A sixth-grader from Fresno, California, Ananya Vinay, was officially crowned the winner of the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee Thursday after correctly spelling the word, “marocain,” a type of dress fabric.
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The 12-year-old showed little emotion until her parents and brother rushed on stage to congratulate her. As the new champ, Vinay gets the bragging rights and takes home a cash prize of $40,000.
Vinay’s parents’ reaction comes as no surprise to Dr. Jacques Bailly, the 1980 spelling bee champion and official pronouncer of the competition since 2003.
“In my experience, parents put in a tremendous amount of work in many cases, and find it rewarding and stimulating far beyond the obvious fact that they are helping their child, as if that were not enough,” Bailly tells FOX Business.
Bailly says the competition has “almost tripled in size” since he won it nearly 40 years ago, and it’s steadily growing every year with parents even going as far as hiring special wordsmith coaches to help their kids reach their glory.
“There are many models for how spellers study: some have parents who are not involved much at all, and some have parents who are their primary go-to coach,” he says. “And just as there are more spellers involved, so there are more adults, including teachers, parents and other ‘coaches.’”
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Jennifer Poss Taylor, the mother of Grant, a 14-year-old eighth-grade finalist from Lubbock, Texas, tells FOX Business that she spent at least two to three hours a day studying words with her son leading up to the event.
“Sometimes twice a day and more than that on the weekends, especially those last couple of months leading up to the National [Spelling] Bee,” she adds.
Michelle Schaff of Lake Forest, Illinois says she condensed her daughter Marlene’s studying into three months, but it was intense. Their study of over 50,000 words, which even continued at the dinner table, paid off as the 14-year-old made the top 15 finalists.
“During that time, she forewent her other extracurricular activities, setting aside her art, writing and fencing practice,” Schaff tells FOX Business. “She learned that she can conquer things that seem too challenging to take on and she learned about making choices and sacrifices.”
And while many parents devote their time to their spelling bee champs, they also spent their cash. Schaff, however, says spending a lot of money is not always necessary.
“We spent very little. There are a lot of word lists online and free. You can spend under $100 for a couple of good books, plus a subscription to Merriam Webster Unabridged Online and make it to the finals. Some families hire coaches, though it is not necessary if you have a self-directed child. Some children have a difficult time organizing such a large task, and some families find coaches essential to the experience. They can add a lot of value if you can afford them, but not having a coach will not doom you,” she says.
Taylor says her family got a sponsorship from a local paper that helped fund her son’s trip to the finals. She also raised money through a GoFundMe account so the rest of her family could go and cheer him on.
But while there are many models on how to get your children to spelling bee victory, Bailly says there is a deeper mission behind the contest.
“The national contest is just the pinnacle and tip of a very large iceberg, and as we saw last night, the level there is beyond most adults, let alone middle schoolers. So the bee invests a great deal in creating materials that are grade-level appropriate, that teachers can use right in their classrooms,” he says.