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For Scripps Bee Super Speller, ABC Is Easy As 1,2,3…4

Chetan Reddy is the grizzled veteran of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which starts today in Washington, D.C. Only this grizzled veteran is just an 8th grader.

Chetan, who lives in Plano, is making his fourth straight appearance in the national contest -- and it’ll be his last one, because next year he’ll be too old. So he's determined to retire with trophy in hand.

The dictionary he's wielding is the size of a medieval shield and thicker than a brick. There are hundreds of thousands of entries in this tome’s 2,662 pages, but he’s not intimidated. Chetan and this dictionary go way back.

“I just like how the words they come together, how they relate to each other,” he says. “And I guess I’ve always been sorta good at spelling.”

“Sorta” is a fairly modest modifier for a kid who’s gone to the National Spelling Bee four years running. Chetan won his first local bee in second grade and got serious about studying in fourth. Now an eighth grader at Plano’s Rice Middle School, his bee preparation routine re-defines the word dedicated.

“Right now on weekdays I study four hours a day and on weekends I study eight hours a day,” he says.

(Meet Chetan's North Texas competitors here.)

Chetan’s a young man who deals in letters, but here’s a breakdown of his spelling skills by the numbers.

In fifth grade when he first hit the stage at the National Bee, he knew how to spell about 30,000 words. In sixth grade, that grew to 50,000. Last year, he had a handle on 70,000 words. This year? An astounding 110,000.

Credit Courtney Collins / KERa News
KERa News
Chetan's mom Geetha Manku and his dad Vijay Reddy used to help their son study. But now, he's just too fast for them.

Learning that much means study speed counts. Chetan’s father Vijay says at this point, a quiz from Mom and Dad would just slow everything down.

“Right now he does like 1,000 words an hour,” Vijay says. “You know if I ask him, we could quiz him maybe a couple hundred an hour. He’s at a stage where he has to do things on his own now.”

For Chetan, flipping through the dictionary is like paging through a familiar comic. He’s seen most of the entries before, and while he doesn’t know every word by heart, he says understanding the mechanics of spelling takes you pretty far.

“Well, you don’t have to know everything you just need to know pieces of the word and then you fit them together to try and create the word,” Chetan says.

Even a super-speller like Chetan isn’t perfect. He placed 22nd in last year’s National Bee; he missed on the word soboliferous. (Microsoft Word doesn’t even recognize that one.)

But for the first time this year, learning the ABC’s of spelling isn’t enough. After the regional bees wrapped up in April, Scripps threw competitors a curveball; in this year’s National Bee, they’ll also be tested on what words mean.

“It will help in the long run for spellers to finally learn about definitions,” Chetan says. “But I wish they’d just given us more time to think about what happened and try and study more.”

As you might expect, Chetan’s thrown himself into the vocab challenge head-first, drilling definitions of common SAT words daily. And he’s not letting the rule change lower his expectations. He’s placed in the top 30 twice, but this year?

“I just want to be Number One,” he says.

Chetan has no problem spelling that out.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee will be live on ESPN2 starting Thursday afternoon. The finals will be shown on ESPN Thursday night at 7 p.m.

His competition includes two other North Texas competitors this year, a student from Keller and another from Wichita Falls. 

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.