Jousting with the Dictionary

The story of spelling whiz Josiah Wright, a home-schooler from Fleetwood, N.C., in Ashe County, was one of my very early video pieces, and despite its vast imperfections it is still one of my favorites. Josiah represented Northwest N.C. at the Scripps National Spelling bee in 2007. He made it to the finals, but was knocked out by the word “ptilopod.”

Here’s the story that appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal in May 2007

FLEETWOOD, N.C. When Josiah Wright takes the stage today for the first round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, he will try not to think of the other 285 spellers as his competitors.

His true opponent?

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary Unabridged.

“You’re not fighting against the speller on your left and the speller on your right,” Josiah said. “You’re fighting against the dictionary.

“You can almost think of it like a jousting tournament, with all these kids lined up and a dictionary on a horse back. And you’re trying to stay on your horse. That’s the way I think of it.”

Josiah, 12, won the Winston-Salem Journal Regional Spelling Bee in March when he correctly spelled the word “philately,” which means the collection and study of postage stamps.

One of his current favorite words is hummuhumunukunukuapuaa, a type of triggerfish popular in Hawaii. It’s the longest word in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, the official source of words for the national spelling bee. Any of its 450,000 entries are fair game.

Josiah’s copy of the hefty, maroon-bound dictionary resides on a shelf in his parents’ bedroom, but he doesn’t often crack it open. Instead, he practices using eSpindle, a computer program that simulates a spelling contest and pulls words from several different word lists based on the probability that they will appear in the bee.

Josiah learned to read at age 3 and was doing second-grade work by the time that he was 5, said his mother, Anne Margaret Wright. She is also his teacher — Josiah has always been home schooled. The family moved to Fleetwood, in Ashe County, five years ago.

“He always loved to play with words,” she said. “We’ve done every other subject, but I never taught him spelling because he learned on his own.”

When Josiah is not spelling the kinds of polysyllabic words that would make most of us run for the dictionary, he reads or writes (He’s working on a science-fiction novel) or practices tae kwon do (He has earned a purple belt).

Josiah Wright plays in his backyard with brother Zechariah, May 2007.
He also helps care for his four siblings — Benjamin, 7; Gabriel, 4, Abigail, 3, and Zechariah, 2. His three middle siblings are adopted, and all have Down syndrome.

Their special needs help Josiah keep his own gifts in perspective. “I know it must be really hard,” he said. “I just try to be sensitive and loving and help them work through it. All three of the middle guys will probably be more compassionate and caring and considerate than I’ll ever be. I can predict that already.”

He also thinks ahead to a time when he will have a family of his own.

“I’m going to give my kids hard words from the day they’re born,” he said with a laugh. “And I’d also like to marry someone who is as interested in spelling as I am. When I’m older,” he said. “I mean, way older.”

He wants to go to college and eventually earn a doctoral degree. But even daydreaming about those goals will have to wait a bit — he has a spelling bee to win.

To prepare for the bee, Josiah sat alone in front of his parents’ computer for two or three hours a day, listening to an electronic voice pronounce words and then typing his responses.

“My parents actually told me that I’m not allowed to do more than three hours a day,” he said. “And as you can imagine, it didn’t take as much persuading as some things.” He spells 1,000 words a day, in groups of 100. Even though he limits his studying to only a few hours each day, he admitted that he occasionally tires of the regimen.

Oh, my word, yes. There are some days I’d like to wring the neck of the computer — if it had a neck,” he said. “There are some days I’d just like to slug it. But I just have to keep on going and remember that with each word I spell, I’m evening out my odds.”

Josiah’s mother said that she and her husband, Ronny, wanted Josiah to have a balance between studying hard and preparing well, so that “Josiah could do his best but not become a spelling machine.”

Josiah competes at the regional spelling bee in March 2007.
Though he has participated in the regional spelling bee for four years, this is his first trip to the national competition and his only chance to win. [Link to video.]

The competition is limited to students younger than 16 and those who have not passed beyond the eighth grade. Josiah is in eighth grade now.

The speller to beat, he said, is Samir Sudhir Patel, 13, a Texas speller who at age 9 finished third in the national bee.

Josiah at least wants to make it to Thursday’s rounds, which will be televised. He also wants to show people that it’s possible for a self-taught speller to do well in the national bee without the help of tutors, foreign-language training and other coaching that many other spellers get.

“One big goal for me is that I’d like to prove all those people wrong and show that you don’t need to have expensive study and three years of experience to be able to do really well.”

This story originally appeared in the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal on May 30, 2007.