What makes a good speller (or a bad one)?

(CNN)By the time he was 6 or 7 years old, Sameer Mishra was a pretty confident speller. His memory was sharp, he liked to read, and he actually enjoyed the weekly tests at school. While his parents drilled his older sister, a National Spelling Bee competitor, he’d angle for his own list of words.

Within a few years, he made it to the big bee in Washington, too. On his fourth and final trip there in 2008, he won by spelling the word “guerdon,” meaning “something that one has earned or gained.” Yes, Mishra is a good speller.

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But everyone knows people who claim they’re terrible at it and never were any good. They’d rather just use spellcheck, they say. To Mishra, they’ll confess, embarrassed, “I misspelled ‘banana’ in the fifth-grade spelling bee” and just gave up.
So what is it that separates the spelling stars from the dictionary-deficient?
For those on stage at the National Spelling Bee this week, it often meant five hours a day memorizing words or studying etymology. For the perfectly good, non-bee spellers among us, it might mean they enjoyed reading from an early age.

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But research published this year in the journal Brain suggests it has something to do with how some people’s brains retrieve words — or don’t — and how we manage to get them out — or not.

The science of spelling

For as easy as the teens on stage make it look to spell “scherenschnitte” and “nunatak,” there’s a lot happening inside to produce each word.
Start with something a little simpler: “If I tell you a word like ‘yacht’ and ask you to spell it, maybe you can do it,” said Brenda Rapp, a cognitive science professor at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of the Brain study.
If you heard the word and came up with y-a-c-h-t, it probably emerged from the areas of the brain that hold orthographic long-term memory, where spelling knowledge is stored.

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Second, they usually have a coach. It’s an English teacher or a parent who helps them along the way, drilling them on words and keeping them on schedule. For Mishra, it was his sister, Shruti, who is now in medical school. When he hit a rough patch and struggled with the same words, she reminded him to run around outside or play video games.
“You can get frustrated, tired, exhausted,” he said. “I needed someone to tell me: This is just a spelling bee.”
Of course, it comes down to the work. The competitors are all intellectually curious, Mishra said. Great spellers are often avid readers, and they commit a lot of words to memory, but they’ll also study prefixes, suffixes, foreign languages and definitions that will help them deduce how a word is spelled.
Just this week, after reading in Mishra’s spelling bee bio that he’s growing a beard, someone mentioned it was a “pogonotrophic fun fact.” Mishra didn’t know the word, but he knew that “pogo-” or “pogon-” referred to a beard and “-trophy” meant growing or development.
“It’s pattern-building,” he said. “A lot of really good spellers are really good at patterns.”
Finally, Mishra said, great spellers persevere. Many competitors come back to the National Spelling Bee again and again until they’ve aged out of the competition. They inevitably leave off a letter or buckle after an intense round, but they don’t give up and find something else to fill their time. “Grit” is what parents and educators call that quality nowadays.

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Mishra doesn’t expect everyone to see spelling as an art. But he still feels pangs of sadness when friends admit they’ve given up on trying.
“There are going to be times in your life when you’re not going to have a computer or you’re not going to be able open your phone,” Mishra said. “You’re going to bite your lip and say, ‘I should have paid more attention.’ “

Read more: http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/26/health/spelling-bee-brain/index.html

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