Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Emily Demlow could be the human equivalent of Spellcheck. The Lakeview Middle School student’s mastery of words has earned her a spot at the Scripps National Spelling Bee
where she will try to outspell about 230 students from throughout the United States to become the 2023 National Spelling Bee Champion.
Emily, 14, and in 8th grade, is the fourth student from LMS to qualify to compete in the National Spelling Bee which takes place May 28-June 3 in National Harbor, Maryland. She has been meeting with Barb Galonsky, a community volunteer and parent of a former Lakeview Schools student, every week during her lunch period to prepare for each of the Bees that would ultimately secure her participation in the national competition. Those meetings take place inside a room at the school that is used for a Spelling Club that Galonsky established in 2013 at the request of two former spelling standouts and Lakeview students – Vikram Strander and Soham Desai.
“Mrs. Galonsky has really helped me with the languages words are derived from, the spelling of words, and their roots,” Emily says. “We meet at lunchtime, but we’ve also met by Zoom and she sends me stuff to study.”
Galonsky says practice outside of their meetings is all up to Emily.
When the two aren’t prepping during Spelling Club, Emily says she uses an app called Word Club
offered through the National Spelling Bee that contains a list of 4,000 words that helps her gain a better understanding of where a word comes from, its definition, and its spelling.
“It’s handy to have that to study and it expands my knowledge of languages and things,” she says.
Galonsky says Word Club is a “tremendously valuable tool” because it enables students to study words by language and origin.
Emily Demlow, an 8th grader at Lakeview Middle School, takes her turn at the microphone during her school's Championship Spelling Bee.
“As you become a better speller you start to learn the Greek and Latin roots of many English words. You study prefixes and suffixes and how they impact a word’s meaning and spelling,” Galonsky says. “The most powerful thing is for a student to be able to group a word by language or origin. There are English, Latin, Greek, and French words in the dictionary that give us most of our English words. Knowing the patterns is really key.”
Another advantage of having the app is being able to listen to Dr. Jacques Bailly
pronounce the words. Bailly serves as the official pronouncer at the SNSB and was the National Spelling Bee Champion in 1980 when he was 14 years old.
In addition to working with students on the words, Galonsky also prepares them to take the stage in front of an audience of non-students. She says Lakeview students are exposed to this during grade-level spelling bees when they’re standing up in front of her, a panel of judges, and kids they don’t know in an unfamiliar classroom, all of which can be stressful.
“One of the things that’s interesting about a spelling bee is the best speller doesn’t necessarily win the competition,” Galonsky says. “When you’re spelling a word standing up and saying it out loud, you can’t go back and change what you said. With the process at the classroom level, some kids are so stressed even if they’re in front of their teacher and classmates. Even if they know how to spell the word, they can’t.”
Knowing how to correctly spell the words during a spelling bee is key, but Galonsky says another critical component for students is to be able to keep their composure and think under stress, things that she says are very unique to the SNSB.
Students who come to her Spelling Club learn that there are questions they can ask during a spelling bee that will help them gain additional information or reaffirm information they think they know to spell a word they’re given.
Permitted questions include: asking for the word to be repeated; asking for its part of speech and its definition; and asking for an example of its use in a sentence. More advanced spellers also tend to ask for alternative pronunciations and language of origin.
The top three spellers in the Lakeview Middle School Championship Spelling Bee pose with their trophies after the competition.
Galonsky says she encourages her student spellers to ask questions as a way to slow down their brain and their thinking.
“So if I give you the word billow you might think I said pillow. This is why it’s good to ask to have the word repeated back before you spell it,” she says. “Kids will just jump right in. I tell them to spell the word slowly so we can understand them. We talk about what syllables are and how to count them and spell a word syllable by syllable.”
Emily says the experience she’s gained from participating in other spelling bees is helping her to keep calm as she prepares for the National Spelling Bee.
“By inspiring the exploration of words, the Scripps National Spelling Bee illuminates pathways to lifelong curiosity, celebrates academic achievement, and enriches communities,” says Corrie Loeffler, Executive Director of the SNSB. “The Bee program reaches millions of students in classrooms across America. Whether they participate at the school or local level, or the regional bees that qualify them to advance to the national competition, students learn important skills – both academic and social/emotional.”
Although she is among several other students from Michigan to qualify (including Clara Mervak, a 6th grader at Northglade Montessori Magnet School in Kalamazoo), the states of California, Texas, and Ohio send the greatest number of spellers to the national competition, Loeffler says.
Becoming a spelling champion
Emily’s affinity for spelling can be traced back to a love of reading that was fostered at a young age by her mother, Anna Demlow, an English teacher with the Marshall Public Schools.
“I’ve always enjoyed words, what they mean, and how to spell them,” Emily says. “I’ve been read to from a very young age and that’s helped me as well. I read a lot too and that’s really helped me be more aware of all the words around me that I could study.”
Emily’s advice: “If you’re interested in being in a spelling bee, start reading a lot.”
Anna Demlow says her daughter’s love of reading helps with spelling because of the number of words she encounters and the variety of contexts she is familiar with, adding that frequent trips to the library and subscriptions to newspapers and magazines help to foster this also.
“We follow her lead for what she needs. When she was younger (5th grade especially, somewhat in 6th) she kept folded lists of words with her in her pocket that she would look at frequently. Sometimes she would ask us to quiz her on them, especially if we were somewhere like a waiting room,” Demlow says. “As she's gotten older she has used more online resources and has a spelling app on her phone that she uses.”
