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Busy Bees

They are busy “spelling” bees!  Sisters Bianca and Sasha DeSilva of Largo are super spellers! They have long lists of words they’ve searched for online … bookcases filled with stories from the time they were toddlers … kindles brimming with the tales! The girls have both competed in the regionals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Older sister Sasha holds the record – advancing the farthest of any student from Admiral Farragut Academy. (Sasha finished in the top 5 at regionals!) On March 8, 11 year old Bianca plans to best her!

“When I am given a word, first I pronounce the word again in my head. Then, I start to spell the word. I spell the word by syllables,” explains Bianca. “If I don’t know what the word is, I ask for different pronunciations, the meaning and use in a sentence.”

Bianca’s mom, Dr. Swanthri DeSilva, is the bee coach! “When Bianca was studying for the spelling bee last year we had to use the online dictionary, but this year, the Scripps National Spelling Bee has a word club. That has made studying very convenient,” she explains.

Bianca studies. Mom quizzes – in the kitchen, in the car, anywhere they can. “I give her a quota of words to study each day and more during the weekend – about 50 words each week day” says mom, who lowers the quota depending on homework.

For the baby of the house, the spelling bee competition is nothing new! She was in the 4th grade when she first saw her big sister spelling and winning onstage! She was hooked! Bianca competed in her first spelling bee the following year – the young girl in elementary school out-spelling even the middle schoolers!  “I like winning and I like learning new words that I have not come across before,” says Bianca.

Sasha, now 15, is too old to compete! She’ll be watching on the sidelines March 8 at St. Petersburg College – host site for this year’s regional Scripps National Spelling Bee competition. The winner of the Tampa Bay area competition advances to the May finals in Washington DC and a chance to win $30,000. Bianca and Sasha hope it’s a D-E-S-I-L-V-A! “I do feel nervous when their turn comes around to spell and then feel happy for them when they get the spelling correctly,” says Lakpriya DeSilva, an engineer. “I also feel bad when a competitor gets a word wrong as I can imagine what that child and their parents feel at that moment.” Dr. DeSilva says watching is painful.  “I am way too nervous and would rather NOT watch! I would be just as happy if somebody just told me the result.”

Sasha, now a state writing champion and aspiring writer, has shared her tricks of the trade with sis. “I try to differentiate words that end in able, eble or ible. When there are words of different origins, I also try to remember specific tricks that are unique to words from different countries,” explains Sasha. “When I’m actually doing the bee, I write down the words in my hand because it helps me say the letters that I see in my head.” Bianca is hoping to follow in the footsteps of another Tampa girl, Nupur Lala, who won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1999. In the 89 year history of the Scripps bee, Lala was the first and remains the only winner to emerge from the Tampa Bay area.  Last year, 13 year old Nikitha Chandran came close! The girl from Valrico finished in 11th place in Washington D.C. – eliminated right before the final round broadcast on national TV!

The spelling bee, considered the granddaddy of all bees, draws the attention of tens of thousands of schools each fall. That is when schools register to compete and receive study guides and online resources to sharpen their students’ spelling abilities. The official registry of words exceeds 1,600! Teachers at participating schools have 120 spelling test and quizzes to pick from! Sample lists for 9 year olds could send spellcheck addicts running for the hills! On one list: opossum, terrapin and ocelot. On another: foray, shortfall and frump.

Educators say super spellers aren’t just born with it! The not-so-secret to success is reading! In interview after interview with finalists and winners, 1925 to 2013, it comes back to one thing – reading. Simply put, they love reading! Educators say the sooner you expose your children to books the better.

Research from the National Institute for Literacy identify the critical time for child development from birth to age 5. NIL scientists found that reading influences a child’s ability to talk, listen and understand spoken and written words. The NIL website explains: “Even before children start school, they can become aware of systematic patterns of sounds in spoken language, manipulate sounds in words, recognize words and break them apart into smaller units. They learn the relationship between sounds and letters and build their oral language and vocabulary skills.”

Bianca and Sasha certainly follow that mold. Their parents, natives of Sri Lanka, have been reading to the girls since infancy! The family has books throughout the house and recently turned one room into a library. “When I read, it’s as if I’m in my own world. I laugh out loud during the sad parts and don’t really care about the real world at all. It’s wonderful,” Sasha says! “I see my parents and Sasha reading all the time and that makes me want to read,” Bianca says.

Who will win Tampa Bay’s spot at the Scripps National Spelling Bee May 25-31? We’ll find out together from 9 a.m. to noon March 8 at St. Petersburg College – Gibbs Campus’ Music Center.

Is there a super speller in your home? Try these educational sites:

  • www.educationworld.com/a_special/spelling
  • www.puzzlemaker.school.discovery.com
  • www.wordsmith.org

Lissette Campos is director of community affairs and host of ABC Action News’ Positively Tampa Bay. For more on the Scripps National Spelling Bee, visit www.spellingbee.com.

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