A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Lexington eighth-grader discovers spelling talent, qualifies for Scripps National Spelling Bee

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By Kindsey Bernhard
NKyTribune Intern

Most eighth-grade students at Lexington’s Tates Creek Middle School are preparing for summer and the start of their high school careers, but not Joey Ilagan.

He’s preparing for the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee on May 28 in National Harbor, Maryland.

Ilagan won his classroom and Tates Creek Middle School bees, then qualified for the national competition by winning the UK Spelling Bee, the Central Kentucky regional competition hosted by the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center and the School of Journalism and Media.

He was not a first-time spelling bee contestant. In sixth grade Ilagan placed ninth in the school competition and in seventh grade he placed second in his classroom competition. It was not until Ilagan was the last one standing on the stage at the regional competition in March that he realized he had spelling talent.

Ilagan won his classroom and Tates Creek Middle School bees, then qualified for the national competition by winning the UK Spelling Bee, the Central Kentucky regional competition hosted by the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center and the School of Journalism and Media

“I have never been good at spelling at all,” Ilagan said. “ (It’s) something I just did for fun.”

“Each year in middle school, I’ve been going through the school spelling bee. It was only this year to where I actually did any good, and I moved on to regionals after I passed the classroom level.”

Before each competition, Ilagan studied and memorized lists that were provided to the competitors. The regional list included 1,200 words. Ilagan said luck helped him win the classroom and school competition, but memorization and talent helped him win the regional competition.

“I diligently studied for about five months, well three, four months,” Ilagan said. “I managed to memorize that [the list] by the morning of the regional bee.”

Ilagan’s family was not able to watch the classroom and school competitions but was in attendance for the regional competition. Ilagan’s father, Jose Ilagan, said he was in shock when his son won and qualified for the national competition.

“When it came down to the final three, I was like ‘oh my gosh’,” Jose said. “He’s in the final three. And we didn’t really expect he would make it through.”

But that is exactly what Ilagan did, and he made it through all the way to Washington D.C.

With the Scripps National Spelling Bee a couple of weeks away, Ilagan spends 30 minutes to two hours each day preparing for the national competition.

“I just go over past lists that have been said,” Ilagan said. “There are some companies that publish their own lists. I just find lists online taken from those books and then use those to study.”

Ilagan does not seek help from his family or friends and does all the studying himself.

Jose Ilagan says his son’s work ethic shows how motivated he is. “I think he does the work for what he gets,” Ilagan said. “I think for him, he’s always been one of those kids that has the drive to go after things like this. He sets his mind on it and goes after it.”

He does, however, use the help of Quizlet, an online learning community where users can create study sets of any subject and topic.

Ilagan has connected with two other students who are competing at the Scripps National Spelling Bee through Quizlet. The three have helped each other prepare by sharing resources and study tools.

Ilagan uses Quizlet to read through spellings lists and memorize definitions, which helps him remember the spelling of words.

“There is a component of the national bee, which is in the preliminaries, which is just the test, and half the test is just knowing what the word means based on how it’s written. So by memorizing these words it gives me a better feel for the language itself.”

The preliminary round includes a spelling and vocabulary test. Contestants will be given a handwritten test, which will be hand-graded unlike the computer-generated test of past years. To advance, a speller must receive a high enough score. The preliminary round cuts the number of contestants who will participate in the on-stage live spelling rounds.

The opportunity to compete in a Scripps Spelling Bee is an experience Ilagan and his family will not forget. However, the 13-year-old in Ilagan is most looking forward to the free stuff given to the contestants.

“I’m just looking forward to all the freebies they give out there,” Ilagan said. “They give out tools to help with learning and stuff like that. And they also give out spelling related things.”

Ilagan and his family will travel to Washington, D.C., before the start of the competition for a week of events including tours and outings with other contestants.

The 90th Scripps Spelling Bee begins May 28. The final rounds will be broadcast on ESPN on May 31 and June 1.

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