Top of the Class

#52 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion Breaks Down Spelling Levels and Gives Training Tips

July 08, 2021 Crimson Education Season 1 Episode 52
Top of the Class
#52 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion Breaks Down Spelling Levels and Gives Training Tips
Chapters
Top of the Class
#52 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion Breaks Down Spelling Levels and Gives Training Tips
Jul 08, 2021 Season 1 Episode 52
Crimson Education

Guest: Karthik Nemmani - winner of the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee

Summary:

  • How competitive spellers train
  • Why top spellers are often STEM students

1 in 11,000,000 - that's what Karthik Nemmani became when he won the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee, one of the most prestigious academic competitions in the world and one that starts being televised soon!

Karthik gives an insight into what it takes to win, why most competitors are STEM students and what has happened to him since winning in 2018.

Are you wondering how competing in national competitions can help you get into top colleges? Request a free consultation with an Academic Advisor near you to learn more!

Show Notes Transcript

Guest: Karthik Nemmani - winner of the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee

Summary:

  • How competitive spellers train
  • Why top spellers are often STEM students

1 in 11,000,000 - that's what Karthik Nemmani became when he won the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee, one of the most prestigious academic competitions in the world and one that starts being televised soon!

Karthik gives an insight into what it takes to win, why most competitors are STEM students and what has happened to him since winning in 2018.

Are you wondering how competing in national competitions can help you get into top colleges? Request a free consultation with an Academic Advisor near you to learn more!

Alex

Hi Karthik, welcome to the Top of the Class podcast.  Can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?


Karthik Nemmani

I'm Karthik Nemmani, and I'm from Texas, and I won the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee and I am going to be a rising senior in high school now.


Alex

Fantastic. And for people who aren't familiar with the Scripps National Spelling Bee, I just said off air that I'm a bit of a fan of the show but can you give us a bit of a sense of the scale or like the importance of the Scripps National Spelling Bee?


Karthik Nemmani

I mean, I don't mean to brag, but the Scripps National Spelling Bee is probably one of the most prestigious academic competitions and I think around 11 million kids compete in it every year. And it's pretty much just a competition to test your knowledge of words and languages and roots and you start with the school level then you move on to like regionals and the top of the top get invited to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which is usually held at the end of May. But this year, it's being held in July.


Alex

11 million kids participating in this competition to come out on top is a crazy feat and as you said, like academic achievement wise, it certainly does set you apart from a lot of other students around the world for sure. Now, let's go back to the younger Karthik days, how does the journey even begin towards competing and winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee?


Karthik Nemmani 

The first time my parents noticed any talent in me for spelling was around when I was two or three years old. I think one of my relatives asked me the spelling of iguana and I spelled it and he was really shocked. And I think my dad bought some alphabet magnets in the store back in the day. And so I used to build words with that. And that's where my interest in spelling started. I didn't really compete in bees much until I was around eight or nine.


Alex

Can you give us a bit of a sense of the different levels of spelling? So there's sounding things out and it progresses from there. So what would be the next level above sounding things out?


Karthik Nemmani

I mean, after sounding things out, it would just be like spelling smaller words, building words. And then after that, once you get to a more intermediate level, you can start to look at root words and look at language patterns and things like that. So that whenever, say you're confused on a word, you can use past knowledge of language patterns and stuff to help build a word and spell it correctly. And an actual B, and I mean, not just for me, but for everyone that that skill has helped everyone. But once you get to an advanced level, it's all about efficiency, like you can work 24 hours a day, but if you don't have the efficient means of studying, you probably won't get anywhere. And so, in this day and age, a lot of people have resorted to typing words, and I used to type words as well. And that was a really key component as to why I was able to learn a ton of words in a shorter span of time. And before people began typing it, they'd write words out, and I believe that is also an extremely important method of studying but I believe that's more for intermediate level spellers to get a sense for the word and get some words ingrained in your head, but once you get to an advanced level, and once you're trying to contend for a title in a Bee, that's when you have to start using other means of study.


Alex

Absolutely. Now, I know that in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, students will often say, ‘Can I have the root of the word or the derivation of the word?’ And I am fascinated as to whether or not that is stalling because the student is trying to remember the word or does that actually help in the spelling of a word when you ask those kinds of questions?


Karthik Nemmani

When you do know a word, it's usually stalling. But when you don't know a word, asking those questions is really important. Because in different languages, they're spelled in different ways. Like, if you get a word like pneumonia, and if you ask what the language of origin was, and they said Greek, you could tie it back to other words that started with ‘pn’, that were in Greek, and then the ‘eu’ sound in Greek a lot of times it's ’oo’. And so you can spell it pneumonia. So even if you didn't know the word, if you know the language patterns associated with the word's origin, then you can easily piece together the word and if you get the definition and things like that, you can tie it back to previous things that you know, and you can easily piece the word together. So if you don't know a word, it's really important to ask questions.


