By Suzanne Mackey
News Star Reporter
When ten-year-old Rachel Hamilton competes in the 2020 Central Oklahoma Spelling Bee at OU Children’s Hospital on February 29, she’ll not only be vying for her second state championship, she’ll also be competing for family bragging rights.
Turns out the Whitebead Elementary School fifth grader and her family have a tradition of winning spelling bee competitions.
Her older siblings, Luke, Jack and Anna, have all ranked in the top five in regional spelling bee competitions, and Luke placed second in the Central Oklahoma Spelling Bee as an eighth grader in 2016.
And then last year Rachel won the same spelling bee in her first year to compete, beating out top-notch spellers in grades four through eight from 50 counties across central Oklahoma. From there, she advanced to the Scripps National Spelling Bee competition in National Harbor, Maryland.
“We recognize it will always be really hard to repeat. But if you don’t work toward it, you certainly won’t repeat,” said Rachel’s father, Matt, who also won the Central Oklahoma Spelling Bee as an eighth grader in 1978.
Matt’s father was a fifth-grade English teacher and served as a spelling bee pronouncer for the state competition for a number of years.
“My mom and dad were instrumental in helping me,” Matt said. “My dad passed away about 15 years ago. My mom is still alive, and I think she lives for spelling. She is 82 years old, and she is just extremely proud of Rachel, and really all the kids. They’ve all been pretty good at spelling competitions, but not quite at Rachel’s level.”
Matt says the family’s success in spelling bees really has little to do with knowing how to spell.
“It’s not that any of us are good spellers. The key to winning a spelling bee is working hard and being disciplined,” Matt said. “We’re not any better spellers than anybody else. It’s enacting a plan, and it’s working on that plan, and it’s discipline.”
“And the words that you get that night,” Rachel chimes in, reminding Matt that sometimes it also just comes down to getting the right word.
Rachel said when she started competing last year as a fourth grader she thought it would be fun to follow in her older sibling’s footsteps. Now that she has a year under her belt, she understands that it’s also a lot of work to win a spelling bee.
“In order to be successful, you can’t start studying two nights before the spelling bee. You have to study two months before the spelling bee,” Matt said.
Matt helps Rachel prepare by putting together a study plan and a schedule. They try to get at least a little studying in every day, which isn’t always easy around school and other extracurricular activities. Matt goes through the practice word list with Rachel, and then she writes each word three times, repeating the letters aloud as she goes. If Matt doesn’t know the pronunciation of a word – a critical part of the equation on competition day – they look it up at Merriam-Webster’s online, where they can hear the word spoken.
Scripps, which administers the spelling bees, has updated the list of practice words this year, increasing the number of words in their official study guide from 1,150 words to 4,000 words. Matt said in order to be ready for the state competition they really need to study through the entire list.
To try and accomplish that, Rachel and Matt have been pulling eight-hour study sessions the last few Saturdays. That’s in addition to Rachel’s other activities, which include playing on two local basketball teams.
Rachel’s mother, Joni, estimates they spent about 130 hours preparing for spelling bees last year, from the school level to the national spelling bee.
“It’s not always the most exciting thing to practice, let’s put it that way,” Joni said, laughing.
Sometimes all the practicing still doesn’t make it easy going. During competition, there are often set points where the words deviate from what is on the practice list, and Joni said at one time or another, all of their children have missed words that were in their practice lists.
“You learn a little bit about life through this, too,” Matt said. “Normally, when you prepare, it pays off. But sometimes you make a mistake, and it’s just not your day.”
Rachel has her own method of warding off mistakes during competition. She uses her index finger to write the word on the palm of her hand as she spells it. She said she’s not sure where she picked up the habit.
“I don’t recall seeing many people doing it,” Rachel said. “It just helps me to get through the word without pausing in the middle of the word to think.”
She said she does sometimes get nervous before competition, but praying with her family helps combat those nerves.
“I get nervous right before the bee, and then once I’ve gone up there and done the practice round and said my name and what grade I’m in, I just don’t get as nervous,” she said. “We pray about it. Me and my mom, right before the bee, we prayed about it.”
Over the years, the Hamiltons have had the opportunity to witness a significant amount of growth in spelling bee competitions. When Matt first advanced to the Scripps National Spelling Bee as an eighth grader in the late ‘70s, he placed 31st out of a field of 106 participants.
When Rachel competed at the national bee last year there were a record 562 participants, and the competition concluded with an unprecedented eight-way tie.
Competition at the national bee consists of a preliminary contest and a final round. During preliminaries, spellers compete in two oral spelling rounds, with the opportunity to spell one word in each round.
Each correctly spelled word is worth three points. They also take a multiple choice vocabulary test, which is worth up to 30 points. The top competitors from that process move on to the final competition. Rachel was one of the more than 500 spellers eliminated in the preliminary round in 2019.
Even so, the nearly weeklong competition held just outside Washington, D.C., provided the family with the opportunity for new experiences and time for a little sightseeing.
“It really was a phenomenal experience,” Joni said.
Rachel said she intends to continue competing in spelling bees as long as she’s eligible. Her advice for aspiring spelling bee competitors: “Be constant with your practice.”
Participating in spelling bees has really created a deeper discipline in their children that goes well beyond competitive spelling, Matt and Joni said.
“It’s a good exercise of the mind,” Joni said. “It’s a discipline. You have to study, and you have a goal.”
“It sticks with you for the rest of your life,” Matt adds. “And it’s a good exercise even if you don’t win anything.