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The Art of Spelling

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The 2006 Scripps National Spelling Bee, which was held in Washington, D.C., from May 31 through June 1, featured 275 student spellers and went through 19 rounds before New Jersey 13-year-old Katharine Close finally prevailed by correctly spelling “ursprache.” So, who comes up with all the words needed to challenge the spellers? Meet Jim Lowe. He’s a senior editor with Merriam-Webster in Springfield, Massachusetts, and he’s been a “word panelist” for the National Spelling Bee for 20 years. As this year’s Bee was getting underway, we asked Mr. Lowe about his choice of words and the art of spelling.

Q: What’s your method for selecting words for the Bee? How do you prepare each year?

A: The total number of words we select for the Bee is about 800. There are three word panelists, so each of us picks a third of that. In selecting words, we go through our unabridged dictionary—Webster’s Third New International—and pick out words that are easy for the beginning and get progressively harder. Once we’ve selected our allotted number, we get together, along with the Bee director and the pronouncer for the competition, and go over the complete list and arrange the words in order of difficulty. We also provide sentences, definitions, and language of origin for each word. We try to give the spellers as much information as possible, especially any alternate pronunciations, because they always ask for that.

Q: How do you gauge the difficulty level of a word?

A: According to how familiar the word might be for this age group, which we base in part on a review of school textbooks in grades 4-8, and how phonetically challenging the word is. For example, if there are silent letters, that’s going to make the word harder. If there are tricky combinations, like the i-e/e-i combination, that’s going to make the word harder. If the word is rather long, five or six syllables, that’s going to make it a little harder. And we also try to give foreign words that are common in English. So we have a range of the vocabulary.

Q: What changes have you seen at the Bee in 20 years? Have your word-selection tactics changed at all?

A: My tactics haven’t changed too much. But I’ve seen the Bee grow a great deal. I think that, in the year I started, we had about 150 spellers, and now we’re up to 275. So we’ve certainly had to increase the number of words. But my selection methods are essentially the same.

Q: In your view, how do the kids who make it to the national competition become such excellent spellers?

A: Usually, the champion is asked that question at the end of the Bee. And most of the time, it’s with the help of his or her parents. The parents are really good coaches for these kids, and a lot depends on how much support they get from their families. But it can go well beyond that: Some kids also have actual coaches they go to to learn how to spell difficult words.

National Spelling Bee Word Panelist Jim Lowe
National Spelling Bee Word Panelist Jim Lowe

As for resource material, on its Web site, Scripps provides a very extensive list of words that have been used in past spelling bees, so participants can review those. We also give participants an extensive list of word roots and prefixes and suffixes they can study, especially to get through the more difficult technical words.

Q: At a time when the truncated, informal language of e-mail and instant messaging predominates, what do you see as the value of strong spelling skills?

A: Well, when we get employment applications at Merriam-Webster, we always look to see if there are any misspelled words in the resumes, and I think a lot of employers do that. They want to know if you’re educated, and that’s one of the signs: If you’re a good speller, you’re probably pretty well educated. So it’s an indication of your background and what you’re capable of comprehending, depending on the field you go into. I think the Bee is a great educational system.

Q: What’s the most difficult word you’ve ever selected for the Bee?

A: Well, last year the winning word was “appoggiatura,” and that’s pretty difficult. But I’m not sure if I personally selected that one or not. I’ve see so many words throughout the year that it’s sometimes difficult to know which ones I selected.

—Anthony Rebora

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