Practicing for spelling perfection

Pupils get ready for the county bee and a chance to go to the national competition


Kevin "Lance" Lotharp took a final glance at the word list and rubbed his palms down the front of his red fleece pullover. The seventh-grader nodded, ready for his study partner to fire away with another word.

"Spell `agathokakological,'" said 13-year-old Zachary Hout.

"A-g-a-t-h-o ... k-a ... k-o ... l-o-g-i-c-a-l," Kevin responded.

"Spell `gesundheit,'" said Zachary.

"G-u-s-e-n-d-h-e-i-t," Lance said, reciting the letters one after another without hesitation.

But Zachary winced.

"You got that one wrong -- you spelled it with the `u' and the first `e' in the wrong places," said Zachary.

"OK," Lance said, letting out a sigh. "I'll study that one some more."

Any more studying of spelling words would be in addition to an already hefty load for Lance, a pupil at Edgewood Middle School. He was getting study help from his fellow classmate recently in preparation for the county spelling bee, scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday in the Chesapeake Center at Harford Community College. Lance is one of more than 20 pupils in grades six through eight who will participate.

"The spelling bee is a wonderful way to showcase kids that are not usually showcased," said Katy Gallam, the head of the Harford Day School who is the spelling bee coordinator. "Typically, the best spellers are not necessarily the best on a basketball court."

In preparation, the spellers formulated study plans ranging from 20 minutes to four hours daily. Some have modest goals, such as not being the first pupil eliminated or to complete the first round. But others are hoping for a chance to be one of about 270 pupils from around the nation to advance to the Scripps National Spelling Bee to be held May 31 to June 1 in Washington, D.C., and compete for the $20,000 prize.

The road to the national tournament begins at each school with a spelling bee. The number of spellers from each school varies according to the school population. Larger schools have one representative each from the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, while smaller schools have one pupil represent the school.

The words for the school and county bees are selected from the Scripps National Spelling Bee Paideia, a study booklet with more than 4,100 words in 26 categories. The booklet is broken down into beginning, intermediate and advanced words within each category.

The process for selecting words for the national competition is perpetual, which can make studying a challenge, said Carolyn Andrews, a former English teacher from Oliver Springs, Tenn., who is the word list manager.

"I may be driving along the road listening to my radio and hear a new word," said Andrews. "I add it to the list. Some of the words are just deliberate and a part of everyday life, and some we just get."

Andrews said strategies vary from pupils who study very little to those who study the entire dictionary.

"We have a few kids that take the dictionary and start at the first word and learn to spell every single word," Andrews said. "It doesn't happen often, but the last person who did it won the national bee."

But sometimes studying and learning too much can backfire, Andrews said.

"I am not as good of a speller as I used to be when I started this job because I've seen so many combinations and possibilities for spelling words," Andrews said.

But Elizabeth Stalder, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Edgewood, said the bee helps make learning more of a challenge for pupils like Lance.

"He's at a much higher comprehension and speaking level than the average seventh-grader," said Stalder, who coordinated Edgewood Middle's bee. "His peers poke fun at him but in a good way because he's so knowledgeable."

Though he won the seventh-grade competition at his school to advance to the county bee, Lance was mildly disappointed that he won on a manageable word: "ridiculously."

"It's ridiculous that I won with such an easy word," he said. But he doesn't expect that to happen at the county bee.

"I know the words will be much harder there, and I'll be ready," said Lance. "I'm nervous, but I know I just have to take it easy and spell the words slowly, and I think I'll do well."

Although he can already rattle off words like "geusioleptic," "mnemonically" and "trinitrotoluene," he practices about four hours daily with his mother, his friends and on his own. He uses an audio version of the paideia, which is one of several online resources available to the spellers. He also uses a pocket dictionary, which he carries with him, and skills he's learning in school.

"I use repetition when I spell. I look at and pronounce the words over and over again," said Lance. "I also sound out the words and study word origins."

His classmates are cheering him on and helping quiz him when they finish their work or get a break in their day.

"I've never known anyone that has been in a spelling bee," said Zachary. "I want to see Lance win, so I help quiz him. He's already great at it because all he does during his spare time is look at the book and study."

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