Reading & Literacy

Texas Teenager Wins National Spelling Bee

By Brenda Iasevoli — June 01, 2018 3 min read
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Karthik Nemmani, 14, from McKinney, Texas, nabbed the Scripps National Spelling Bee champion title on Thursday night in Oxon Hill, Md. He sealed the win after spelling “haecceitas” (a term from medieval philosophy that translates to “thisness”) and “koinonia” (Christian fellowship) correctly.

Cheers erupted from the crowd and the teen smiled broadly as the judge told him the spelling of koinonia was correct. Seconds later, confetti rained down and Karthik held the giant trophy over his head. You can watch the winning moment in the video below.

Karthik is the 14th back-to-back Indian American spelling bee champion. He beat out fellow Texan Naysa Modi, 12, who misspelled the word “bewusstseinslage” (a state of awareness) in the championship round. “She’s a really, really good speller,” Karthik said of Naysa after the competition. “She deserved the trophy as much as I did. I got lucky.”

It’s true. Karthik did get lucky. He lost to Naysa at the county level. That loss during any other year would have made him ineligible for the national competition. But Scripps decided this year to institute a wild card program called RSVBee. Parents could apply on behalf of their children who didn’t win a state or regional bee, but who had won their school bee or had competed in a prior year in the National Bee.

The Largest Bee Ever

All told there were 516 competitors, the largest number in the Bee’s history. (Last year, there were 291.) The spellers ranged in age from 8 to 15 and came from all 50 states and even from a few different countries. While 278 spellers competing this week followed the traditional path (taking part in school, local, and regional bees), the 238 RSVBee spellers, including Karthik, were competing by invitation. RSVBee parents paid a $750 participation fee and paid for travel, hotel, and meals.

“RSVBee is all about fairness,” Scripps spokesman Valerie Miller told Education Week. “It levels the playing field for national finals qualification and creates opportunities for more spellers to compete on the national stage. For spellers in highly competitive regions, where only one or a few advance, now they too have an opportunity to earn a spot in the competition.” Texas is one of those competitive regions. The state holds the record for most spelling bee champions, with 12 so far.

Check out this report for a behind-the-scenes look at the grueling schedule of spellers who make it to the primetime finals of the National Spelling Bee. And this interview with a “word panelist” for the National Spelling Bee reveals how words are selected for the competition.

Bee Beginnings

The first national spelling bee was started by the Louisville Courier-Journal in Kentucky in 1925 to make better spellers of the nation’s young people. It has been held every year since, except in 1943, 1944, and 1945 due to World War II. Scripps began sponsoring the contest in 1941.

In a letter to the newspaper in 1924, John J. Tigert, the commissioner of the federal Bureau of Education, wrote that the contest would “arouse interest and awaken a new enthusiasm for careful and accurate spelling.”

The earliest winners took home $500. Along with the big trophy, this year’s winner will take home $40,000 from Scripps, plus $2,500 and a reference set from Merriam Webster. The winner will also travel to New York to appear on Live with Kelly and Ryan, and to Hollywood to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live!

Photo: Karthik Nemmani, 14, from McKinney, Texas, spoke with reporters after winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night in Oxon, Md. (Scripps National Spelling Bee)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.