Audio blog post by Dr. Isaacs. Click to listen and read along!

Spelling bees involve more than just studying words. It’s easy to think of spelling like this: A student gets a list of words on Monday, studies it over the course of the week, then has a written test on Friday. Lather, rinse, repeat until the school year is over. That was the scene during the bucolic days of the little red schoolhouse on the prairie. But nearly two centuries later, life isn’t so simple…and neither is spelling. You have to prepare psychologically to be the best. Simply learning words (and roots and language patterns) isn’t enough.

I have seen top spellers spell confidently through a bee…as long as the pronouncer stays on the list. But they suddenly freeze upon hearing an unfamiliar word. They hesitate for endless tense seconds, then tentatively give the word a try, without asking any questions, because they don’t know what to do. It’s as if they didn’t expect to get an unfamiliar word. This is NOT the way to go. So…how to you prepare for such a situation?

Expect that at some point, you will get a word you do not know.


Seriously. Think about it. If something strange happens, and you actually get all words that you know, then hooray! You lucked out. But there are 4,000 words in the Words of the Champions. There are over 23,000 words in the Consolidated Word List. There are roughly 470,000 entries in Merriam-Webster Unabridged. So the likelihood of getting all words you know in a bee isn’t high…and gets lower as you move to tougher bees. From the point of view of a bee official, this is the point of a bee: eliminate all but the top speller(s). They want to give words that spellers don’t know, or at least seem tricky somehow. So prepare for this moment!

But how to prepare?

Practice receiving words you do not know in as realistic a bee situation as you can. Have your parents, teacher, or coach prepare a list of unfamiliar words. Have them get the dreaded bell in case of missed words. Even create a stage of some sort if you can. (One of my students even asked her school if she could use the auditorium for a half hour one day, including using a microphone and having lights shine in her face. The school allowed her…and we created a very authentic bee experience!) And practice how you will act in case you get a word you do not know.

My advice on how to act? Don’t freeze. That will quickly get you nowhere. Practice immediately asking all the questions you know. Just let them flow. If you haven’t done this before, just concentrate on asking questions. Establish a pattern…even if you have a hard time thinking about the answers and how they may point you in the right direction of the correct spelling. That will come with time. Of course, if you’re comfortable with asking all the questions, then you’re already a step ahead of the game. It’s now time to think about how they contribute to a correct spelling.

This is how the best spellers perform onstage. If you watch the Scripps finals on ESPN, you’ll notice that virtually every speller asks at least a few questions about each word they receive. This is regardless of whether they know the word or not. Sometimes this may seem unnecessary, but hey…why mess with a routine that works? And asking questions sometimes will provide those extra few seconds of time and reassurance that a speller needs to be totally confident about their spelling.

Photo credit: Mark Bowen of Scripps. Laura Newcombe of Toronto, Canada hesitates before attacking a word at Scripps in 2011. Despite her expression here, she rarely froze onstage, and eventually became the runner-up.