Alex 

For an average student, would the origins of the word be a normal way to approach spelling? Like, if they're writing an essay or something, or should they just forget about it unless they're actually competing in a spelling competition?


Karthik Nemmani

I mean, when you're writing an essay, it really wouldn't matter. It's mostly just for spelling purposes, to study root words. But it's a really interesting field studying root words and language patterns, because you get accustomed to so many different languages, and how they're spelled. And it's honestly a really interesting facet of spelling. So even if you're not competing, it's definitely an interesting field to look at.


Alex

Let's go to your preparation for the day. I know it's not a walk in the park type of thing and your coach, Grace, said that people would open up the dictionary and dive in really. But obviously,that technique is no longer the case but can you give us a sense of the week or two leading up to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, how you were spending your time and what you were trying to do to prepare for the big stage?


Karthik Nemmani

The week or two before, that’s definitely just all review, like going over words that I may not have seen or may not have ingrained in my brain yet because obviously, when it comes to spelling, you're not going to remember all the words, after one go. If you go through the dictionary one time, and just stop your preparation, you're not going to go far in anything because half the words, or more than half of the words you won't even remember. So review is extremely crucial when it comes to the Spelling Bee so that you can maximize the word arsenal that you have.


Alex 

So the word arsenal is like all of the words that you might get at the Spelling Bee. These are the words that you're confident with and 100% have down pat. So you've got like your 100% confident and you've got like your 90% confident, right?


Karthik Nemmani 

And then you have the scariest part, the 0% confidence words that you haven't even seen before. And the problem with that is you don't even know if those words exist or not because you haven't even seen them. So that's one of the main things that scares a lot of spellers, that even if they prepare as hard as they can, there’s still going to be a few words here and there that they've never seen before and to some people's misfortune, they end up with those kinds of words.


Alex 

Did you get a word in the 2018 Spelling Bee that you 100% didn't know?


Karthik Nemmani  10:10

There was actually one word that I have never had never seen before. It was around round 10. In the finals, I got the word Shamir. And if you hear the word, it seems really simple. The problem is, I'd never seen the word before. So I got really tense and I took all the time that was possible. I asked all the questions. The origin was Hebrew. So it would probably be an ‘sh’. And you'd probably just be spelled the way it sounds. And so I just used all the information that was given to me and I just spelled it the way it sounds ‘shamir’. So that was one word that I didn't know. But I was able to survive on because of my knowledge of origins and definitions and things.


Alex 

Right. So what's the word shamir mean?


Karthik Nemmani 

It’s a weird definition. It’s a mythical worm that can break diamond or glass or something. I don't really know. But all I know it has something to do with Hebrew mythology.


Alex 

Wow, they are really pulling words out of nowhere, right? Like, when people are thinking of preparing for any kind of exam these days, the go to thing is to do practice tests, right? But for the Spelling Bee, you can't really do too many practice tests, although I'm sure you're going back through the books and saying, ‘Okay, what words have appeared in the Spelling Bee before?’ 

Karthik Nemmani 

Yeah, I mean, there's occasionally words that were used 10 years ago, but barely anyone remembers those. So it really just comes down to how much you prepare from the dictionary, but there are certain books that I use that are crucial to my victory. And they gave me greater insight on how to approach the Spelling Bee, how to learn each word and things like that. So those books helped me and dictionary diving, they call it dictionary diving is like you go through the dictionary, see the words that you don't know and note them down. So those two things were really vital to my success.


Alex 

Can I ask which books they were?


Karthik Nemmani

One book is called Words of Wisdom. Another one is Words of the Champs. Those are the main ones I used, for sure.


Alex

Now one other question that I've got on the Spelling Bee side of things is, how much of it is memorization? And how much of it is problem solving? And if a student is a great speller, but is not a great memorizer, will they win? Or is it primarily memorization?


Karthik Nemmani 

People tend to have a huge misconception about the Spelling Bee that it's just memorization. Like, whoever memorizes the most words is going to win. And that is entirely not the case. Because I mean, memorization is more important as the Spelling Bee becomes more and more difficult over time because resources are abundant in the big community. And so more and more people are learning more and more words, but it is not entirely memorization. There's language patterns and roots, and just knowing how to be calm on stage, all of those intangibles and things like that. Those are equally as important.


Alex 

Take me to the day that you won the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee because I know it's a long day. What kind of preparation did you do on the mental side to prepare yourself for that long focused day?


Karthik Nemmani 

I mean, coming into the Spelling Bee, I believed I prepared really well. So I was confident that I would at least do well in the Spelling Bee. I never got too nervous during the competition, I was able to hold myself to pull myself together and I was able to stay calm even in the most trying of times.


