Spelling words you haven’t heard of before in a contest with more than 500 other students might be a tall order for many, especially those prone to stage fright.
But San Mateo eighth-grader Leilani Campos isn’t fazed by the spotlight. As a musical actress, she’s used to being on stage. She’s also won the crown at several spelling bees and participated in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. last year, so she’s used to the pressure that can accompany stiff competition.
And it’s a good thing, because Campos has been invited back the nation’s capital for the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee, giving the 13-year-old her second and final shot at a national title. Come May 26, Campos will be reconnecting with friends she made at last year’s competition, studying for written and oral rounds of the competition and putting her hours of preparation to the test.
Campos placed 323rd out of some 512 students in last year’s competition, and said her strategy of studying Latin and Greek root words and practicing words compiled in lists and books has largely remained the same as it did last year. But this year, the Borel Middle School student is armed with a few new spelling books suggested by friends she met at last year’s competition, who she said she’s able to study with through text message.
Whether it’s developing mnemonic strategies so she isn’t relying on memorization or learning more about other languages, Campos’ study schedule has kept her busy in the months since her last appearance on the national stage. Acknowledging that studying requires much of her focus on weekends and during breaks from school, there’s something about language that can keep Campos dialed in for hours on end.
“Words have … always been interesting to me,” she said. “It does require a lot of discipline to … plow through a whole list of words or a whole book.”
Campos said those competing in the national bee take a written test quizzing them on their knowledge of the spelling and meaning of a range of words before competing in at least two rounds of oral competition. Whether students advance to the finals depends on their performance in all three competitions, so Campos has been focused on ensuring she has a good grasp of word roots, which she described as the building blocks of words, as well as patterns in other languages that may appear in the English vernacular, such as French and German.
With plans to attend Nueva School’s Upper School in San Mateo next year, Campos said this year’s competition will be her last since students in the Scripps National Spelling Bee cannot be enrolled in a grade higher than eighth-grade. She said she is considering taking Latin classes in high school and coaching other students interested in competing in spelling bees as a high school student.
For Campos, studying word roots and language patterns is usually the first piece of advice she gives to other spellers, noting the proverb ‘give a man to fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’ comes to mind when she thinks of root words.
“I think studying roots and studying language patterns is super important because I feel like I feel like roots are like the building blocks,” she said. “If you know roots, you basically already know hundreds of words.”
Campos said she was able to watch portions of the televised competition from last year, and said one aspect of the experience not captured on TV is how much spellers are studying in between rounds of competition and also how fun it was for them to get to know each other. She said she’s looking forward to this year’s competition in part to see the friends she made last year, and also to visit some of the museums on the National Mall.
Campos’ mother Nicole McNeil said her daughter has been leading the charge on studying for the competition and that sometimes she’ll quiz Campos when they have down time. In the last year since Campos’ first trip to the competition, McNeil said she’s seen her daughter gain confidence and prove to herself what’s she capable of accomplishing.
McNeil said she was expecting the event to be a high-pressure, competitive environment last year but was pleasantly surprised to find the families gathered around the students to be a tight-knit community.
“Everyone is just so friendly and really supportive of each other,” she said. “I think the best message they give to the kids, they always say ‘you’re not competing against each other, you’re really competing against the dictionary.’”
Visit gofundme.com/f/leilani2019-scripps-national-spelling-bee to contribute to a GoFundMe campaign aimed at raising funds for Campos’ trip to Washington, D.C.
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