The ‘super short, tricky words’ key to winning a National Spelling Bee

Wearing coordinating jackets, Abena Kwaffo, 13, of Accra, Ghana, right, spells her word as Giovanni Adjei, 10, of Accra, Ghana, waits for his turn, during competition in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, in Oxon Hill, May 28, 2024 (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

A four-letter word sent Shradha Rachamreddy to a third-place finish in last year's Scripps National Spelling Bee.

As the remaining spellers dwindled, Shradha was given “orle,” a heraldry term that means several small charges arranged to form a border within the edge of a field. It sounds exactly like “oral.” Shradha went with “orel” and heard the dreaded bell that signals a misspelled word.

“I overcomplicated it,” Shradha said nearly a year later. “It looks simple. It should have been simple, but I missed it.”

The good news for Shradha was that she nearly won it all as a seventh-grader, meaning she had one year of eligibility left. The 14-year-old from San Jose, California, returned as one of 245 spellers competing in this year's bee, which began with Tuesday's preliminary rounds at a convention center outside Washington, D.C.

Like other returning spellers, Shradha tried to learn from her mistake. She devoted part of her studying this year to the sorts of words she tends to miss.

“I did miss on a four-letter word, so my weakness tends to be those super short, tricky words, and I worked on compiling those into one list,” Shradha said. “I try to identify the words that seem likely to show up. If they're not spelled particularly the way they sound, then I'm like, ‘OK, it’s fair game,’ and I study that.”

Learning as many words as possible isn't a foolproof approach. No one in the nearly century-long history of the bee has been able to memorize the more than 500,000 words in Webster's Unabridged dictionary, any of which can be selected for inclusion by Scripps' word panel of former bee champions, linguists and other experts.

Last year's champion, Dev Shah, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that to become a champion speller, you must accept that you'll be asked a word you don't know — and be calm enough to figure it out.

“The skill of guessing is everything,” he wrote.

spelling, words, scripps national spelling bee, the ‘super short, tricky words’ key to winning a national spelling bee
N'Adom Darko-Asare, 13, of Accra, Ghana, left, congratulates Giovanni Adjei, 10, of Accra, Ghana, during competition in the Scripps National Spelling Bee (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Aryan Khedkhar, a 13-year-old from Rochester Hills, Michigan, who finished tied for fifth last year, breaks down tricky words into categories.

“There are words with roots and words without roots that you just have to memorize. The ones that you have to memorize, I use language patterns. That really helps. If it doesn't have language patterns, I just try to use the simplest way possible,” Aryan said. “That's what the spelling bee is about. It's not about knowing as many words as you can.”

Aditi Muthukumar said she tried to address her weaknesses on words derived from French or from the many languages of the Indian subcontinent. But the 13-year-old from Westminster, Colorado, expects she'll have to confront a word she doesn't know while competing in her final bee.

“I mean, probably,” she said, “and I hope I'll be OK with it.”

This year's three spellers from Ghana showed up in a uniform — black turtlenecks, white pants, shoes adorned with the Ghanian flag. The centerpiece: custom-designed jackets with sleeves made of woven kente fabric.

“We have to wear it,” speller Abena Kwaffo said with a laugh.

Spelling is an individual pursuit, but Team Ghana was unified by national pride. Ghana has sent a contingent of spellers for years, long enough that former competitor Darren Sackey is coaching this year's trio.

“It's teamwork. The spellers work very hard together,” said Salome Dzakpasu, the Ghanian program director. “Training together on weekends, on weekdays, sometimes evenings, learning how to combine schoolwork and preparing for the bee.”

While the past quarter-century of the bee has been dominated by the offspring of Indian immigrants, the only international champion was Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998. Ghana's best finish was a tie for 18th by Afua Ansah in 2016.

N'Dom Darko-Asare, a Ghanian seventh-grader competing for the third time, is more comfortable than ever.

“You may be scared of standing on stage. Once you've been there before, it doesn't really intimidate you as much,” 13-year-old N'Dom said.

Spellers have been asked multiple-choice vocabulary questions onstage since 2021, and before that, vocabulary was part of a written test that determined which spellers made the semifinals.

Nonetheless, Scripps treated “vocabulary” like a dirty word, instead employing a euphemism: “word meaning.” That meant when introducing the vocabulary questions, pronouncers Jacques Bailly and the Rev. Brian Sietsema were forced to use the awkward construction, “Your word meaning word is ...”

In Tuesday's preliminary rounds, Sietsema handled pronunciation duties for the first batch of spellers. Those who spelled their first word correctly remained at the microphone while Sietsema told them, to cite one example, “Your vocabulary word is ‘terrarium.’” (Jordin Oremosu, a 14-year-old speller from Florida, giggled with relief when she was asked to define that word.)

“There were discussions about it,” Bailly said, adding though he wasn't responsible for the change, “I always thought it should be ‘vocabulary.’”

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