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Rebecca Sealfon Knows How To Spell "Success."

Interview with Rebecca Sealfon, homeschool student and winner of the 1997 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #19, 1997.

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On Thursday, May 29, 1997, 13-year-old Rebecca Sealfon gained national attention when she won the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. Rebecca claimed victory after successfully spelling the word euonym in the 22nd round. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and has been homeschooled for the past five years.

We recently asked Rebecca, now 14, about her preparation for and participation in the bee and asked her to share some spelling tips.

Practical Homeschooling: What prompted you to compete in the National Spelling Bee?

Rebecca Sealfon: When I was ten years old, I was invited to be in a spelling bee sponsored by a local bank. I won the city finals, but there was nothing after that. I really enjoyed it, so the next year we were looking for other spelling bees for me to be in. We called the school district, and that's how we found out about the Scripps Howard spelling bee.

PHS: How many different stages did you go through before you got to the nationals?

RS: Typically, there is often a classroom spelling bee, followed by the school spelling bee. But I didn't compete at those levels. Since I was homeschooled, the district spelling bee decided that I would enter the competition at district level. They reasoned it would be awkward to have a homeschooler represent a school, and I already represented my own "school" anyway. After the district spelling bee was the city spelling bee, sponsored by the Daily News (our local newspaper), which then sends two finalists to the nationals.

But this is in my area; some places have state spelling bees, and in many regions there is a homeschool spelling bee. But in my case I had to win two spelling bees before the national finals.

PHS: How did you feel during the spelling bee itself?

RS: I was actually more nervous during the earlier rounds, because I tied for eighth place last year, misspelling a word in round seven. I wanted my studies to pay off. Once I'd survived round seven, I got less nervous. Then I realized "I'm one of the top finalists." And then, "I'm in the top three," and then the top two. Once I made it to the top two, I didn't really care so much if I misspelled a word; not that I wasn't careful. But second place would have been really great.

The rules state that if both spellers mess up in a round, then neither is out. So when I messed up on a word after the second-place winner had also misspelled a word that same round, I just hoped I wouldn't regret it. And I didn't!

PHS: How much time did you spend in practice?

RS: I would get up early in the morning and study spelling on my own for a couple of hours. And later in the day, especially later in the year, I might get quizzed on these words by a parent or even by my ten-year-old sister - she's a great sister. But we're not yet sure if she will plan on participating in a spelling bee herself.

PHS: What role did your parents play in helping you prepare for the spelling bee?

RS: Sometimes they gave me suggestions, and when I needed somebody to quiz me on the words, it was usually a parent. But by and large I am self-motivated.

PHS: What do you see as some of advantages of being homeschooled?

RS: Though I'm not homeschooling for religious reasons, I would say that the main benefits of homeschooling are that it offers more flexibility and freedom to pursue my own interests.

One disadvantage is that many of your friends are not at your same age, and there is not the same socialization quite like I would have in school. But also in school, if there's a class of 20 kids for example, there's going to be somebody you don't like. Or who doesn't like you. So even socialization has its drawbacks. There could be somebody who's out to make your life miserable.

That said, I'm actually going into a selective-admission public high school in the fall because I want a little more diversity of experiences. This particular school is supposed to be really competitive. Often it's not good to do one thing your whole life. I want to be in different environments so that I can compare them.

PHS: What advice would you have for other prospective spelling bee participants?

RS: There is a lot of natural ability involved in being a good speller. But if you don't have that natural ability, then you could read books and look for words you don't know. And if you don't know how to spell reasonably common words, I would also recommend focusing on reading, and studying the earlier sections of those books that the Spelling Bee puts out.

For the National Spelling Bee, you should also study old national and regional word lists, because they use a lot of repeat words at the National Spelling Bee. Before the nationals you'd use the study booklets; vocabulary books are also good for the early rounds.

And study - hard. Because even if you're the best speller, nothing is guaranteed. And even if you've really studied, you might spell out.

PHS: What kind of impact has winning this competition had on your life?

RS: Participating in the national finals and winning it made me realize how successful motivated people can be. I'd been studying for a whole year, since the Monday after the 1996 finals. And I know I want to be motivated about things for my whole life.

For more resources on this article's topic, click the link(s) below.
Spelling Resources - Curriculum

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