Tampa Bay champ Tommy Foster competes this week in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

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When asked what he would do if he won the National Spelling Bee, Tommy said he hasn’t really thought about it, but would probably scream and faint a few times. He thinks it would be shocking if he won because “all these people have studied their whole lives for it and here’s little old me.”

This prompted a quick discussion of some of the other contestants. There are 273 this year, including Vanya Shivashanker, the younger sister of last year’s national champion, Kavya Shivashanker.

Tommy is calm about the competition and seems to be confident in his abilities. He devotes approximately half an hour every day to studying words, using the same techniques used by most spellers. He has spent time studying Latin and Greek roots and pays attention to language of origin when he’s learning new words.

Language of origin is important, he says, because certain sounds are spelled differently depending on the language where the word originated. For example, he says, “In French the S-H sound is made with C and H, but in German it’s made with S-C-H.”

Tommy memorizes most of the words he learns and when he gets stuck, he and his mother find a trick to remember how a word is spelled. Recently, Tommy had difficulty learning the word sapajou (another term for a capuchin monkey, pronounced s?p??-jo?o), so he made up a song to remember certain words.

The grown-up Fosters are proud of their son; Chris says that the experience of winning the trip to D.C. is extra special for her because it wasn’t a major goal. But even though the National Spelling Bee wasn’t part of the plan before, Tommy and his parents are already making plans for next year. Now that he’s had a taste of success, Tommy (who laughed when I asked him to spell successful) is angling to be a champion.


Chris says that as proud of her son as she is, it’s difficult to watch him compete because she wants Tommy to do well and gets worried that he will blurt (when a speller gets over-excited about a word and begins to spell before they are ready, making a mistake on a word that he or she knows). So she and Tommy have been working on ways to slow himself down.

One of the most important techniques Tommy uses to figure words out, but also to slow himself down, involves spelling words with a finger on his forearm. He does this to make sure that it looks right in his head before he begins to spell.

I ask him to spell some words for me.


“I think,” he says, “I should start all the way on my shoulder for that one.”

The National Spelling Bee will be conducted June 2-4 in Washington D.C. Preliminary rounds on Thur. June 3 will be broadcast on ESPN3 at 1:15 PM eastern. Semifinals will be broadcast on Fri. June 4 on ESPN at 10 AM eastern. Finals will be broadcast on Fri. June 4 on ABC at 8 PM eastern. For more information www.spellingbee.com


June 3 4:30 PM

Tommy has successfully made it through the computer based round of testing yesterday as well as the first two rounds of competition. Here are his correctly spelled words:

Round 1: chrysalis

Round 2: biauriculate

“P-U-N-C-H,” the 6th grader in front of me says, punching through the air, adding a sound effect worthy of an episode of 1960s Batman.

I asked Tampa Bay Spelling Bee Collaborative champion Tommy Foster if he plays any sports. The 11-year-old says he practices tae kwon do, but doesn’t consider it a sport even though he is just one step away from his black belt. His father proposes that spelling is a competitive endeavor and should count as a sport.

In a flash of silliness, the two Foster males decide that tae kwon do and spelling should be combined. “Full contact spelling,” Jim Foster suggests. His son agrees and pantomimes punches and body slams while spelling out each action. Tommy’s mother, Chris, watches the banter and adds “oof” in response to the body slam. Tommy quickly interrupts the play to spell out “O-O-F.”

The home-schooled speller never really imagined that he would be preparing to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which begins Wednesday June 2. This year was his first competing in a bee, and according to his mother it was “sort of a surprise.”

“We figured the local bee would be a good experience and then we went in to the regional bee with no expectations,” Tommy said, “but we won.”

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