Soyeon Park, 12, won the Mississippi state spelling bee this week in Jackson earning her second trip to the national bee in Washington, D.C. She attends Armstrong Middle School in Starkville. Photo by: Courtesy photo/Mississippi Education Association
March 16, 2017 10:14:59 AM
Soyeon Park is a 12-year-old who attends Armstrong Middle School in Starkville. In some respects, she is not unlike her classmates when it comes to spelling.
"I use spell-check all the time, especially for class assignments," she said.
There are also some words she always seems to have to double-check when spelling.
"I have trouble with 'accommodate,'" she said.
The similarities with her classmates pretty much end there, though.
For the second year in a row, Park is headed in May to the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., by virtue of winning the Mississippi Spelling Bee Tuesday in Jackson.
Park emerged from a field of 44 competitors who had won their county spelling bees, correctly spelling the word "spiracle" in the 40th round to claim the title.
Park had previously won her school spelling bee and the Oktibbeha County spelling bee to earn her trip to Jackson.
She took a slightly different path the national spelling bee this year. Last year, after winning at the local level, she competed in the Mid-South Regional Spelling Bee in Memphis, where many county-level winners in the north Mississippi compete.
This year, she competed in the state event, which drew winners, sponsored by the Mississippi Education Association. The event was held at the offices of the Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
"I am definitely excited to go back to Washington," she said.
Park said she prepares for the competitions by studying a half-hour to an hour each day, mainly focusing on the words list spelling bee organizers provide and tackling words her mom throws at her.
"Whenever my mom found an interesting or particularly long word, she would test me on that word," she said.
Park's mom, Myoung Ju Youm, has always considered spelling to be an important part of Soyeon's education, although initially she wasn't sure if spelling bees were of much value.
"Before Soyeon got into the spelling bees, I was skeptical that kids have to memorize all those hard words," she said. "But while I was helping her, I realized that studying spelling isn't just memorizing. She learns a lot from the stories behind the words."
Knowing the meaning of the word and its origin can provide clues on how to spell them, which means competitors are adding to their vocabulary as they learn spelling.
Youm and her husband, Nogi Park, are Korean. Soyeon is their only child.
Youm said her daughter's talent for spelling isn't something she inherited from her.
"I'm bad (at spelling)," Youm admitted. "Since English is my second language, I have to use the dictionary or spell check all the time."
A more likely explanation for Soyeon's success is her love of reading, Youm said.
"She really is a voracious reader," she said. "She learned to read at 4 1/2, and I think she learns spelling and vocabulary mostly from reading."
Despite her studying, there will always be unfamiliar words participants have to tackle during the competition.
Tuesday was no exception.
"I wasn't sure how to spell some of the words that were off the official list. 'Dihedral' was one of them," she said. "So I guessed how to spell it, using the language origins and the definition."
Park said she'll use that experience as she prepares for the National Spelling Bee, where she has some unfinished business.
"I plan to really focus on my vocabulary and etymology (word origins)," Park said. "... I failed the written test last year, so I didn't manage to go up to the finals. This year, I plan to study and work harder, especially with my vocabulary."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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