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Tips from a National Spelling Bee Winner’s Mom

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Tips from a National Spelling Bee Winner Mom

National Spelling BeeBy Linda Dobson

In 2000, Alison Miller was one of three homeschooling children who finished first, second, and third in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. Her sister Catherine was a fellow contender. Their mom, Mary O’Keefe, describes her family’s learning philosophy as “knowledge is a wonderful thing – the more you give away, the more you have for yourself because you deepened your own understanding in the process.” Now, Mary shares another homeschooling secret. Here’s the “homeschooling twist” on preparing for and placing in the National Spelling Bee.

Mom Secrets to Prepare for the National Spelling Bee

“Instead of me asking my daughter to spell the words (many of which are unfamiliar to her), she enjoys asking me to spell the words. In the course of searching for a really good word to stump her mom, she visually encounters so many of the Paideia dictionary (the specialized dictionary of the official spelling words for the preliminary National Spelling Bees) words that they become more familiar to her. The Paideia dictionary is so handy, with the pronunciations, definitions, and language of origin right there.

“One thing that is great about this way of practicing spelling together is that it leaves me free to get household tasks done at the same time. If I were to ask her the words from the Paideia dictionary, my hands and eyes would have to be engaged in the process of holding the dictionary and looking through it. When she asks me the words, I’m free to get other things accomplished at the same time. This way of learning spelling is really fun: I enjoy the challenge and she enjoys seeing that nobody’s perfect, watching her mom make mistakes sometimes. This way of learning spelling is so much less threatening than the traditional parent-drilling-the-child approach.

“My philosophy is that it’s very important for children to learn that making mistakes is part of learning, and it’s good for kids to see their parents learning and that means sometimes seeing their parents make mistakes. Our approach is great for visual learners because they get so much visual exposure to the words, right along with their definitions. When I’m not sure about a word, I often ask her to make up a sentence for me to clarify the word. Composing that sentence is a great mental exercise for her, too. It really makes her think about what the word means and how it might be used.

See also 7 Tips to Help Your Child Learn Without Teaching

“Another game my daughter enjoys playing with me while we’re doing this is asking me to guess from what Paideia category the words come. The week before Thanksgiving, Catherine, Alison and I were back down in Washington, D.C. to visit my parents. Catherine decided to use the Paideia dictionary to conduct a spelling bee among the four of us (Alison, my parents, and me). She had a great time playing the “Doctor Cameron” role and choosing good words for us. In case you’re wondering who won that informal family bee – well, by the time we left D.C. my parents had been eliminated, and Alison and I are still in the runoff. (Note that Alison got a handicap: Catherine only gave her words from the five new Paideia categories while my parents and I got words from all the categories, both old and new.) Both Alison and I have misspelled some words, but we did so in the same rounds, so the two of us are still in friendly contention!”

Mary utilized the power of homeschooling freedom to approach National Spelling Bee prep in a way that matched the way her daughter learns best. Here’s a summary of the homeschooling approach that turned Alison into a National Spelling Bee champ.

Tips from a National Spelling Bee Winner’s Mom

  • By having mom participate as the “speller,” Alison was constantly reading the National Spelling Bee “bible,” learning, learning, learning.
  • This approach left mom free to “multi-task” so that the learning blended into the family’s lifestyle instead of becoming consuming.
  • Mom made spelling mistakes, providing a real life example that nobody knows everything, and that mistakes are wonderful learning opportunities, even when you’re on the way to becoming a National Spelling Bee champ.
  • Mom extended the exercise by asking Alison to use the words in sentences or, in other words, in context. It’s a great way to “cement” a vocabulary build-up for children. After all, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
  • Mom and the girls included Grandma and Grandpa, extending the friendly family environment of learning.


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