) If you wish to simply enter your child in bees by way of the public school, secure permission from your local school in early December.

Now I will address the serious speller who wants to win his state bee (regional in some states). In order to win your state bee you must begin a year ahead and master the Paideia. Valerie' s supplement allows you to start with the Novice words. Take as much time as you need, and conquer every word before your first competition. Paideia Varsity and Junior Varsity words are also used in the first round of the Nationals. Amazingly enough, with the Paideia and additional word list (approximately 250 words), forty or so drop out every year.

To better increase your chances of winning the state and/or doing well at the Nationals, you must learn to ask good questions. Start practicing this at your first spelling bee and with your coach. Never stop, no matter how easy the words may seem. You are allowed to ask the pronouncer to repeat the word, define it, and put it in a sentence. I ask the above questions continuously whether the word is brave or hamate. You will find this helps you to relax, but it can also keep you from hearing the word wrong and making a silly mistake. At times you will run across homonyms (words that sound the same but have different definitions). It is wise to write them and their meanings down. Memorize and you won't be stumped!

The rest of my article will be addressed to the speller who, like me, is both hard-working and crazy enough to spend hours studying awful words. This is your preparation for the day when you step up to that microphone, the audience quiets, and you spell your first dictionary word at the National finals. The National Spelling Bee is an experience that will impress you for life. The skills you obtain and the people you meet will be of supreme importance in your future endeavors. Often everyone's attention is focused on the winner, but there are fabulous spellers that have gone out in earlier rounds who are only fully appreciated by their peers. That is something you must become used to in this game. In the end, though, your expertise will take you places. The winner must put hours into spelling and push aside other activities. I studied 2 & 1/2 to 4 hours a day from December to May.

The officials at the National Spelling Bee choose their words out of one dictionary - Webster's Third New International. This is probably the biggest and most complete of all dictionaries. Because there are over 400,000 words, no one can adequately study it. Of that number, there are some difficult ones that you can't figure out unless you have seen them before. After having acquired these words over many years, they regularly reuse them (though they do throw in some surprises).

Since many of the words you encounter at the Nationals are outlandish, the officials allow you to ask certain questions about the words which can give you an edge. Besides the three I mentioned earlier, these next few will also help you. The word origin tells you what language the word originally came from; this is especially helpful if you study your word elements. Alternate pronunciations can help you hear a letter you were unsure about. I make a point to always ask this question. The part of speech is useful if you don't know whether the word is a noun or adjective (nouns usually end in -us and adjectives in -ous). It may also help to order a tape of the top 35 finalists from the Paideia booklet to observe their techniques.

The Spelling Sisters have two resources which I use to a great extent and firmly believe helped me achieve my placing (4th out of 247 contestants, of whom 13 were homeschooled). Each is virtually useless without the help of the other. The first, entitled Nat's Notes, is a compilation of National Spelling Bee and regional surprises that have been used frequently over the past thirty years. It contains 10,000 very peculiar words. At first it may seem overwhelming, but when teamed with the Spelling Rules book it is superb. Some of the words may be Indian or from a person's name. These words you will have to memorize. Others you can piece together (Greek or Latin), find the root word, or understand the language's spelling rules (German, Spanish, etc.) .

This is where the Spelling Rules book comes in. It contains lists of Greek and Latin prefixes, suffixes, and roots, (with their meanings. I took these apart and memorized virtually all of them. Words that used to be hard for me made sense when I combined word elements to form them. The first part of the book contains many spelling rules and their exceptions. (You will never again look at I before E the same!) This is also a perfect tool to teach young children how to spell. The latter part includes obscure languages like Swedish, Yiddish, Welsh, Persian, etc. Some words have spelling patterns which were noticed during research for the book. You don't necessarily have to memorize these, but they can certainly help you to put together other words from a particular language when you need to. The Spelling Rules book is $35 and Nat's Notes is $100. They are worthwhile investments considering the fruits of your labor - high S.A.T. scores, improved vocabulary, and effective writing skills!

In closing, I encourage all of you to do your best. If you miss your mark, try again next year. When I was in the sixth grade, I placed eleventh in my state bee. I could have become discouraged and given up, but the next year I came back and won. If you study hard and use these tips, no matter where you go out you are a winner!

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