Spelling Bee Puts Spotlight on Weird Words, Worried Kids

PHOTO: Snigdha Nandipati, 14, of San Diego, Calif. spells "guetapens" during her victory in the Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbor in Md. May 31, 2012.
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The words "guetapens" and "laodicean" mean little to the average eighth grader. But for spelling bee contestants, they can mean everything.

Snigdha Nandipati was 14 years old when she clinched victory at last year's Scripps National Spelling Bee, an annual contest that ends with the ring of a bell for all but one witty wordsmith. But the win, two years in the making, wasn't easy.

"She first participated in seventh grade, when she won the county competition and placed 27th at nationals," said Snigdha's father, Krishnarao Nandipati, recalling his daughter's determination to best her 2011 performance. "Then last year, in eighth grade, she won the county and went to nationals and won."

Watch the Spelling Bee Live on ESPN

The winning word was "guetapens," a noun derived from French to mean "trap" or "ambush," and a fitting finale for a contest based on words that often sound different than how they're spelled. But while preparing for the bee is a daunting task, experts say parents play a key role in keeping it fun.

"As a parent, it's critical to focus on the process, not the outcome," said Alan Kazdin, professor of psychology and director of Yale's Parenting Center. "No matter what the child's performance is, the reaction from parents should be roughly the same: 'It's so great that you were up there trying.'"

But a cash prize of $30,000 makes first place something to strive for.

"First place is nice," Kazdin added, "but a parent's job is to provide love and acceptance no matter what."

Krishnarao Nandipati said he carefully gauged his daughter's stress as she pored through flash cards and past spelling bees.

"You have to keep checking whether they're really interested in doing this, otherwise they feel a lot more pressure," he said.

A Spelling Champion Returns to Crown New Victor

Sixty-three of this year's 281 spellers have been to the bee before, according to the contest's website, and 18 spellers have a relative who has made it to the finals. Vanya Shivashankar, 11, is one of them. Her older sister, Kavya, won the bee in 2009 with the word, "laodicean," an adjective meaning "lukewarm" or "half-hearted."

"She's feeling good," said Vanya's dad, Mirle Shivashankar, who accompanied his daughter to the National Harbor, Md., contest. "We still get jittery sitting in the audience, but you have to just leave it to them."

Shivashankar said he's not worried about the added pressure of Vanya having a sibling who won the bee.

"She knows it's not just about competition," he said, explaining that his younger daughter is just as interested in socializing with her follow spellers. "It's a wonderful, wonderful atmosphere there, and there's so much camaraderie between the spellers. Not everybody can win, and there's a lot more to it than that anyway."

For kids who seem devastated by the dreaded "ding," Shivashankar offers this advice:

"Bells are bells, and kids might feel sad for a couple of minutes, but they get over it," he said. "It's our job to console them and make sure they know that it's not the end the world."

Krishnarao Nandipati said he plans to watch this year's bee with last year's champion, his now 15-year-old daughter, Snigdha, who could hardly contain her excitement as she traced the letters of "guetapens" on her hand, said them aloud and waited for the bell that never rang.

"For people attending this year's competition I would say, 'Enjoy the bee,'" he said. "Enjoy your time there, and don't put pressure on the kids."

The bee preliminaries will be streaming live on ESPN3 from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. EDT today. The finals will be broadcast live on ESPN Thursday at 8 p.m. EDT.

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