Emily’s drive and determination have been nurtured by her mom and dad, Brian, who say that they’re "so thankful to Mrs. Galonsky for all of the time and effort she has put forth to facilitate the spelling bees and for her time spent working with Emily. She met with Emily via zoom to discuss and study words even when school was virtual due to COVID and sometimes in the summer as well.”
William Patterson, Lakeview Schools Superintendent, says Galonsky is encouraging students to find the “value in what they’re doing and loving the process of it all and showing them the importance of spellings interconnectedness to everything else. Today, in the age of Spellcheck, this is a tribute to people who instill that passion in kids for different subjects.”
Loeffler says many spellers tell her that they love spelling because it blends what we recognize as the study of humanities, including language and literature, history, and the critical awareness and understanding of different cultures.
“Similarly, educators and parents point to the personal development they see in their students who participate in the Bee program – from their poise and public speaking to their sportsmanship and confidence under pressure,” Loeffler says. “The Bee helps develop resilience and growth mindset in kids even when they don’t win, and grace when they do.”
Galonsky says the standout spellers she works with tend to be academically accelerated in English. She says every last one of the SNBS champions was performing above their grade level in English or was taking advanced or college courses in English.
“I do know that for kids who become dedicated to this, it’s not as much about the spelling. Their interest is because they love vocabulary and the history of the words and how they came to be,” she says. “They notice words wherever they go.”
While they also are good readers, Galonsky says a lot of them are also gamers who become familiar with the vocabulary and Greek or Roman gods through their gaming.
In addition to spellers who want to win spelling bees, Galonsky works with students who are interested in becoming better spellers. She says the Spelling Club was originally designed as an opportunity for any Lakeview Middle School student to meet with her once a week to go over an SNSB-sanctioned word list and discuss strategies for competing.
She saw firsthand what happens when a student is unprepared when her daughter, now in college, competed in a regional spelling bee and “didn’t do very well.”
“At the same time that year, we had two fifth-grade boys, Vikram and Soham, who really enjoyed the experience and the competition and enjoyed standing in front of a room full of people to spell words. My daughter had gone and been unprepared and I had these two boys asking if we could do more,” Galonsky says. “I attribute the Spelling Club to them.”
When the Spelling Club first began Galonsky says, “The goal was to send our prepared students to our Regional Bee. It was never about sending students to the National Bee, but that has happened” in 2016, 2018, 2020, and 2023.
To qualify for the National Spelling Bee Emily like previous local participants had to win a classroom Spelling Bee, a gradewide Bee where she had to place in the top three, and a schoolwide Bee that would get her into a Regional Bee where she competed against students from Michigan and Ohio through an online test. That test included 25 spelling questions that required her to type in a word after hearing it and 25 multiple-choice vocabulary questions.
Emily says she was among 20 of these students who participated in a Spelling Bee sponsored by the National Spelling Bee via Zoom after they successfully passed that test.
“We don’t have a local sponsor so I was fed into this bigger online bee for schools. I was competing with kids from Michigan and Ohio,” she says. “On the one hand, it was easier because you have as fair a chance as everyone because everyone is getting the same words and you’re not freezing up at the microphone. It’s nice when it’s in-person to be able to encourage and meet people.”
Regional Bees are held in person if there is a sponsor or sponsors. Galonsky says the Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper had been the sponsor for students from Calhoun County and surrounding communities. She says that the relationship came to end as a result of the fallout from COVID.
Newspapers have long played a key role in the National Spelling Bee which was founded in 1925 after nine newspapers came together to make it happen. But Galonsky says the shrinking or demise of newspapers in recent years has left a void in sponsorships.
“Instead of sending one student each from middle school grades 5-8, we could only send one at-large student to represent us in the Michigan-Ohio Bee and Emily is our only student who has done that,” Galonsky says. “Last year she placed fourth and this year she won.”
Emily Demlow, eighth grade National Spelling Bee contender, stands with her Lakeview Spelling Coach, Barb Galonsky.
To be eligible for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, students must attend a school that is officially enrolled with the SNSB and they can’t have passed beyond eighth grade or be 16 years of age. The speller either has to be a champion of a local SNSB-sanctioned event or be a spelling champion selected to compete in the national finals through an official SNSB program.
More than 11 million students annually from the United States and U.S. territories including Guam and Puerto Rico, and countries like Canada and Zimbabwe compete against each other in grade-level spelling bees. The top three in each grade level advance to classroom bees. Dropping that 11 million to 1 million and about 20,000 of them will advance to a regional bee.
“From those students who win their regional bee, roughly 300 or 0.003 will get to that national level,” Galonsky says. “These are the same odds as being struck twice by lightning in your lifetime. If Emily makes it into the top 50 at the National Spelling Bee that would be truly astonishing.”
Emily says she’s R-E-A-D-Y.
“I’m looking forward to all of it and seeing Washington, D.C., and actually remembering more of it this time. I’m really excited to meet other spellers,” Emily says. “I’m just so excited for all of it.”
For information about how to watch the National Spelling Bee, click HERE.
Editor's Note: Emily will be joined at the National Scripps Spelling Bee in May by another Southwest Michigan speller, Clara Mervak, a fifth grade student at Northglade Montessori Magnet School, who won the first annual Kalamazoo County Regional Spelling Bee. We will check back in with Clara and Emily following their experiences at the national competition.