Alex 

Did you do breathing techniques?


Karthik Nemmani 

Breathing for sure helped me and another thing was staying in the zone, like keeping myself up to date on the competition. And like some people, when it's not their word, they might not listen to what words people are getting. But I usually conversed with the people around me about how to spell words that other people got. And that would definitely help me relieve some of the tension and keep me calm and cool and in the zone,


Alex 

I could imagine that there's all kinds of different people who are dealing with stress in many different ways. And it's so weird that like, in exams, everyone's got their own space, everyone's on a desk of their own, and no one talks. But you've got this weird space where you're like going up to spell your word, and then you're coming back to be around your other competitors, who are also trying to beat you, but also want to stay friends. Is it weird, that kind of dynamic?


Karthik Nemmani 

The beauty of the Spelling Bee is that you’re the only person that controls your fate. Like, I play tennis, and I mean, if the person is better than you, you're probably not going to win. But with spelling, it's just you on the stage, it's just you and the announcer, no one else really. And so that's why we can develop as competitors together. That's why we can develop such camaraderie off the stage. Because we're all in this together. And I'm pretty sure in the end, we obviously want to win, but it would be much sweeter if somebody else won with us. 


Alex

Yeah, well, I know that one year there were like eight winners.


Karthik Nemmani

2019, that was one of the most incredible nights of spelling that I have ever seen. It was really good in the sense that it developed camaraderie and multiple people would all go on tour together for the media shows and things. But I definitely believe they could have asked harder words down the stretch.


Alex

But talk to me about what winning the Spelling Bee did for you and your life?


Karthik Nemmani  

It was just a whirlwind. Honestly, there were so many interviews, I got so tired of it in the first month, because so many people invited me to be on their show, it was really exhausting for the first month. But it was definitely a great experience meeting a ton of new people and gaining more and more insight on how to progress after the Spelling Bee.


Alex

And to this day, how does it continue to change your life?


Karthik Nemmani 

It was definitely one of the most incredible moments of my life, obviously, and the minute I entered high school, everyone was like, ‘Oh, that's the Spelling Bee kid.’ And so it was a really incredible occasion for me, in the sense that I was able to gain so much experience and life lessons from the Spelling Bee, and I can implement them in my life as a high schooler and potentially in the future.


Alex 

Yeah, are there any cons to winning, though? Like, do you still feel like there's an academic pressure on you from other students or academic pressure that you perhaps put on yourself?


Karthik Nemmani 

There is no academic pressure. But one thing I will say is after the Spelling Bee, you just do nothing. Like you might have worked super hard prior to the Spelling Bee, but after winning, you’ve just lost motivation to do anything. My mom always tells me that not the phase after losing, the phase after successes are most dangerous because you get super complacent and you'll lose track of your normal life and routine and it could potentially impact you in a really harmful way.


Alex 

That’s a good point. Now, let's talk about your next academic challenge. So what's your goal in terms of colleges?


Karthik Nemmani 

I mean, my dream school has always been Stanford because I believe I'll get a great experience and it's one of the most prestigious universities and has great opportunities as it's located in the heart of Silicon Valley. As an aspiring computer science major, I would say Stanford is my dream school. But one of my main target schools is UT Austin in Austin, Texas, because I mean, obviously, it's affordable, and it provides great high quality education.


Alex 

Awesome. Yeah, Stanford is certainly up there with the best but, I just want to reflect on that a little bit that you're a CS student, or you're looking to study computer science, I would have thought that the majority of students who are in the Spelling Bee would have been like humanities students, like students who love to read and write. But there must be a significant advantage to having a scientific approach to spelling.


Karthik Nemmani  

Yeah, you're definitely right. And one thing I noticed with a lot of spellers is they don't tend to love humanity as much as they do, say STEM, like they do spelling because they're good at it, and they love it. But that's one of the only English related things that they truly enjoy. Their real passion is in more computational math, science related things.


Alex 

Now, do you have any advice for students who are aiming to go into spelling competitions?


Karthik Nemmani 

In terms of preparation, obviously, efficient means of studying at higher levels is important. Getting the basics down, learning roots and mostly spelling and your success in Spelling Bees all has to do with what's in your head, like your mentality towards spelling, you just have to love spelling, you have to enjoy the process of learning new words. And without that you're not going to succeed because you won't be able to push yourself to become the best that you can be. And so, you know, dedication, hard work, passion for spelling. Those are the main things that you need.


Alex 

Fantastic. Well, Karthik, it's been awesome to have you on the show and wishing you all the best on your journey, hopefully to Stanford, but if not UT Austin is a fantastic option as well.


Karthik Nemmani 

I appreciate it. Thank you for inviting me on the podcast.