Spelling bees are a family affair for the Durham-based Closs family.
This March, the Closs sisters—Bettie, a seventh grader at Lucas Middle, and Hanna, a sixth grader at Little River Elementary—competed against each other for the first time at the Duke Regional Spelling Bee. The two sisters were the final spellers in the competition, going head-to-head for five straight rounds by themselves. When Bettie finally emerged victorious in round 19 with “catechistic,” they’d each given impressive, confident performances.
“Spelling makes me happy,” say Bettie, now a three-time regional bee champion. “Bees are also really good tools for life.” Later this month, Bettie will travel to Washington, D.C. to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee for the third time. Accompanying her will be sister Hanna and parents Almaz and Willie, who’ve made the trip with Bettie every year.
The Closs family has long taken spelling—and learning—seriously.
Almaz has been the family’s unofficial spelling bee coach since Bettie’s first classroom bee in first grade. When Bettie was sent home with a list of words to study, Almaz opted to forego the study list and go straight to the source, and quizzed Bettie directly from the dictionary at random.
Today, Almaz’s method is not so different, just more organized. She helps her daughters prepare by compiling word lists for each of them, drawing from elaborate spreadsheets she keeps on her laptop. In preparation for the March regional bee, Hanna and Bettie dedicated an hour a day to studying all things word: spelling, roots, definitions, and language of origin. Not only do Bettie and Hanna have a knack for learning words, they genuinely like it, too. They both favor French root words and watch all of the spelling bee movies they can find. Their advice for would-be spellers? “You need to want to do it,” says Hanna. “You need to like spelling and be devoted to it,” adds Bettie.
There are roughly 470,000 words in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, and every one of them is fair game at the national competition. “Learning the dictionary is humbling, because you can’t possibly know the whole thing,” says Almaz. “Any word can knock you out.” For Almaz, the most rewarding part is watching her daughters’ unquenchable thirst for knowledge. “Knowledge is a wonderful thing, and it’s endless. You can never have all of it.”
With less than a week to go, Bettie has kept a steady pace in preparing for the competition.
Each morning at breakfast, the self-described “word nerd” reads spelling bee tip books like How To Spell Like a Champ. After school, Bettie studies word lists prepared by Almaz and then pores over reference books to find unusual words. Bettie hopes to make it past the preliminary round for the first time this year—a feat she’s come narrowly close to achieving in years past.
No matter the outcome, she’s got a team of supporters in her family.